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Author Topic: Backcountry Skiing or Ski Mountaineering?  (Read 25467 times)
Jeff Huber
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Backcountry Skiing or Ski Mountaineering?
« on: 01/26/05, 10:55 AM »

The terms Backcountry Skiing and Ski Mountaineering seem to be used interchangeably. How do you personally define and distinguish between these terms?

Some may suggest Ski Mountaineering involves more technical skiing and possibly more technical ascents. This seems somewhat reasonable, although the guidebook I have that contains the most technical descents is titled "Backcountry Skiing California's High Sierra" (it's by John Moynier). If Ski Mountaineering means a technical descent, I think we should quantify how technical of a descent is required to use that label.

To the uninitiated the term Ski Mountaineering does seem to have a more prestigious and "extreme" connotation to it then Backcountry Skiing.
« Last Edit: 01/26/05, 02:50 PM by Gaper_Jeffey » Logged

skykilo
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BS or SM?
« Reply #1 on: 01/26/05, 11:17 AM »

I don't think it's necessarily the technical factors that distinguish between the two.  One aggressive yahoo's day of backcountry skiing could be more technical than another mellow fellow's ski mountaineering excursion.

Backcountry skiing is skiing outside a ski resort, period.  Obviously, this definition includes ski mountaineering, so ski mountaineering is a subset of backcountry skiing.  Personally, when I think of backcountry skiing, I think about people looking for good skiing.  The focus is quality turns.  Yo yo skiing would definitely be backcountry skiing.

Ski mountaineering involves a goal.  Just as a mountaineer embarks to climb a moutain, or some feature of a mountain, a ski mountaineer has a goal of skiing a mountain or feature.  The quality of turns is not necessarily the attraction, and quite often skiing from the summit, or skiing a particular route, yields exceptionally BAD conditions; such are the challenges of ski mountaineering.

Now, when you find yourself a big descent and get it with perfect conditions, well... I don't think you'll be too worried about what to call it.
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Randy
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Re: Backcountry Skiing or Ski Mountaineering?
« Reply #2 on: 01/26/05, 11:40 AM »

My personal definition:

Ski Mountaineering:  The primary objective is the summit, skis are used as tools to facilitate the approach and exit from the climb.

Backcountry Skiing:  The primary objective is enjoyable skiing.  Summits might be reached, but not if yo-yoing on a lower flank of the mountain is more fun or if the most attractive line on the mountain doesn't start from the summit.
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Paul Belitz
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Re: Backcountry Skiing or Ski Mountaineering?
« Reply #3 on: 01/26/05, 11:41 AM »

Ski mountaineering is to backcountry skiing as mountaineering is to hiking.
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Jeff Huber
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Re: Backcountry Skiing or Ski Mountaineering?
« Reply #4 on: 01/26/05, 11:51 AM »

Well said Sky -- and I like the title you used too!

Another place I've seen the SM term used recently is as another label for "Randonnée Rally" events. It seems "Ski Mountaineering Race" is now preferable to "Randonnée Rally". In fact Andrew McLean's FAQ only uses the former term:
http://www.pawprince.com/sm_race/faq.html

There is no objective of a summit in these events, though there are objectives of reaching checkpoints and finishing in as little time as possible. The events typically do not take place in the backcountry.
« Last Edit: 01/26/05, 11:55 AM by Gaper_Jeffey » Logged

philfort
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Re: Backcountry Skiing or Ski Mountaineering?
« Reply #5 on: 01/26/05, 12:13 PM »

What else to do when there's no snow, but to discuss what the sport is called...

I like Sky's definition too, although I usually just call what I do "backcountry skiing".

Using the term "ski mountaineering" for a race that takes place mostly within the boundaries of a resort seems kind of silly.  Although I guess it ain't backcountry skiing.  "Backcountry skiing" refers to location (the backcountry), not necessarily the tools and techniques generally used therein, which is what the race is about.  I guess SM is a little more appropriate then.
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Larry_Trotter
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Re: Backcountry Skiing or Ski Mountaineering?
« Reply #6 on: 01/26/05, 03:37 PM »

Oh my Gawd! The Crystal Cam looked so sad today (no snow)... So this board is all the skiing I am getting right now...

Anyway as I considered myself to be a mountaineer before I got interested in BC stuff.... Please add to your consideration of ski mountaineering the idea of doing overnight trips on the slopes.  I have spent several nights camped out at 9,500 ft. (You haven't experienced self inflicted misery until you have slept on snow with 50 mph winds beating down your tent.), but didn't have skis with me (which is why I got BC gear).  Also, there are issues of glacier travel, ripping up your pant legs with sharp crampons, self arrest and cravasse rescue that a "backcountry skier" may not be concerned with.  

