Introduction to Ski Mountaineering
Knowledge, Gear & Training To Go Skimo
If couloirs, peaks, and steep backcountry bowls pique your interests, then the high-adrenaline, human-powered sport of ski mountaineering (aka skimo) and splitboard mountaineering might be for you.
Before you strap your skis to your pack, you’ll want to understand and prepare for the inherent risks this pursuit involves. Avalanches, sudden weather changes, falling rock and ice, and crevasses are just some of the dangers.
Of course, you’ll want to choose skimo objectives with terrain and conditions that align with your skill level. And as with all winter activities, be sure to always check and follow the local avalanche forecast and recommendations.
What Is Ski Mountaineering, Anyway?
Ski mountaineering objectives vary in difficulty depending on the endeavor, but generally share the same basic principles of combining alpine climbing and ski touring skills. Essentially, skimo is just defined as ascending a mountain—or accessing remote areas of a mountain—on skis, or with your skis/splitboard strapped to your pack, then skiing down.
One of the core requirements for ski mountaineering is skiing off-piste, which means that you can comfortably and confidently ski ungroomed and sometimes technical terrain outside of the resort. You should be able to maintain control in all conditions and also need to be comfortable using a touring ski or splitboard setup.
Another key knowledge area for skimo is avalanche safety—being able to understand avalanche forecasts, assess the snowpack, evaluate terrain, and use avy safety gear (beacon, shovel, and probe).
Rope skills and rock and ice climbing experience is also super helpful. Some skimo expeditions may require you to set up an anchor and rappel system, while switching from skis to crampons on icy terrain. If you’ll be on exposed ridges and steep terrain, alpine trad climbing experience will come in handy. If you’ll be crossing glaciers, you may be roping together with your partner(s) in case of a crevasse fall. If the mountains you want to ski involve steep glaciers or frozen waterfalls, you’ll want to build confidence using tools like crampons and ice axes. Basically, the more skiing, climbing, mountaineering, and safety skills you have honed, the better!
Skimo Equipment 101
The essential equipment for ski mountaineers is a good combination of ski touring and climbing gear. In addition to your normal backcountry ski gear, you may need:
Weather-appropriate clothing, sun protection, a first aid kit, food and snacks, and your avalanche safety kit (beacon, shovel, probe) are also required for any outing. This article goes into more depth on building your ski mountaineering kit.
Fitness And Training For Skimo
Skiing off-piste and skinning up mountainsides takes a greater level of fitness than riding established ski runs. Snow conditions could be less than ideal and require more energy, and you may need to hike or traverse to get to your desired location. And if you are struggling to keep up, maintain your heart rate, or catch your breath, you are potentially putting yourself in danger, as well as putting your partner(s) at risk.
To get in shape for skimo, you’ll need a good amount of cardiovascular activity, such as hiking, running, or biking and getting out for long days skiing off-piste at the resort or in the backcountry. In addition, incorporate flexibility, strength, and stabilization exercises into your routine to prepare.
Everyone has a different approach to fitness and training, but with drive and dedication, success is achievable even without access to a gym. Several mountaineering books also have excellent training tips, like Training for the New Alpinism, A Manual for Mountain Runners and Ski Mountaineers by Kilian Jornet, Steve House, and Scott Johnston.
Listen To Your Mountain Consciousness
Calm and direct decision-making is crucial when it comes to ski mountaineering. Whether it’s evaluating the snowpack and weather, route-finding, or picking knowledgeable partners, there are always choices to be made, and many of them could end up saving your life.
As a newbie, approach terrain when the snowpack is safe—usually during the spring corn season—and choose straightforward objectives to slowly gain experience. If you can hook up with more experienced partners, they can mentor you. Learn all you can from them by asking lots of questions and observing their habits and behavior.
When we talk about consciousness in life, it is known as “the state of understanding and realizing something.” Listening to your “mountain consciousness”—or your gut—is critical, but it’s also a skill that takes time to master.
Many people who have spent their lives working and recreating in high-altitude mountainous areas will tell you that one of the most dangerous things you can have in the mountains is an overconfident ego. It is important to be confident in one’s skills, but not to let your ego get in the way. Be humble and open to learning from past experiences and from those around you.
Learn From The Pros
Options for guided skimo courses are endless if it’s within your budget, but be sure to take one from an organization that employs guides who are accredited with the American Mountain Guides Association (AMGA). Here’s a short list of some highly regarded guiding companies that offer ski mountaineering courses throughout North America:
Whether you take a course from a guiding organization, learn from a mentor, or teach yourself using books, videos, and lots of practice in safe terrain, no one becomes an expert after just one or two seasons. Ski mountaineering skills are learned and improved upon over time. Mastering ski mountaineering is an ongoing pursuit of gaining knowledge and skills to navigate the ever-changing terrain around you.
Alexandra (Ali) Lev is a freelance writer and content developer on subjects ranging from the outdoors to mental health, the environment, and social justice issues. Originally from Salt Lake City, Ali now lives in Portland, OR, and spends her free time in the backcountry with her husband and their two Siberian huskies. Follow her on luckyalexandra.com or at @luckyalexandra.