Ski mountaineering. Two people climbing up a mountain with their skis on their backs. Photo by Johannes Andersson on Unsplash

The Best Guide to Ski Mountaineering in 2024

Last Updated on 2 March 2024

Have you got your sights on exploring the mountains this winter? Are you thinking about doing some ski mountaineering? If so, this combines the excitement of skiing with the challenges of climbing, creating a unique sport that’s complete with rewards.

In this beginner guide, you’ll learn the essentials: the gear you need, the skills to practice, and tips for staying safe while embarking on ski tours. If you’ve never tried ski mountaineering before, read on to discover the joy of breathtaking alpine environments.

Read more: What Are the Different Types of Skiing? The Best Guide for 2024
Read more: What Is Nordic Skiing and Why Should You Try It in 2024?

Key Takeaways

  • Ski mountaineering, or ‘skimo,’ is a challenging sport that combines the skills of both uphill and downhill skiing with mountaineering techniques, demanding physical fitness, technical skills, and the right gear for efficiency and safety.

  • Proper equipment is necessary in ski mountaineering, with alpine touring gear for mobility, avalanche safety equipment for emergencies, and technical gear like climbing skins and ice axes for navigating challenging terrain.

  • Training for ski mountaineering requires developing both physical capabilities and technical skills, such as efficient uphill techniques, competent downhill skiing, avalanche awareness, and effective terrain management.

The Basics of Ski Mountaineering

Skiing down a mountain. Photo by Clement Delhaye on Unsplash

Ski mountaineering, or skimo for short, is a unique sport that combines uphill and downhill skiing with mountaineering tactics.

It challenges participants to navigate through snowy mountainous terrain, offering a blend of adventure, freedom, and exploration of winter landscapes. It’s a sport that involves climbing mountains as well as skiing down them, offering a thrilling mix of the precision of downhill skiing and the endurance of alpine touring.

The journey in ski mountaineering often starts small. Beginners are advised to integrate mountaineering into their ski trips, starting with simpler objectives and progressing to steeper slopes as they build confidence. This progression allows beginners to gradually build the skills necessary for more challenging winter alpine terrain.

One of the significant aspects of ski mountaineering is the equipment. Participants typically use alpine ski touring equipment such as skis and bindings designed for both ascending and descending. This unique gear adds to the efficiency and safety on the mountain, making ski mountaineering a sport that combines the thrill of skiing with the challenge of mountaineering.

Why Should You Try Ski Mountaineering?

Ski mountaineering is not just another winter sport; it’s an experience that combines the thrill of skiing with the adventure of alpine exploration. Here are some reasons why you should give ski mountaineering a try:

  • Connection with Nature: Ski mountaineering takes you away from crowded ski resorts and into the serenity of the backcountry. It’s an opportunity to immerse yourself in pristine winter landscapes and experience nature’s tranquillity.
  • Physical Fitness: As a highly physical sport, ski mountaineering provides a full-body workout that enhances cardiovascular health, builds muscle strength, and improves endurance. It’s an excellent way to stay fit during the winter months.
  • Mental Challenge: Navigating mountainous terrain requires problem-solving and decision-making skills, offering a mental challenge as well as a physical one. It’s a sport that can help sharpen your mind and increase your resilience.
  • Adventure and Exploration: Every ski mountaineering trip is an adventure. You’ll explore new terrains, discover untouched slopes, and experience the mountains in a way few others have.
  • Community and Camaraderie: Ski mountaineering has a strong community of passionate individuals. Joining this community can lead to lifelong friendships and a shared sense of accomplishment.
  • Skill Development: Ski mountaineering allows you to develop a unique set of skills that combine skiing, climbing, and navigation. These skills can be transferred to other outdoor pursuits and enhance your overall capabilities as an adventurer.
  • Versatility and Variety: The sport offers a wide range of experiences, from peaceful solo tours to competitive races. Whether you’re looking for solitude or socialisation, ski mountaineering has something to offer.
  • Personal Growth: Pushing your limits in the mountains can lead to significant personal growth. Ski mountaineering challenges you to step out of your comfort zone and fosters a sense of confidence and self-reliance.

