Section 02: Are there different types of backcountry skiing?

2. What are the types of backcountry skiing?

There are basically two types of backcountry skiing. One approximates cross-country skiing while the other more closely approximates alpine skiing. However, the lines between these two activities are very blurred, and on any given ski tour, you could easily participate in both types.

2.1 What is overland ski touring?

Overland ski touring is the cross-country like skiing. The focus here is on covering terrain, seeing the sights and simply being away from more well traveled roads.

This type of skiing may take place at just about anywhere patch of ground where there is snow and there aren't any roads. Examples would include a mountain hiking trail, a forest, on rolling hills, or even in the artic regions.

2.2 What is mountain ski touring?

Mountain ski touring focuses on climbing mountains and downhill skiing. Your legs, lungs, and stamina replace ski lifts, but again the most important factor is getting away.

This type of skiing is usually done in mountainous regions outside of alpine ski resorts.

There are two downhill skiing styles of mountain touring. One of the styles is called telemark skiing. The telemark is a type of turn that requires that the heel of the boot not be attached to the ski (thus the terms, free heel skiing). Telemark skiing uses boots and bindings specifically designed to allow this turn. The other style of mountain touring uses "alpine touring equipment ". This equipment is used to execute parallel turns with the boot heel firmly attached to the ski, like standard alpine bindings.

There are also two distinct activities that mountain skiers participate in. The first is ski mountaineering, which mountaineering with skis. The use of skis for mountaineering can lead to some excellent skiing, and in some cases simplify the goal of achieving a summit. The second activity is fondly known as yo-yoing. Here the goal is to ski runs. During yo-yoing, a climbing track is typically set once on a given hill, and it is used for a number of ascents, and subsequent descents.

2.3 Should I go with AT gear or tele gear?

This is an annual debate on rec.skiing.backcountry. Here are some typical responses to a good downhill skier who wants to start backcountry skiing.

From Peter Krystad

It all depends on what you value. Some of the time tele has the advantage, other times AT, most of the time it doesn't really matter. Given your background, I would go with the AT gear. There is no way the advantages of tele gear and technique will overcome the time it will take you to get proficient.

From Clyde Soles

Given your background, I'd go with the AT gear. It has more control, better release functions, tours fine and is a lighter package than comparable tele gear. Cost is slightly higher but in the same ballpark. I know tele fanatics hate hearing this but it's the truth.

From David Eyre

Since you know how to parallel already, if you were to go out and buy stiff tele boots and a good pair of skis, you could be executing good parallel turns on your tele equipment with a half days practice. Despite all the comments that AT is much easier for accomplished downhill skiers, IMO if you can turn 'em on downhill gear, you can parallel on heavy tele gear too. Then you have the option to learn to tele.

From Rick Strimbeck

The main advantage of freeheel gear (and one that many seem to be forgetting) is its versatility. If your skiing will involve touring (flat approaches, hut-to-hut skiing, mileage) tele gear should look pretty attractive. Then you've got to look over the gradient from light and skinny (and often more demanding when it comes to doing turns) to heavy and fat (and fun on the downhills). If you're going to go heavy and fat, and you're not specifically interested in learning and using telemark turns, you might as well go AT. It is possible to go medium weight (boots) and fat especially if you stay off the hardpack, which demands the most of a boot. (That's me...)

From Mel Mann

People have probably given you enough practical advice to make a good decision but IMHO they've been too nice about the other discipline.(None of that rsa spirit here in civilized rsb.) So I'll give you the straight poop that no one else was willing to say ;^)>

Telemarkers (my true calling) derive a sense of moral superiority from using a turn that is not only technically impossible but physically painful. Other advantages are: you get to wear funny hats (although boarders have taken over that lately - like everything else in the world), you can buy your ski clothes at Goodwill and they never go out of style, you have an endless source of witty conversation debating the merits of leather vs. plastic boots (you won't believe the boost this gives your social life). The down side is lift guilt. You will have to invent excuses for any day spent riding lifts - you're quads are recovering from the aaaawwwesome climb you did last week, your is injured, you're working on a new manuever (like actually completing a tele turn). You'll know you're succesful when, after zipping some bumps or jumping a cornice you hear compliments from the lift like "you're crazy" and "pinheads suck".

From limited observation of AT skiers I would say that the advantages (beside the fact that the technique is, at least theoretically, posssible) is that you can ski 50 degree couloirs in very sketchy snow conditions ala Scott Schmidt et al. The disadvantage is that, if you are even marginally sane, you don't want to ski 50 degree couloirs in very sketchy snow conditions ala Scott Schmidt et al hence you will suffer steepness envy. The desire to emulate your heroes vying with the notion that staying alive is a good thing. This will become even worse when you find that those couloirs have names like "Don't Miss", "Screaming Right Turn", "Comin' Home Sweet Jesus", and the truly terrifying "Early Morning Couloir".

As you can see - both techniques have advantages and disadvantages but I think you will find that they have more in common than differences. Namely both of these techniques are usually practiced far from places with decent beer on tap. If you are smart you will spend far more time talking about technique and equipment in a well heated bar (that brews a perky porter or at least a passable pilsner) than out in the cold actually praticing either technique.

2.4 How do I get into ski touring from alpine skiing?

From ButtDawg

If you are a resort skier interested in getting into backcountry skiing, here's how I'd do it....

        Basic Investment:
          - AT bindings ($200 - $500)
          - Skins ($40 - $100)
          - Beater alpine skis ($0 - $100)
        Use all the rest of your alpine gear, go out on very safe days 
        (avalanche wise) and see if you like it.  The pace is much slower, 
        but the quality can be much higher.

        Intermediate Investment:
          -AT boots ($200 - $500)
          -Avalanche transceiver ($225)
          -Accessories (Pack, shovel, titanium scotch flask, etc) 
             ($100 - $500)

        Point of no return investment:
          - BC Skis ($200 - $500)
          - Adjustable probe poles ($80)
          - Many, many others ($1,000 to $10,000)

On to Section 3: Is backcountry skiing safe?

Back to the rec.skiing.backcountry FAQ index: