What do you do when back-to-back snow storms followed by an Arctic blast of cold announce the arrival of winter?
We usually exchange our wheels for skis and hit the slopes. But, this year, our son Alex, a passionate backcountry split-boarder (a split-board is a snowboard that breaks into two pieces making work like skis for climbing uphill) – introduced us to the sport of Alpine Touring (AT) – backcountry skiing with super high-tech equipment.
Having downhill and cross-country skied much of my life, we were ready to learn something new and enjoy the beautiful Colorado scenery. We are especially lucky to have a son to teach us this new-to-us sport.
From the rental of the equipment to the final run down the hill, I couldn’t help but recognize the similarities between alpine touring and cycle touring. I felt the same calmness and peacefulness of mind and clarity of thinking while gliding on skis just as I do when pedaling on roads. But the similarities don’t end there.
Understanding the gear, learning to be safe, and perfecting technique are necessary in both alpine and cycle touring and we were lucky to have our own “personal” guide.
Here’s what we learned:
Gear – We started our day at the Estes Park Mountain Shop. Our son had called ahead to reserved the gear. Reservations and early arrival may have been factors in our snagging GREAT new “high tech” equipment.
The AT skis were a little fatter than my old downhill skis and had metal edges making them different than my cross country skis. To be quite honest, the skis looked very similar to downhill powder skis.
The AT boots are my favorite part. They are stiff (when buckled) like regular downhill boots and they are easy to walk and ski in when unbuckled. The best part is they are much warmer than my downhill boots. For the warmth and comfort alone, I may make permanent conversation to Alpine Touring.
The bindings are an engineering marvel. – They have pins in the front that allow the boot to pivot up and down like old cross country bindings. The heel piece has little metal risers that help with the climbing up very steep hills. The heel piece also has a step-in function and brakes which makes them function like downhill bindings after the skier has climbed to the top of the hill.
Aside from he bindings, the skins (sticky, long made-made strips that cover the bottom of the skis while walking up hill) are one of the pieces that really makes AT different from cross country. These skins supposedly allow the skier to walk almost straight uphill whereas on cross-country skis, traversing is necessary.
In addition to the ski gear, we each carried avalanche equipment in our backpacks. For serious Alpine Touring a beacon, a probe, and a shovel plus certifications in avalanche training is mandatory (or at least strongly recommended.)
While the rental shop technicians were setting up our gear and giving us lessons on equipment use, I was thinking about the engineering and design of ski equipment and bicycles. I’m always amazed and appreciative that someone/many people devote the time and energy to to solve problems, find solutions, and drive change.
Safety – Similar to Eric and my daily bicycle safety talks, our son Alex did his part to make our day safe and fun. First he chose a route appropriate for our ability. We started on a snow-covered forest service road that was relatively flat so we could get used to our equipment.
Next he chose a sunny, warm place to give us beginner lessons on using our avalanche equipment. He set up a scenario, hid a beacon and then made each of us locate the hidden beacon.
Finally, he carried extra water, down-filled coats and snacks so that when we reached the actual ski runs from the old Hidden Valley Ski Area we could energize before the hardest part for me – climbing up the hill.
(The extra jackets were to keep warm the person in our group who decided to relax and NOT climb the hill.)
Technique – My lifetime of downhill and cross-country skiing prepared me just fine for skiing on the flats and skiing down hill. Where I really struggled was walking uphill with the skins on the skis and risers engaged on the heel piece of the bindings.
Unlike cross country where it’s necessary to traverse or use a herring bone step to go uphill, in Alpine Touring the skier should stand more upright with weight centered evenly across the skis. I understand this in theory but could not, for the life of me, execute this very well.
As a matter of fact, remember how I usually beat Eric uphill on the bicycle? Well, let me go on record as saying that Eric is MUCH better at uphill Alpine Touring than me.
(Can you tell that there is just a little competition between the two of us?)
Although gear, safety and technique are necessary parts of alpine and cycle touring, the biggest similarity is the JOURNEY. I love the journey! Even better, I’m so impressed that our son “gets it” at a much younger age than I ever did. He sums up the journey in his recent Facebook post.
So as the white stuff continues to fall and the heart of winter approaches, I definitely plan to supplement bike rides at the lower elevations with alpine tours at the higher.
N.b. Check out this great blog for more information about how to get started backcountry skiing.