Ski Mountaineering Basics: What it is, what you need, and how to learn.
What does “ski mountaineering” mean exactly? We’re so glad you asked! It’s one of our favorite things to talk about because it combines skiing, large mountains, and logistics.
While ski mountaineering isn’t a formally defined or regulated term, it typically means something more technical than typical backcountry skiing. You’re ascending a mountain and descending it on skis—and navigating all the shenanigans that entails. This might include steep technical skinning, bootpacks, ridge-walks, glacier travel, ice or rock pitches, rappels, exposed transitions, and/or general tomfoolery in high-up, airy places.
You may need ropes, harnesses, boot crampons, ski crampons, whippets, ice axe(s), and at times, a dose of determination. You need well-honed route-finding skills, advanced trip planning techniques, a good gear repository, and full confidence skiing whatever the conditions and terrain throw at you. The snow could be awful, steep, exposed, or all three at once.
At this point, sensible readers will ask, “And why is this fun?”
It’s fun if you love the thrill of challenging yourself in new ways in the mountains. There’s nothing wrong with a lifetime of mellow, powder-seeking backcountry ski tours. But some people savor the sensation of ascending and skiing something that made them shake in their boots a bit. Something that requires a bit of calculated planning and a heavy pack full of gear they may (or may not) need. Because it’s a remarkable feeling when everything comes together and you ski a gorgeous line you had to work hard for.
You forget all the days it didn’t come together, the aches in your boot-bound feet, the multi-hour bushwacks to the car, the 4am start times. Slap-happy, you spend the drive home planning your next big undertaking.
Start with a little supervision—and, even better, formal instruction.
Ski mountaineering doesn’t have to be too intimidating if you dip your toes in slowly, and this is best done with proper instruction from certified guides and instructors who can teach you foundational skills you can then go practice.
Of course, you’ll want to be an advanced skier to start with. Make sure you’re comfortable with any snow quality and any steepness. It doesn’t always have to look pretty (it usually won’t!) but you do have to be in control. Fortunately, you can hone your steep skiing ability inbounds, where the risks are lower.
Then, a simple online search can help you uncover ski mountaineering courses and camps in your corner of the world. (Or a gorgeous, far-off corner.) Here in Utah, we’re big fans of the annual ski mountaineering course offered by Inspired Summit Adventures. In Montana, six hours to the north, Bell Lake Yurt offers an excellent four-day course each spring. There are multiple lodges and guide companies offering excellent courses in British Columbia, including the seven-day women-only SheJumps Alpine Finishing School at the Selkirk Lodge. That’s just a smattering, and there’s likely something within traveling distance for you.
What you’ll learn:
Depending on the length and experience level of the course, you’ll dive into many of the basic skills and decision-making processes you’ll use in ski mountaineering. These might include:
- Thought processes: Route-finding, trip planning, risk assessment, and decision-making are challenging yet super-important elements here. They take a lifetime to master, which makes them all the more interesting. Build a familiarity with maps, navigation, timing, terrain, and human factors. This is half the battle.
- Rope work: Start with basics like what situations require a rope, how much and what kind, how to carry it, what knots and systems will keep you safe and save time, and how to manage your rope.
- Cramponing: Cramponing is not as simple as walking. Learn what kind of crampons you need, how to adjust them and put them on, and how to walk with your feet a little wider than usual so you don’t trip up. There are multiple cramponing techniques for walking up steep hills, ridges, and couloirs. You can learn what’s comfortable and when.
- Anchor building: Anchors come in handy when you need to belay someone on an exposed section, or when you need to rappel a cliff band or ice bulge, or when you need to pull someone up (if they’ve been unfortunate enough to do something like fall into a crevasse). If available, you can use anchor techniques you learn in rock climbing and ice climbing—and snow anchors are pretty rad too. If you have some in your repertoire, you’re in better shape.
- Rappelling: Sometimes, mountains throw unskiable sections at you. Not a problem! Learn rappelling techniques, including rapping with your skis on your back or on your feet. Your instructors will teach you to back it up with a hitch, too—handy if things go afoul.
- Glacier travel: If you have the chance to learn on glaciated terrain, you can get to know the ins and outs of glacier travel, avoiding crevasses and learning what to do if one surprises you. Crevasse rescue is its own science, so put on your physics hat and get psyched.
- Self-arresting: To be honest, self-arresting is fun to practice. It’s the only time adults willingly send themselves hurtling downhill, sliding on bellies, penguin-style, at full speed. And it’s not only fun but valuable too. If you’re ever sliding downhill out of control, which can happen if you slip while ascending or skiing steep terrain, it’s invaluable to know how to self-arrest with an ice axe.
You may have mountaineering goals that demand additional skills, like rock climbing, ice climbing, mixed climbing, or expedition skills. The great news is that all of those things can be developed through courses, camps, gyms, parks, and mentors.
How to practice:
Many of these skills are things you can then practice in a low-risk environment. You can practice building anchors on any snowy hill, building a z-pulley crevasse rescue system off your front porch column, or cramponing up a ridge on a spring morning when the snow is hard and crunchy.
Pair manageable objectives with experienced mentors, and you’re on a winning trajectory. Mentors can help you get out in real-world situations where you put your skills together to actually ascend things. And if mentors are in limited supply (as is sometimes the case), you can book some mountain time with a certified AMGA or IFMGA guide and let the learning process unfold.
As you put your skills together and start reaching for more complex objectives, the excitement only builds. So do your possibilities.
Beth Lopez is a seasoned writer and creative director who loves to tell tales of adventure and discovery—and finds writing a powerful way to give a voice to people, causes, and places. Beth runs amok in the Wasatch mountains when untethered from her computer. She believes there’s no such thing as a bad ski day and considers animals her favorite people. Don’t tell her mother about her Instagram mountaineering photos.