Ski Mountaineering Wand Making – Greatest Fails

| October 21, 2014

According to Malcom Gladwell’s theory that a person can only achieve true mastery of an activity by doing it for ten thousand hours, I’m almost a wand building prodigy. This is nothing to be proud of (except if you are my mom) and came about accidentally when I was building wands to mark ski mountaineering races, like the Wasatch PowderKeg.  According to International Ski Mountaineering Federation rules, courses are supposed to be marked every 10 meters, which on an 8 mile course like the Powder Keg is about 1,250 wands. Being a slacktart, I tried all sorts of time saving ideas which ultimately failed and caused me to spend more time trying to save time, which then again failed.  In the end, I built many, many thousands of wands and the failures were ultimately more educational and humorous then doing it right.

A few of my favorite fails:

Pin Flagging
These are commercially available, small, lightweight and cheap.  What could go wrong?  Pin flagging works great on hard snow, but in deep, soft snow, the flag part acts like a sail and lifts the flags up, up and away in the slightest wind.  After placing several hundred of them on the Patsy Marley ridgeline, I came back the next day to find they were all gone.  At first I thought an angry local had pulled them all, but I later found them scattered half a mile away all over Grizzly Gulch.

A young pin-flagger. These things are fine for marking finish lines, etc., but don’t work well in the high mountains.

Stickers As Flags
Thinking I could kill two Sage Grouse with a single stone, one year I decided to use preprinted stickers as the flags, so you’d get both a flag and a race logo.  These looked great in a warm, dry house, but quickly cracked in the cold or with a slight breeze and the stickers fell off.  The material used for stickers is way too brittle for flagging.

Dylan Freed carrying a load of short-lived sticker flagging.

Vinyl Tape
This looks a lot like duct tape, but doesn’t have the woven fabric structure which makes duct tape so strong.  Once again, the tape was too brittle and all the flagging fell off in the cold or wind.

Ron Smith carrying a load of  vinyl taped flags which would soon break.

Tied on Survey Tape
This is pretty much standard issue for mountaineering wands – you get a tomato stake, tear off an 18″ length of florescent survey tape and tie it on. Not only does this make a fairly inefficient flag/wand which is hard to see, but the ends tend to get tangled together into a huge knot if you are carrying a bunch of them, which makes them hard to deploy. Yanking on them only rips the tape or pulls the entire thing off of the staff.

Short, Cheap Stakes
The 2′ ten pack of tomato stakes from WalMart get lost in deep snow or break when you try to force them into hard snow.  Pretty much junk.

Two foot cheap stakes either break when you put them in, or soon thereafter.

Alder Branches
These are popular with Alaska heliskiing guides as they can be easily harvested all over most of AK.  With a ribbon of survey tape tied to them, they make servicable wind indicators for landing zones, but the twisty nature of the Alders mean they don’t pack or deploy very well in bulk quantities.  In places like the Central Wasatch, ripping branches off of high elevation trees to mark landing spots is about as lame as it gets.

Typical Wasatch Powderbird Guides flagging – a branch ripped off of a live ridgeline tree with some garbage attached to it.

Next:  How to actually make a good wand.

Help support and tie in with a Sterling Fusion Nano AT Dry Rope from Click on the photo below.


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About the Author ()

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

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  1. Charlie says:

    Glad to see you’re posting again! Viva el StraightChuter!

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