Keep’er Steeper Skinning

| December 3, 2010

The other day I was out skiing with a woman I didn’t know very well and she mentioned something about “macho assholes who set steep skin tracks.”   Good thing it wasn’t a first date as she was most likely talking about me.  I love steep skin tracks in the same way that I love steep, run-out friction climbing.  It’s a fun physical and mental challenge that gets easier the more you do it and at some point it just becomes normal.

The $64k kick turn. Steep, rocky, big exposure and fun. Definite first date material.

High heel-lifters are a must for steep skinning and I also like to shorten my poles down so I can get on top of them and push.  But, more than anything, steep skinning requires a developed feel for what your skins can stick to, and equally important, being able to relax while doing it.  Avoid breaking at the waist, keep your back straight and push through your heels.  It’s not that hard.

This one is only worth $32k. Still steep with a good dose of "don't blow it" exposure, but no rocks. Disappointing.

I’m hardly the first Wasatch skier to put in steep skin tracks.  I learned how to skin from Alex Lowe who went straight up everything and seldom booted.  Part of the Wasatch steep skinning ethic comes from the fact that we get a lot of deep snow and if you are going to be ground to a crawl breaking trail, you want to do it in the shortest distance possible, not cutting long zig-zags all over the hill.  The terrain here also favors steep skiing – the approaches are minimal and most of the ascents are up gentle ridgelines which force the choice between lots of switchbacks, traversing out into exposed slopes, or, steeper skin tracks.  Another factor is that synthetic skins work well in our dry snow and they also favor grip over glide, so you can push steep angles with them much easier than mohair.

Aid Skinning. The dead tree was technically a point of aid, but still on route.

But, getting back to the fun factor of it, if I am going to be breaking trail for 2-4 hours a day, it has to be interesting to me and I seem to ski with many like-minded people.  A lot of time a steep skin track will be a greasy, unclimbable mess a few hours or days after it has been set, but you can usually still use 80% of it and throw in a few extra switchbacks to get around the slick parts.  I don’t mind occasionally getting ejected off of a steep skin track.  Breaking trail may be a kind of public service, but that doesn’t mean that it has to be done to the lowest common denominator. If it is too blown out and slick, but put in a new one.

Help support and keeper steeper with a pair of Black Diamond Ascension Nylon STS Skins from Click on the photo below…


Category: 05 Uphill

About the Author ()

Andrew McLean lives in Park City, Utah and is a gear designer, writer, photographer, ski mountaineer, climber, Mountain Unicycle rider and father of two very loud little girls.

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  1. Steep skin tracks: Hate ‘em? Andrew McLean says don’t | December 16, 2010
  1. Charlie says:

    First photo is a winner.

  2. Christopher3000 says:


  3. Chuteski says:

    Go Dog Go!

  4. Dostie says:

    He he. Good way to goad me into an updated response.

  5. goatroper says:

    amen reverend! can I get a witness?! and while we are at it how about keeping a tight kick turn on a switchback to avoid the off camber rounded corner that promotes more slipping and cursing than any well put steep track.

  6. Andrew says:

    Respond all you want Mr. Doiste. We both know the truth. ;)

  7. Polly says:

    Steep skin tracks are sexy!

  8. Jeff Dostie says:

    Why waste time when you can go direct. I would rather break a new skin track than walk in a low angle one. It is much better exercise!

  9. d3 says:

    who’s the macho asshole in the pictures? :)

  10. Andrew says:

    Some jerk I met on the trail named Courtney. ;)

  11. Ed says:

    Years ago I was following three (very hardy) friends following a steep switchbacked track. Eventually, I got tired of slipping and bunching up on the switches. Off on a long, lower (not low, just a comfortable line) traverse I went, breaking a new track in over boot top snow. I covered a third to a half mile with one switchback, going two to three times their distance. As I crossed the track they were on, I resisted looking down at them. When they hit my track they pulled in behind. Yes, I believe tracks can be too steep AND too shallow, and snow quality, conditioning, and equipment all come into play. Unless it is real deep, I usually like to break trail because I can often get ALL of the group to the top the fastest and easiest when I do. I go steeper on grippy Spring snow and of course on narrow ridges like in your pics. But for me (age 64, 38 years of skinning) steep tracks and switchbacks keep me from staying out all day, and hours out not vertical feet (7000 is a really good day) are most important.

  12. Mason Young says:

    Ever ski in the Madison Range near Hilgard or Imp?

  13. Wick says:

    So that was your fun idea of going straight up the frozen bump field for the Alta race all these years ;)

  14. Dostie says:


    Ed said it all. Thanks Ed.

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