Tips for Choosing the Right Gear

Two sets of skis. Photo by Aaron Doucett on Unsplash

Choosing the right gear in ski mountaineering is about performance, safety, and comfort. Ski mountaineers need to be competent with their gear management, ensuring they have the right equipment and knowledge for varying conditions encountered on the mountain.

Adjusting bindings and boots is sometimes necessary during ski mountaineering expeditions in response to shifting terrain and weather conditions. Field repairs are an essential skill for ski mountaineers to maintain the functionality and safety of their gear throughout the journey.

Choosing the right gear involves understanding your skiing style, the terrain you’ll be skiing, and the weather conditions you’ll likely encounter. It’s all about finding the right balance between weight, durability, and performance. Whether you’re an experienced ski mountaineer or a beginner, investing in the right gear is important for a safe and enjoyable adventure.

How Do You Find the Perfect Skis?

Finding the perfect skis for ski mountaineering involves considering various factors. For uphill climbing and efficient downhill skiing in backcountry terrain, selecting skis with a balance between lightweight and solid downhill performance is something to consider.

Skiers with less experience in backcountry skiing should look for versatile and forgiving skis, whereas highly experienced skiers might prefer lighter and more specialised skis. A width of 90 to 105mm underfoot is recommended for backcountry skis, and shorter skis are often better for manoeuvrability and lower weight unless there’s a specific reason to choose longer ones.

What Do You Need to Consider When Selecting the Right Boots & Bindings?

Ski boot attached to a ski. Photo by Aaron Doucett on Unsplash

Choosing the right boots and bindings is another critical aspect of ski mountaineering gear. It’s essential to ensure compatibility between AT boots and bindings, considering different sole types such as ISO 9523 or Walk to Ride (WTR).

Selecting the right AT boots involves balancing factors like weight, uphill vs. downhill performance, and compatibility with bindings. A mid-range AT boot offering a balance between weight and mobility, with over 40 degrees of cuff movement, is recommended for those who value downhill performance.

Stay Safe with Quality Safety Equipment

This is another important aspect of ski mountaineering and can make all the difference on the mountain when you need it the most. Avalanche transceivers, probes, and shovels are essential tools to ensure preparedness in the event of an avalanche.

These safety tools are not just about having the right gear, they are about knowing how to use them effectively. Proficiency with this safety equipment is critical to effectively respond in avalanche rescue scenarios. Investing in quality safety equipment and training can make the difference between a fun adventure and a dangerous situation.

Essential Ski Mountaineering Equipment

Ski equipment. Photo by David Becker on Unsplash

Having the right ski mountaineering equipment is important in this sport. It not only enhances performance, but also ensures safety during the adventure. Typical essential ski mountaineering equipment includes alpine skis and bindings designed for both ascending and descending.

In addition to ski touring gear, there is a paramount need for avalanche safety equipment. This gear, which includes transceivers, probes, and shovels, ensures preparedness in the event of an avalanche, one of the most significant risks in ski mountaineering.

Additional technical gear needed for ski mountaineering includes:

  • Touring-capable ski boots;

  • Ski crampons for ice;

  • Adjustable poles for variable terrain; and

  • A headlamp for low-light conditions.

A recommended backpack for ski mountaineering is durable and lightweight, with snow-specific features to accommodate the sport’s unique demands.

What Safety Equipment Do You Need?

A "Caution Avalanche Danger" sign. Photo by Nicolas Cool on Unsplash

When it comes to safety in ski mountaineering, certain equipment is non-negotiable. This includes:

  • Avalanche transceivers, also known as beacons, for locating individuals buried in an avalanche. All devices operate on a standardised frequency for interoperability.

  • Probes for precisely locating buried individuals post-avalanche. They come in various lengths and materials like aluminium or carbon, featuring a locking mechanism.

  • Shovels with metal blades for moving the hardened snow in avalanche debris. They often come with features like removable and extendable handles or integrated snow saws.

