Introduction to Skimo
Essential Techniques & Gear for Ski Mountaineering Competitions
Skiing uphill in a blizzard above 12,000 feet is what some people do for fun. Want to be one of those people? Skimo—short for ski mountaineering—is a competitive sport in which skiers race up (and sometimes back down) mountains. Even though skimo racing has been around for decades (it was even an Olympic event until 1948), it hasn’t received much attention outside Europe.
These days, skimo is enjoying a surge in global popularity. New adopters hail its benefits as a great form of exercise, competition, and a creative way to explore the outdoors. Skimo’s competitive spectrum is wide. Events range from semi-casual resort climbs with beer at the finish line to ultramarathon-class athletes competing in multi-day races across some of the most extreme terrain on the planet.
Basic Skimo Gear
Skins are strips that adhere to the bottom of your skis and allow you to ski forward, not backward. Professional racing skins have a single attachment point and feature one sticky side and one side that glides and grips the snow.
As you shop for racing skins, look for ones made from mohair, which is the fastest material in cold, dry conditions and is crucial for skimo competitions in colder months. In warmer conditions, fully synthetic skins or skins made from a mohair and nylon blend are also common.
Mohair is made from Angora goat hair, but this natural fiber doesn’t break down like normal hair would. Of course, any pair of skins will wear down eventually—and one of the first components of a skin that will need maintenance is the glue on the sticky side. Angora hair can also vary in quality year-to-year, so racing skins can vary in speed year-to-year. If you are getting into serious skimo competition, it’s never a bad idea to stock up on fast skins. If you’re ready to search for skimo skins, check out our guide to choosing a pair.
Choose ski poles you’ll be comfortable using both skinning and downhill skiing. If you’re racing through powder, bring a long pole with a powder basket. Some competitors prefer lightweight telescoping poles like the G3 VIA Carbon Telescopic ski pole, while others like oversized single length poles. In most competitive sprint-style skimo races, competitors use a hybrid ski pole that blends Nordic and backcountry poles. Like the Fischer Offtrack ski pole, these poles will have a smaller, more aerodynamic half basket that can hold their own in powder, but drop the overall weight of the pole.
One common skimo pole accessory is an extended grip, which you can see on the K2 Lockjaw Carbon+ ski pole. Extended grips allow for quick adjustments between shorter grip lengths for the descents and climbs, and longer grip lengths on the flats, all without needing to adjust the pole with every terrain change.
A skimo racer’s boot is a critical piece of gear. When you’re shopping for a skimo boot, focus on these two components:
Fit: Like running shoes, a skimo boot’s fit will determine whether you can keep moving comfortably for an extended amount of time.
Weight: Since you’ll spend the majority of your time in skimo competitions touring, weight also plays a big role in the boots you choose. The heavier your boot, the faster fatigue will set in. The La Sportiva Raceborg Alpine Touring Boot weighs in at a measly 1lb 10oz (737g) per boot, which is ideal for highly competitive skimo racers, but is limited to tech bindings only.
Some skimo events require that you use ISO 9523-compatible boots and bindings, especially if the event features difficult downhill sections. This mandate usually doesn’t present issues for most, as it’s intended for alpine touring setups. To err on the side of safety, ISO 9523 limits some extremely high-end gear from incorrect use.
If you’re building a skimo racing setup, be sure that your bindings are touring compatible. Each type of skimo bindings has its advantages and challenges.
Tech bindings, like the 1lb 6oz Dynafit ST Rotation 12 Binding, are the most lightweight class of bindings, great for long climbs and sprint-style skimo races, but not ideal for charging powder-filled chutes. Extreme terrain will demand a more aggressive binding, like the Salomon Guardian MNC 13 binding.
Alpine frame bindings like the Guardian are significantly heavier than tech bindings and ride like fixed alpine bindings. These make sense as a daily-driver touring setup that works for touring resort high country and riding heavy-duty alpine runs, then packing in fast groomers and moguls without skipping a beat.
What Skimo Racing Involves
Ski mountaineering is technically a competitive subset of backcountry skiing, but it also features components of nearly all types of skiing. That means skimo comes with the gear requirements, techniques, challenges, and rewards of many different skiing styles, all blended into one exciting sport. Judges score skimo competitions on an individual and team basis, depending on the staging, terrain, and length of the race.