If your are a BC'er, then clip a couple of 'biners on your pack and zaaaap! now you're a ski mountaineer.  

So, has anyone here carried their skis above 10,000 ft.? I haven't, yet. Smiley - Rux  
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Jeff Huber
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Re: Backcountry Skiing or Ski Mountaineering?
« Reply #7 on: 01/26/05, 04:23 PM »

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So, has anyone here carried their skis above 10,000 ft.?


Yeah . . . probably just about everyone who posted in this thread :-).

I think the usage of SM may be to an extent geographic specific. Moynier's book describes some pretty crazy stuff in the High Sierra (grab his book and make a road trip Sky!) where you're definitely focused on an objective (ie, an absurdly steep and narrow couloir), yet he rarely uses the term Ski Mountaineering and when he does he's not referring to being focused on an objective but rather the route involving technical climbing and/or a fairly technical descent.
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markharf
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Re: Backcountry Skiing or Ski Mountaineering?
« Reply #8 on: 01/26/05, 04:33 PM »

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So, has anyone here carried their skis above 10,000 ft.?
 

The usual suspects: Rainier, Baker, Adams, Shasta, Lassen, Hood.....also, virtually anyplace you'd really want to ski in Colorado, and a great many of those in the Sierra.

Edit to add: I am not claiming any sort of unusual skill or experience here; in fact, I'm trying to point out that getting above 10k is not terribly difficult, here or elsewhere.

As far as the original question, I usually claim to be a backcountry skier, but when this causes confusion ("Oh, you mean a cross-country skier!  Hey, I did that once!) I sometimes try to clarify by calling it ski mountaineering. This is usually a mistake, since then they associate me with the sorts of "extreme" pursuits they've seen in ads for giant SUV's and insipid beer.  
« Last Edit: 01/27/05, 03:40 AM by markharf » Logged
Lowell_Skoog
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Re: Backcountry Skiing or Ski Mountaineering?
« Reply #9 on: 01/26/05, 04:40 PM »

Yeah the skiing sucks.  Let's hope in a few years they'll be asking us to recall the awful winter of 2005, after we've been spoiled by a string of fat ones.

In my history project, I defined ski mountaineering as "backcountry skiing in country that demands mountaineering skills and judgment." In an old book (I can't remember which one) the author defined it as skiing above the permanent snowline.  In Sunrise to Paradise, Ruth Kirk writes that native people on Mt Rainier ordinarily did not climb above the "invisible spirit line" which roughly coincided with the permanent snowline.  I like the sound of that.

Sky's goal-oriented definition seems pretty good.  I'd clarify that you don't have to be talking about a descent.  An overland trip can be very goal oriented and can demand lots of ski mountaineering skills.

In the thread "Games Backcountry Skiers Play" in rec.skiing.backcountry in 1997, I offered the following set of definitions.

Quote

Backcountry skiing: Muscle and gravity powered skiing outside developed ski areas.  This is divided into:

1. Touring: Overland skiing, emphasizing cross country travel over ascents and descents.

2. Yo-yoing: Skiing up and down hills, emphasizing vertical gain over cross country travel.

3. Ski mountaineering: Backcountry skiing in terrain that may require mountaineering skills, for example use of an ice axe.

3a. Peak skiing: Ascending and descending a summit with the goal of skiing as much of the peak as feasible.

3b. High route skiing: Touring through ski mountaineering terrain, which may include peak skiing.

3c. Steep skiing: Seeking the limits of skiable terrain, traditionally called extreme skiing.


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Paul Belitz
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Re: Backcountry Skiing or Ski Mountaineering?
« Reply #10 on: 01/27/05, 01:53 AM »

How about we now argue about what defines steep/extreme skiing? Is is when you fall, you die?  Grin
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juan
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Re: Backcountry Skiing or Ski Mountaineering?
« Reply #11 on: 01/27/05, 04:03 AM »

In the rockies you dont have to carry your skis above 10,000 ', you can ride the lift.  Now 14,000' is another matter- and the answer is yes, that's where the best spring skiing is.
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Jim Oker
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Re: Backcountry Skiing or Ski Mountaineering?
« Reply #12 on: 01/27/05, 04:33 AM »

I've tended to go with Mark's usage - SM when needed to distinguish from XC, but otherwise I tend to go with BC.