Proficiency with this safety equipment is critical to effectively respond in avalanche rescue scenarios.

Alpine Touring Gear

Alpine touring (AT) gear is a critical component of ski mountaineering equipment. These include skis, boots, and bindings designed specifically for both uphill and downhill performance. AT skis are designed to be lightweight for ease of uphill travel, with the width under the foot ranging from 80mm to 100mm for optimal performance.

AT boots feature:

  • Lightweight construction;

  • Flex or walk mode to assist in uphill travel;

  • Non-slip profiled soles for secure grip in snowy and rocky conditions;

  • Dual functionality for efficient downhill skiing and flexible walkability for uphill ascents; and

  • Advanced materials like Pebax®, Grilamid, and carbon fibre minimise weight without sacrificing performance.

Technical Gear

Technical gear in ski mountaineering includes equipment that aids in tackling challenging terrain. Climbing skins are attached to the bottom of skis to provide traction for ascending slopes. These skins can be made from synthetic materials, mohair, or a blend of the two, each offering a different balance of traction, glide, durability, and cost.

Another essential piece of technical gear is the ice axe. Ice axes for ski mountaineering vary in type, with ‘Basic’ axes being less strong than ‘Technical’ axes. Skiers choose these based on technical requirements, weight, and robustness.

Ropes and harnesses are necessary for glacier travel, negotiating crevasses, and ensuring safety on steep or technical terrain.

Read more: 11 of the Best Ski Jackets to Hit the Slopes of 2023-2024
Read more: Snowboard Helmet: 9 of the Best For Men, Women & Kids in 2024

How Do You Master Ski Mountaineering?

A skier skiing fast down a mountain. Photo by Maarten Duineveld on Unsplash

Ski mountaineering is a sport that demands not only physical fitness, but also a unique set of skills. This includes backcountry skiing skills, such as using touring bindings and skinning uphill efficiently, as well as broader mountaineering abilities to navigate and conquer mountain terrain during a ski tour.

Physical fitness is a cornerstone of ski mountaineering, requiring the ability to handle various routes and maintain a good level of fitness, particularly for those at an intermediate skiing level or higher. Moreover, transitioning swiftly and seamlessly from uphill to downhill modes is essential, especially during expeditions and in competitive ski mountaineering.

Uphill Techniques

Mastering uphill techniques is necessary for efficient and safe ski mountaineering. Skiers should glide their skis along the packed snow, roll ankles when traversing slopes, and use techniques like kick turns to navigate switchbacks instead of lifting skis, which conserves energy and reduces leg fatigue.

On steeper inclines, using heel risers helps mitigate calf strain, and the ‘herringbone’ technique – putting your skis into a V-shape when going uphill – can improve efficiency on steep terrain where side stepping doesn’t work well. It’s also a good idea to maintain a consistent pace through regulated breathing while adapting to the steepness of the slope to conserve energy levels over long ascents.

Downhill Skills

Someone skiing downhill. Photo by Glade Optics on Unsplash

Just as uphill efficiency is critical in ski mountaineering, mastering downhill skills is equally important. A balanced stance with weight distributed over the centre of the skis is fundamental to downhill ski mountaineering.

Smooth and controlled turns, accommodating various shapes and sizes, are essential for steep slope descent in ski mountaineering. Effective edge control and the ability to quickly adjust edge angles are key for managing different snow conditions on descents. Mastering jump turns is a a great skill for navigating very steep or narrow terrains that normal turns cannot handle.

Avalanche Awareness & Terrain Management

Avalanche awareness and terrain management are life-saving skills in ski mountaineering. Ski mountaineers must undergo avalanche safety training to learn vital knowledge about avalanche terrain assessment, decision-making, and snow science for safe navigation in avalanche-prone areas.

Strategic terrain management skills involve:

  • Identifying safe zones;

  • Assessing slope steepness;

  • Using snow study kits for snowpack analysis;

  • Recognising the signs of recent avalanche activity; and

  • Using tools like tracking apps to verify routes.

These skills are essential for understanding changes in the environment and maintaining safety during ski mountaineering.

