Pick Your Poison – Methods of Ascent (part II)

| September 20, 2008
Learning to skin is like learning the alphabet-something you have to do before you start spelling words or linking tours together.  It’s a lot like walking, but a bit different. Booting is walking, but unless you are on firm snow, your range will be severely limited as nothing saps your energy like post-holing in deep snow.  Snowshoes can be learned via The Twelve Step Program (take twelve steps – now you are an expert), but they lack any sort of glide and don’t climb very well, or if they do, then they don’t float very well.  Snowshoes are popular with snowboarders, but eventually, if the boarder is serious about getting deep into the backcountry, she’ll switch over to approach skis or split boards.
Skin if you can... boot if you must.  Greg VonDoersten punching out the final feet to the summit of Mt. Damavand, Iran.
Skin if you can… boot if you must. Greg “GVD” VonDoersten punching out the final feet to the summit of Mt. Damavand, Iran.


Skinning is the most complicated method of the three, as it requires not only the skins, but a touring binding as well and a tad of technique. Still, these are very small prices to pay if you are planning on touring more than once or twice.

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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.

Comments (5)

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  1. David says:

    You wrote a while back that ski crampons were often crutches for folks that should just learn to skin. I agree, but steep sketchy skinning feels so insecure for many people that the ski crampons come out or the boards go on the back, even in terrain where skinning would be far more efficient.

    It might be an interesting post to examine what skills/techniques/gear/experience allows for skinning in steeper terrain.

    Just in terms of gear, I have noticed that many of the modern skis don’t edge or contour as well as older skinny skis. But they sure ski better!

  2. Randonnee says:

    Funny, the Twelve Step Program : )} : )} ! I have an amusing memory recalling one time my 69 year-old Bavarian ski tour partner lecturing a snowshoer who dared to walk on the skin track.

    Perhaps I may be labeled as inferior, but I use ski crampons a few times each season. My use of ski crampons at times add efficiency on the terrain and Cascade snowpack that I travel. Besides, my pack is light since I do not carry a probe… : )}. Anyway, I sometimes traverse a crust that is at a slope angle from 30 to 40 degrees, and at times the crust will not support walking with boots. That is the most obvious example. Ski crampons are very inefficient eg no glide, all drag on lower angle terrain. I would agree that when snow is steep and supportive, walking up is probably more efficient. Ski crampons are worthwhile, in my view, to hang on a necessary traverse and eliminate the PIA and strenuous side slips while skinning.

    The Dynafit ski crampons work very well with the boot flat on the ski or perhaps on the first level of boot elevation. Not as well with the Fritsche ski crampons of a few years ago that we own. I recall fielding my wifes Fritsche ski crampon as it rolled down a steep Alps slope a while back.

    In regard to skins, I prefer to use mohair (or 50/50) for cold seasonal snow and nylon for granular or wet snow. There is some similar written information about this from Europe that is. Each skin glides better on the respective condition. I am also fond of the thinner skins from Europe compared to the nice thick ones from NA.

  3. ron says:

    it sounds like somebody needs a pair of snowshoes

  4. Andrew says:

    Hi David – Thanks for the input. I’ve been planning on a post about why I don’t use/like ski crampons, but as you alluded to, it really has as much to do with skinning technique as it does to do ski crampons, or lack of them. But, I promise I will get around to it, especially once the weater starts to turn and skinning technique becomes much more relevant.

    In a nutshell, I’ve found I can get away without ski crampons through keeping my boots loose and maximizing the skin to snow contact, avoiding edging and changing aspects to find softer (and thus grippier) snow. I look at skinning on slick surfaces as being akin to friction rock climbing – you can get quite a bit of stick through being subtle. It may not seem all that secure at first, but after doing it for a while (like, years), it becomes second nature.


  5. Andrew says:

    Hi Randonnee – I’ll add the ski crampon argument to my probe defense. :)

    I like mohairs as well, but don’t use them all that often. When they work, there is nothing like them as they glide so well. I also like the one-ply Euro versions as they crush down to a donut sized package.

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