A potentially interesting note that might further help distract you from the distressing long range forecast - from working on a dictionary (of the english language), I've found that general usage is a bit more important in arriving at a definition than "expert" opinion. At least that's what the lexical experts go with.

Now what adjectives do you use to describe the forecast?
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Lowell_Skoog
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Re: Backcountry Skiing or Ski Mountaineering?
« Reply #13 on: 01/27/05, 04:34 AM »

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How about we now argue about what defines steep/extreme skiing? Is is when you fall, you die?  Grin


Here's a definition attributed to Sylvain Saudan: "The extreme begins on slopes above 45 degrees at heights where a fall may be fatal."  I think that's a good definition of extreme steep skiing.

A few years ago there was a discussion in rec.skiing.backcountry about the "E word" and how it was distorted by the media.  I suggested that we may be focusing too much on steep skiing, and neglecting other dimensions of the sport.  In fact, a trip may not need to be steep to be extreme.  I wrote a little essay called "Steep and Far" and posted it in 1999.  I've reproduced it below.

Today, given trends in Cascade ski mountaineering, I would add that "far," in the sense I'm referring to, does not mean a long hike.  It means a long distance traveled on skis.  For what it's worth, here's the essay:



Steep and Far

Ski mountaineering is an activity defined by two dimensions: steep and far.  These days steep skiing gets most of the press because it is dramatic.  But "far skiing," covering significant distance across the countryside, is an equally valid dimension of the sport that may in fact be more popular.  Thinking about these two aspects separately and then putting them back together may help us think more clearly about the sport.

Tools

The optimal tools for a steep descent are obviously different from those for a cross country trip.  For steep skiing, skis are primarily edging tools.  For far skiing, they are primarily gliding tools.  So a steep skier may choose short edged skis, stiff boots and locked heels while a far skier chooses long edgeless skis, soft boots and free heels.

For really extreme descents, the best tool may not be a pair of skis at all, but a snowboard.  In a few years we may regard extremely steep skiing as a curiosity, after deciding that snowboarding works better for that purpose.  Yet a snowboard suitable for the steeps is almost useless for cross country travel.

In the middle ground where most ski mountaineers play we choose tools that are a compromise.  A single pair of skis can do most jobs fairly well.  The tougher compromise is choosing the right boots.  We each make a personal decision according to our taste in steep versus far and our ability to compensate for the shortcomings of our gear through skill.

Risks

Barring avalanches, the risk of steep skiing is simple: you may fall.  The risks of far skiing take many forms but they all boil down to one thing: exhaustion.  You may exhaust your energy, your supplies, your time or your good weather before reaching your goal.  It's important to note that far skiing doesn't need to involve long distances or extended times.  "Far" is relative to the resources you have available.  An ambitious one-day trip with a light pack can be as adventurous as a one-month expedition.

The much-abused word "extreme" has traditionally been applied to steep skiing.  But there's no reason it couldn't be applied to far skiing as well.  Extreme means that you have minimal backup and the consequences of failure are severe.

Aids

In steep skiing, ropes and belays are aids.  In far skiing, support and resupply are aids.  That may include huts, caches or air drops.  The users of aids argue that they reduce the risks and make the skiing more enjoyable.  Critics argue that they diminish the commitment and the level of accomplishment.  As long as using aids doesn't affect anyone else, average skiers will do whatever makes their trips more fun and elite skiers will argue about them in order to one-up each other.

Rewards

Steep skiers speak of the aesthetics of a dramatic line and the challenge of solving technical problems.  Far skiers speak of a feeling of flow across the landscape and a heightened appreciation of the mountain environment.  Skeptics complain that extremely steep skiing is applying skis where they don't make sense--like wearing roller skates on El Capitan.  Critics of extremely far skiing view it as glorified slogging and dangerously like work.

An outing that achieves a balance between steep and far can provide both kinds of rewards.  But striking such a balance requires compromises.  One is unlikely to tackle the extremely steep or extremely far on a single trip, because the tools required for these two extremes are different.  Yet for some skiers, trips that require such compromises, that are "kinda steep" and "pretty far," are the most rewarding of all.

Thinking steep and far may help us predict the sort of exploits that will amaze us in the future.  Steep skiing enchainments, ski traverses over Himalayan summits, light and fast crossings of major ranges are all part of a logical progression.