Read more: Alpine vs Nordic Skiing: Discover the Best Fit for Your Winter Adventure in 2024
Read more: The Best Skiing Holidays for Beginners in 2024

Preparing for Your First Ski Mountaineering Adventure

Lots of maps overlapping each other. Photo by Andrew Neel on Unsplash

Ski mountaineering is more than a sport; it’s an adventure. And like any adventure, it requires thorough preparation. This includes:

  • Physical readiness;

  • Mental toughness;

  • The ability to endure discomfort; and

  • Adaptability to changing conditions.

Training for ski mountaineering should transition from summer activities to ski-focused exercises. Here are some key exercises to include in your training routine:

  • Using poles and steep terrain to prepare muscles;

  • Add ski imitation drills to improve technique;

  • Incorporate uphill hiking or running to build endurance;

  • Build functional leg strength through exercises like squats and lunges;

  • Engage in muscular endurance exercises such as wall sits and step-ups; and

  • Perform functional movement exercises to condition joints and tendons.

By incorporating these exercises into your training routine, you will be well-prepared for the ski mountaineering season.

In addition to physical preparation, ski mountaineering also requires careful planning and awareness of weather conditions. This involves:

  • Understanding terrain dynamics;

  • Interpreting avalanche bulletins;

  • Creating contingency plans; and

  • Accessing real-time and historical weather data to understand current conditions and forecast potential future snow and weather scenarios.

What Fitness Training Should You Do?

Physical fitness forms the backbone of successful ski mountaineering. Starting strength training with an introduction phase focusing on form and technique will help to prevent injury. Transitioning to a general strength phase involves exercises that use both legs simultaneously, like barbell back squats or deadlifts.

High-rep, low-weight training is part of muscular endurance conditioning and prepares the body for the specific demands of ski mountaineering by simulating the movements required in the sport. Development of strong core and lower-body muscles is achieved through targeted exercises, enhancing control and endurance on the mountain.

Building an aerobic base for ski mountaineering involves easy to moderate exercises like easy runs, long hikes, and a sample routine that progresses through different intensities and durations.

Route Planning & Navigation

A compass on a linen background. Photo by Mick Haupt on Unsplash

Route planning and navigation form the elements of a successful ski mountaineering adventure. Ski mountaineers need strong navigation skills to choose the best paths in hilly and mountainous terrain, which entails comprehending the combined effects of weather and terrain dynamics.

Interpreting avalanche bulletins is important for route planning to help make safe decisions in mountainous ski areas too. Strategic contingency plans, such as secondary options for routes, are essential in case initial plans are not viable due to changing mountain conditions.

Satellite imagery platforms like Google Earth and topographical mapping tools such as CalTopo can be used for preliminary scoping of ski mountaineering zones and pinpointing safer routes and ascent paths.

Know What to Expect With the Weather

Monitoring the weather forecast is essential for ski mountaineering. It provides important predictions on upcoming snow conditions, which can be more complex than rain forecasts.

Snow forecasts are generally reliable for up to 3 days, highlighting the importance of frequently checking updates due to the unpredictable nature of mountain weather. Understanding weather patterns is key in assessing snowpack stability, which is important for avalanche risk management, especially in snowy winter months since conditions can change swiftly.

Ski Mountaineering Competitions and Events

A skier racing down a mountain with chair lifts next to them. Photo by Andrei Stefan on Unsplash

For those who crave competition and camaraderie, ski mountaineering offers a range of competitions and events. The first official World Championships of Ski Mountaineering were organised in 2002, marking the International Year of Mountains, with earlier competitions like the Italian Trofeo Mezzalama being considered as unofficial World Championships since 1975.

The World Championships of Ski Mountaineering, sanctioned by the International Ski Mountaineering Federation (ISMF), include the following disciplines:

  • Individual race;

  • Team race;

  • Relay race;

  • Vertical race; and

  • Long-distance race.

These events are categorised by gender and by age category or group and are held biannually.

