Build your Ski Mountaineering Kit
Combine all your gear for backcountry skiing or splitboarding with the basic essentials of rock climbing, and you’ll have a fairly comprehensive equipment list for tackling ski mountaineering expeditions.
Aside from the mandatory outdoor essentials like avalanche safety gear, extra layers, water, food, and sun protection, here are the bare bones of what to bring on an alpine ski climb. And though it goes without saying, don’t just acquire all the gear—know how to use it. Equipment alone won’t do you or your partners any good, but sound experience and skill will.
Lightweight, mountaineering-specific harnesses combine the best of rock climbing harness features (leg and waist padding, gear loops, adjustable straps) with the minimal mindset of a general mountaineering harness. Often made of webbing, mountaineering harnesses pack down to nothing and are easy to put on over ski/snowboard boots.
Look for a harness that unhooks at the crotch – it’s an overlooked feature that’s especially beneficial for women when nature inevitably calls. When it comes to fitting a harness, remember the key rule: high and tight.
At the minimum, your rack should have four non-locking carabiners and four locking ‘biners, two of which should be pear-shaped. Consider making the third one a revolving locking carabiner to your rack: the pully reduces friction and resistance, requiring less energy for crevasse rescue. For weight-conscious ski mountaineers, wire gate ‘biners (versus solid gates) shed a few ounces from your load without compromising safety.
Recommended for glacier travel, a belay/rappel device adds an extra level of efficiency and safety when you and your partners are roped up. A belay device keeps tension on the rope, acting as a friction brake for the climber. Tubular-style models, such as an ATC, are the most common belay device for ski mountaineering, as they’re lightweight and versatile for multiple rope diameters.
Choose a basic, straight-shaft axe, preferably with a steel head and aluminum body. Ice axes come in different lengths based on your height. As a general rule of thumb, when holding the head, the tip of the shaft should reach just above your boot. Technical ice climbing axes are not recommended, as the curved shaft is not designed for plunging into the snow.
Crampons will not always be necessary, unless you’re bootpacking up really steep and/or icy terrain. This will be one of those items that you may or may not bring along, depending on your objectives.
A 60-meter rope is standard for ski mountaineering, which can be divided into two 30m ropes if the weight is too much for one person to shoulder. Choose either a half or twin rope, both of which are suitable for glacier travel and crevasse rescue. A diameter between 7.5-8.5 mm will suffice for technical ski mountaineering objectives but light enough for your already-heavy pack. Before setting out on your objective, check your rope for damage, fraying or brittleness and, as a general rule, replace it every five years (or sooner if it’s used often).
Also know as cordelettes, accessory cords are used for anchors, climbing, rescue and utility purposes. The strands are thinner and shorter than your fixed rope – at least 2 mm thinner and about 6 m in length. As they so versatile and used often, plan on bringing two accessory cords.
Yes, you can use an accessory cord to tie a prusik loop, but a shorter, prusik-specific cord may save you time when you’re in an emergency rope situation. The standard length of prusik cords are about 1.5 m, and also 2 mm thinner than your fixed rope.
First Aid Kit
A first aid kit is an obvious addition to your gear list; be sure to pack enough supplies in it to last the duration of your trip. Be sure to supplement your kit with any personal requirements, such as medication or hygiene products, and consider enrolling in a wilderness first aid course to brush up on your knowledge. See that your first aid kit also includes fire-starting materials like waterproof matches and tinder for that “just in case” moment. (For an easy DIY fire starter, saturate dryer lint in Vaseline and store in a pill bottle.)
As the saying goes: hope for the best, plan for the worst. That includes the possibility of being on the snow later than you planned, even if you’re only going for a day trip. Bring a headlamp and a couple spare batteries so you can find your way off the mountain (or scout a place to hunker down for the night) if and when darkness sets in.
Some people prefer to use specialized snow anchors. They’re compact, lightweight and built specifically for the big job at hand. Given the amount of gear in a ski mountaineering pack, however, many people choose instead to improvise with a ski, pole, splitboard or other object inside their touring pack. If sturdy rocks or natural features are available, you can also consider using them as your anchor point.
Pocket Knife and Ski/Splitboard Tools
Whether you’re hacking off a square of moleskin or sawing through a cord of rope, a 2-3in folding pocket knife can be a lifesaver on the mountain. A pocket knife is the absolute minimum for your traveling tool box, but consider tossing in a good multi-tool to your pack so you can tighten any loose hardware on your skis or splitboard.
A topo map should accompany you on the whole ski mountaineering trip, from pre-planning to execution. Keep it protected from the elements by folding it into a clear, plastic zippered bag. If you’re using a compass, be sure to check the declination for the area you’re touring in and make the appropriate adjustments. If you opt for a GPS, ensure you have the right map files, spare batteries, and the backup knowledge to read an analog map and compass.
Pencil and Notepad
Jotting down bearings, documenting an injury report, recording helpful tips from your ski guide (i.e., “You wouldn’t wanna smoke a fatty before doing that one.”) … you’ll probably find a reason to write something down.
No matter how far away you think you are from civilization and modern technology, don’t underestimate its ethereal reach. While it’s wise to keep your cell phone turned off and stored away from your avalanche beacon, you may be fortunate to find a signal atop a peak and call or text someone for help in an emergency. Alternatively, a SAT communicator or a SPOT tracker may be more reliable for making contact with the outside world. Of course, you should absolutely not rely on any of these devices in an emergency (first aid and self-rescue is a responsibility of you and your ski mountaineering partners), but it may enable you to employ Search and Rescue earlier, if your situation requires third-party aid.
Odds and Ends
Left to his own devices, MacGyver could likely build a castle out of duct tape, a few zip ties, extra ski straps, and the inside of a Clif Bar wrapper. While you may not be on a mission to build a house on a alpine mountaineering trip, a variety of small, lightweight accessories give you the foundation to rig a system when you’ve encountered a broken binding, busted zipper, or malfunctioning ski pole.