For the average ski mountaineer, thinking steep and far may help clarify your taste in adventure or highlight a dimension that you've overlooked before.  It may help you see old trips in a new light or consider new possibilities.  If you're like me, you probably do just one or two trips a year that you consider adventurous.  Thinking steep and far may kindle a whole new set of daydreams.

--Lowell Skoog
 Seattle
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Paul Belitz
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Re: Backcountry Skiing or Ski Mountaineering?
« Reply #14 on: 01/27/05, 05:28 AM »

It has been experimentally determined that a snowboard is an inferior tool for steep hard descents.  Smiley
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jimjar
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Re: Backcountry Skiing or Ski Mountaineering?
« Reply #15 on: 01/27/05, 05:31 AM »

I would have to agree with Paul's statement.  Wink
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Jason_H.
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Re: Backcountry Skiing or Ski Mountaineering?
« Reply #16 on: 01/27/05, 06:00 AM »

Skiing as defined by most is limited to the ski resort. This is accepted and extreme isn't the uttered term. One pet peeve of mine is the collective opinion that what we do here (climbing, skiing) is considered extreme merely because it is done, "In the backcountry"; or "Behind the lines" promoting the idea that we are rebels. The American news proliferates this view and the magazines seem to hold the backcountry up as a badge of honor. Look at me; I'm hucking triple back flips off some misbegotten peak in some far off place. As a group though we are very safety conscience and consider ourselves infiltrators not conquerors. Safety is always considered and getting away from the hustle and bustle of life is what attracts me as much as I imagine most of us here. The beauty and quiet are as much part of the experience as any other including the skiing or climbing.  The extreme that the 'Vertical Limit'; and 'Cliffhanger' bolster isn't commonplace. Extreme as most of the public would view it is just not commonplace in the backcountry or ski mountaineering! Most of climbing and even steep skiing is done in a very controlled manner. The backcountry is a dangerous place but if you understand the risks and quantify your limits then you can spend many 'challenging' years in the mountains. Skoog can be used as a case in point; many accomplishments but very few extreme situations. With solid mentorship and with sites like turns-all-year I think that the more we explore and learn, disseminate information and collaborate as a group the more I hope that we will shed 'extreme' and let people know that we are not adrenaline hazed, young punks but just normal people who enjoy the outdoors. We choose the BC or the mountaintops instead of football or soccer, boxing or wresting neither of which is extreme but instead are considered talented athletes.  
« Last Edit: 01/27/05, 06:06 AM by Jason_H. » Logged

andyski
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Re: Backcountry Skiing or Ski Mountaineering?
« Reply #17 on: 01/27/05, 09:28 AM »

A notably ugly byproduct of what Jason describes ('the collective opinion that what we do here (climbing, skiing) is considered extreme merely because it is done, "In the backcountry"') is how those involved in BC accidents are immediately tarred as idiots, irresponsible, gloryhounds, immature, etc. You hear stuff like "That's what happens when you do that extreme stuff." etc.
If what you do here (I'll leave myself out until I complete a full year of turns - missed it by 1 month last year Wink) becomes more broadly understood as its popularity increases, I think this will subside slightly.
This subject always reminds of a TV ad for some credit card that had two guys talking about things they'd never try:
"Ever surf?"
"Nope. Scared of water"
"Tried skydiving?"
"No way. Those guys are crazy."
The camera then pans out and the pair is in a portaledge halfway up some insane granite face. Cheesy
I've found that defining what I do often is best done in equipment terms. This seems to sidestep the "so, it's like x-country" line. If that equipment involves harnesses, rope, snow/ice protection, it becomes SM, to me.
Please snow!Please snow!Please snow!Please snow!
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Paul Belitz
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Re: Backcountry Skiing or Ski Mountaineering?
« Reply #18 on: 01/27/05, 09:51 AM »

I'm extreme. Extremely extreme.


Quote
let people know that we are not young


I take offense at the statement above. Grin
« Last Edit: 01/27/05, 09:53 AM by pbelitz » Logged
nomad
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Re: Backcountry Skiing or Ski Mountaineering?
« Reply #19 on: 01/27/05, 11:49 AM »

Why look for a definition when you're having fun?
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andyski
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Re: Backcountry Skiing or Ski Mountaineering?
« Reply #20 on: 01/27/05, 11:57 AM »

If there's no snow, why not parse?
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Alan Brunelle
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Re: Backcountry Skiing or Ski Mountaineering?
« Reply #21 on: 01/27/05, 02:50 PM »

I think that the misuse of the word "extreme" is somewhat local to the U.S. press.  I believe that I have read two articles  in the last couple of weeks, (NY times and Seattle times) that referred to what was backcountry skiing (I use this term because I do not know the gear that the subjects were useing as referred to in the articles) as extreme skiing when they were referring to skiing just barely out of bounds from developed areas and looking for relatively benign untracked slopes.