Besides international events, there are also local races like the Northwest Passage Ski Mountaineering Race, which play a role in developing the sport by attracting new athletes and increasing visibility.

Skimo Racing Formats

Ski mountaineering competitions, or skimo races, come in various formats. Individual ski mountaineering races typically involve a minimum of three ascents and descents for adults, with two for juniors, where the longest ascent should not surpass 50% of the total elevation gain.

Team races require competitors to pair up with a partner and tackle a minimum elevation gain of 2,100 meters within a target finish time of 3-3.5 hours for the leading teams. Sprint races are rapid competitions involving a skinning section, a booting segment, and a descent, with top racers finishing in about three minutes. Each of these formats offers unique challenges and opportunities for athletes to showcase their skill and endurance.

From Beginner to Experienced This is How You Get Involved in Competitions

Someone skiing down a powder run. Photo by Robson Hatsukami Morgan on Unsplash

For those interested in participating in competitions from the UK, the British Mountaineering Council (BMC) provides resources and information for ski mountaineering enthusiasts. As the national governing body for all forms of climbing, hill walking, and mountaineering in the UK, the BMC offers guidance on how to get started in skimo, including training, events, and safety protocols.

UK residents can also explore the Ski Mountaineering Competition (SMC) Great Britain, which is dedicated to the promotion and development of ski mountaineering racing within the UK. The SMC organises a series of races throughout the winter season, providing opportunities for both novice and experienced ski mountaineers to compete and improve their skills.

Additionally, many local ski clubs in the UK offer ski mountaineering activities and may host informal races or training sessions. Joining a club can be a great way to meet like-minded individuals, receive coaching, and learn about upcoming skimo events.

For international competitions, British athletes can aim to qualify for events sanctioned by the International Ski Mountaineering Federation (ISMF), which hosts competitions across various countries, including the European Ski Mountaineering Championships and the World Championships.

By checking with organisations like the BMC, SMC Great Britain, and local ski clubs, as well as keeping an eye on ISMF events, UK ski mountaineers can find many avenues to get involved in the competitive scene of ski mountaineering.

Competitions in ski mountaineering cater to all levels, with Race/Pro/Elite/Open/Long Course categories for competitive athletes and Recreation/First Timers/Short Course categories for beginners. There are various skimo race formats to choose from, including individual mass start races, team events, sprint circuit heats, team relay circuit races, and vertical races. To improve their skills, participants can attend skimo clinics, join skimo clubs, or seek professional coaching services.

Final Thoughts

Ski mountaineering is a thrilling sport that combines the exhilaration of downhill skiing with the adventurous spirit of mountaineering. It requires a unique set of skills, the right gear, physical fitness, and an understanding of the mountain terrain and weather conditions.

Whether you’re participating in international competitions or embarking on a leisurely adventure, the principles of ski mountaineering remain the same: respect for the mountain, preparedness, and the spirit of adventure.

Even if you’re an experienced mountaineer, an avid skier, or a beginner looking to get new skills and push your boundaries, ski mountaineering offers a unique challenge and an unparalleled connection with nature. With the right preparation, training, and gear, you can embark on this thrilling adventure and experience the mountains in a way few others do.

So, are you ready to strap on your skis and conquer the mountain? We are!

Frequently Asked Questions

What is a ski mountaineering race?

A ski mountaineering race, also known as skimo, is a traditional form of a human-powered endurance competition where participants climb mountains on skis or by foot, pass through transitions, and then descend on skis.

How do you learn to ski mountaineer?

The first step to learning ski mountaineering is to take an avalanche course, which is essential for understanding terrain, weather, and how avalanches occur.

What equipment is required for ski mountaineering?

To do ski mountaineering, you will need alpine ski touring equipment, avalanche safety gear, and technical gear including ski boots, crampons, and adjustable poles. Ensure you have all these essentials before embarking on a ski mountaineering adventure.

What skills are needed for ski mountaineering?

Ski mountaineering requires backcountry skiing skills, alpinism skills, and the ability to transition swiftly from uphill to downhill modes. Avalanche awareness and terrain management skills are also important.

Similar Posts