Here are the basic components and skimo techniques fundamental to any skimo race:
You’ll need a way to carry your extra skimo gear through the course. In shorter, sprint-type races, skimo racers will often remove their skins, properly fold them, and store them in their racing suit. However, depending on the track, skimo races might require participants to bring ropes, ice climbing gear, avalanche equipment, and even bivys. With all that equipment, you may need an avalanche bag with proper storage ability.
Skimo racers often carry water and snacks to fuel them through the event, so you’ll see plenty of hydration packs like the Salomon Skin Pro 15L backpack in all types of skimo races.
As with all types of adventure, preparedness reigns supreme in ski mountaineering competitions. To succeed in professional skimo racing or casual competition, you’ll need the right technique, conditioning level, and gear. Whether you find yourself racing The Grand Traverse in Aspen, the Patrouille des Glaciers: Zermatt-Verbier in Switzerland, or just to the top of the local resort, skimo competitions can be as vastly different as they are rewarding. Be sure to come prepared.
Skimo athletes spend most of their time skiing uphill, so you should be in excellent physical condition and somewhat familiar with skinning. To tackle climbing mountains and traversing ridges, you’ll also need touring-compatible skis, skins, crampons, and other uphill-ready gear.
Every skimo course includes climbing sections, but as they say, “what goes up must come down.” For the descents, skiers quickly race downhill towards another ascent, a flat section, or eventually the finish line. Since competitive skimo touring skis need to be equally useful on the downhill, they tend to be stiff, with an underfoot camber and a modest turning radius to keep racers competitive at higher speeds.
In shorter, sprint-style skimo races, every second matters. Slow transitions from climbing to skiing and back can significantly impact a racer’s final time. Most skimo-specific gear is designed to prevent time-eating malfunctions and allows racers to make adjustments from one section of the mountain to the next. For example, the Dynafit DNA skis feature notches in the front tip of the skis that help keep your touring skins in place and prevent them from falling off mid-climb.
But to really be a skimo pro, you also need to be incredibly efficient at transitioning your system from downhill mode to uphill.
Skinning to Skiing
For speedy skinning-to-skiing transitions, skimo racers need to change their boot and binding settings from climbing to downhill, remove and store their skins, and adjust their poles to a safe length. You can transition from skinning-to-skiing in under a minute with the right method. Here’s how:
1. Set your ski poles aside, making sure they don’t get in any other skiers’ way.
2. Place one foot’s binding into downhill mode, but don’t step your heel into it to lock position yet.
3. Move the same ski backward so you can access the front of your ski and grab the tail end of the skin.
4. Remove the racing skin and fold and store it in your pack.
5. Move your unlocked ski back to a standing position. Step down into your binding hard enough to engage the heel lock.
6. Repeat steps two through five on your other foot, then set off on the downhill portion of your race. Don’t forget your poles!
Skiing to Skinning
To quickly move from a skiing section of a race to a climbing section, you’ll need to attach the skins to the skis, change your boots and bindings from skiing mode to skinning mode, and adjust your poles as needed. To do so quickly, follow these steps:
1. As before, set your ski poles carefully aside.
2. Lift your ski off the snow enough to reach down, unlock one boot, and place it in touring mode.
3. Release your binding to remove your ski from your boot. If you are using tech bindings, remove your binding by hand before placing your ski back into the snow. If you are using frame bindings, you might need to use your pole to release the spring mechanism.
4. With one ski off, use your free boot to unlock your second binding and remove your other ski.
5. One ski at a time, apply skins to your bindings. Be sure to center your skins for proper gliding and make sure they attach firmly.
6. Switch both of your bindings into touring mode.
7. Place your skis back onto the ground and step in to lock in your boot, after removing any packed snow that’s accumulated underfoot.
8. Grab your poles and get hustling up the mountain.
Zach Wendt is an avid skier, backpacker, fly fisherman, car camper, hiker, and year-round weekend warrior. Born and raised in the playground of Colorado’s Rocky Mountains, Zach’s “happy place” is stepping into his skis on a 12,000-foot ridge overlooking chutes and valleys draped in champagne powder. He has skied since he could walk and is constantly on the hunt for the best snow and the best views. When he’s not exploring the outdoors, Zach is a full-time engineer and freelance writer, creating everything from product reviews to comparison videos, promotional videos, and technology deep dives.