The U.S. press is pretty ignorant about so many things, but in a country where this sport is but a speck in the face of most and so very recently "discovered", it is even less surprising.

Now in Europe, "ski touring" on all the gear that this thread has been discussing is such and ingrained part of winter sports, this discussion would probably not take place.  Literally whole families practice this on such a routine basis that the off-piste is anything but private.  Ski touring is a more descriptive and general term, even more so than backcountry, because it decribes the action and not necessarily where that action is taking place.  From what I have experienced in Switzerland and France, much of their high country, though rugged and as dangerous as any high country here is anything but remote.  The term backcountry kinda doesn't really work.  In the U.S. we still sort of have backcountry.

Alan
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Larry_Trotter
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Re: Backcountry Skiing or Ski Mountaineering?
« Reply #22 on: 01/27/05, 04:13 PM »

Just kind of curious... wouldn't one need a climbing permit to take skis (or anything else.) above 10,000 on Mt. Rainier?   Went up Mt. Baker once with a group. Can't remember if we had a permit.
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Lowell_Skoog
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Re: Backcountry Skiing or Ski Mountaineering?
« Reply #23 on: 01/27/05, 04:42 PM »

Quote
It has been experimentally determined that a snowboard is an inferior tool for steep hard descents.  Smiley


Based on the little I've read and heard about, I stand behind my assertion about snowboards. In Europe people have done amazing things on them. Quite possibly the steepest descents yet done in the Northwest have been done on snowboards (1992 North Face of Mt Hood by Stephen Koch, 1998 Success Glacier Couloir on Mt Rainier by Edgar and Kellogg).

A single board with a single edge, under control of an expert, is a powerful tool. Snowboarders can also descend toe-in with two real ice tools (instead of wimpy whippets) giving them the ability to scratch their way down really sketchy stuff if they want to. This is well established in Europe.

I think skiers in this country underestimate the snowboard as a tool for steep descents.
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Jeff Huber
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Re: Backcountry Skiing or Ski Mountaineering?
« Reply #24 on: 01/27/05, 05:32 PM »

I'm pretty sure the NF gullies on Hood have been done on skis. Still super impressive though. Click to see photo of the gullies

Definitely ski mountaineering!

Edit to add: It's always neat to hear about Chad Kellog -- I didn't realize that in addition to being a super impressive speed climber he was also a steeps-loving snowboarder!
« Last Edit: 01/27/05, 05:36 PM by Gaper_Jeffey » Logged

Alan Brunelle
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Re: Backcountry Skiing or Ski Mountaineering?
« Reply #25 on: 01/28/05, 01:51 AM »

The reason skiers haven't done the steepest lines in the Cascades is that the snowboarders have scraped off all the good snow!
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Paul Belitz
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Re: Backcountry Skiing or Ski Mountaineering?
« Reply #26 on: 01/28/05, 02:18 AM »

Quote


Based on the little I've read and heard about, I stand behind my assertion about snowboards. In Europe people have done amazing things on them. Quite possibly the steepest descents yet done in the Northwest have been done on snowboards (1992 North Face of Mt Hood by Stephen Koch, 1998 Success Glacier Couloir on Mt Rainier by Edgar and Kellogg).

A single board with a single edge, under control of an expert, is a powerful tool. Snowboarders can also descend toe-in with two real ice tools (instead of wimpy whippets) giving them the ability to scratch their way down really sketchy stuff if they want to. This is well established in Europe.

I think skiers in this country underestimate the snowboard as a tool for steep descents.

You could very well be right, I'm just commenting on what I've seen between me and my friends; a poor skier vs a poor snowboarder on somewhat firm slightly steep terrain. It seems that the lateral stability missing on a snowboard becomes an issue on harder, steeper snow at low speeds. Of course, what really matters is who's skills are better.

But what do I know, I've never been on a snowboard.
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Jonathan_S.
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Re: Backcountry Skiing or Ski Mountaineering?
« Reply #27 on: 01/31/05, 10:00 AM »

Although I've never heard this division used before, according to our Cham guide:
- backcountry skiing = skiing along on trails in the woods
- ski mountaineering = involves above-treeline navigation
- ski alpinism = ascent involves technical climbing
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