Book Review: Backcountry Skiing – Skills for Ski Touring and Ski Mountaineering

In preparation for this “winter” (those are big quotes), I’ve been reading through Backcountry Skiing: Skills for Ski Touring and Ski Mountaineering from The Mountaineers Books. Since ski touring is my latest obsession, I grabbed a couple books all about the snow. 

Interested in Ski Touring or Ski Mountaineering? Get this book.

Backcountry Skiing: Skills for Ski Touring and Ski Mountaineering is an excellent book if you are just getting into ski touring or ski mountaineering or even if you have some experience but want to have a good reminder and refresher each winter. They cover every aspect of ski touring and ski mountaineering from the gear, traveling in avalanche terrain, skiing and mountaineering techniques and emergency preparedness.

From Backcountry Skiing:

“This book arose out of a desire to keep pace with the recent evolution of the skiing population, the improvement and proliferation of gear, and the development of new techniques. Our aim is to provide an in-depth explanation of all the various skills, knowledge, and techniques that are so crucial to safety and success in the diverse activities of ski touring and ski mountaineering – all in one place.”

Table of Contents

I list the table of contents here just because it’s useful to see what exactly is in the book. It shows how well the book spans ski touring and ski mountaineering. It’s an excellent reminder of what you need to know to play with either of these sports.

Chapter 1: Gear and Equipment

Chapter 2: Decision-Making in Avalanche Terrain

Chapter 3: Navigation

Chapter 4: Uphill Movement

Chapter 5: Transitions

Chapter 6: Ski Mountaineering Techniques

Chapter 7: Downhill Skiing Techniques

Chapter 8: Taking Care of Yourself and the Mountains

Chapter 9: The Mountain Environment

Chapter 10: Rescue Techniques and Emergency Preparedness

Glossary and other resources 

What this book is not

This book is not a complete replacement for many other books and manuals. Entire books have been written on the content of every one of the chapters in this book so you can certainly go deeper. Avalanche safety and rescue techniques are a couple of the big ones that you can never know too much or have too much training or experience. The more the better.

This book is also not a replacement for hands on learning and courses, especially with the avalanche and rescue training. Those skills need to be learned from experienced professionals and then practiced and practiced and practiced. Reading more books can help you uncover new ideas or areas where you might need more training, but it’s no replacement for hands-on learning and getting your body used to the skills out in the field.

On the other side of that, this book IS a great introduction to the sports and a great refresher each winter if you already know most of the material. The best thing you can do when you start something is new is read every resource you can get your hands on to introduce yourself to the what you need to know in the future. You can’t learn all of it right away but just knowing what you don’t know can help you in the long run. 

Who the author’s are and why they know their stuff

I read a lot and I always wonder who the people are that are writing these books. How much experience do they have? How much training do they have? Between the three authors they have an incredible amount of both those things. Here’s the short and sweet intro to each of the authors.

Martin Volken

  • Owner of Pro Ski and Guiding Service in Bend Oregon
  • IFMGA certification from Switzerland
  • Guiding mountaineering since 1992 in US and other countries
  • Several first ascents, ski descents and ski mountaineering traverses in North Cascades
  • Been on cover of Outside magazine
  • Involved in product development for K2 and Outdoor Research
  • Examiner for American Mountain Guides Association

Scott Schell

  • Certified AMGA Ski Mountaineering Guide
  • Guided extensively throughout States as well as Canada and Europe
  • Instructor and Trainer for AIARE
  • Former AMGA ski discipline instructor
  • Former manager of Pro Ski Service in Seattle
  • Usually has a camera with him and captures unique images as a photographer and mountain guide

Margaret Wheeler

  • Ski, Alpine and rock climbing guide, led trips throughout Europe and North America
  • Instructor for guide training for American Mountain Guides Association (AMGA), serves on board and is president
  • AIARE (American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education) instructor and trainer
  • Member of several women’s expeditions, several first ski descents in India and Altai mountains of Mongolia
  • 2006 second women in US to complete international IFMGA/UIAGM guide certification

My Favourite Parts

I was very interested to see what they had to say about avalanches. I’ve recently started ski touring and avalanches scare the crap out of me. I try to read and pick up every bit of information and learning I can to refine my knowledge of the unpredictable beasts. A lot of avalanche safety is hands-on training but any edge I can get reading more is worth it.

The Threesome Packing Helper

The authors go over a great packing method they call the Threesome Method. It has nothing to do with the fact that there are three authors or doing something…else… while packing. Focus! Back to packing here.

They take the view that it’s safer in the backcountry when you remember all of your gear. That seems like a smart idea. Here’s an easy way to remember everything in 3’s.

From Backcountry Skiing:

Daylong Backcountry Skiing and Ski Touring

  • Skis, boots, poles
  • Maps, compass, altimeter
  • Transceiver, probe, shovel
  • Skins, ski crampons, repair kit
  • Food, drink, extra layer
  • Bivy bag, first-aid kit, cell phone
  • Base layer, midlayer, outer layer
  • Hat, gloves, googles
  • Sunglasses, sunscreen, sun hat

Ski Mountaineering

  • Threesomes from daylong touring list
  • Harness, ice ax, crampons
  • Rope, ice screws, rescue gear kit

Overnight Ski Tours

  • Threesomes from daylong touring and ski mountaineering lists
  • Sleeping bag, sleeping pad, shelter
  • Stove, pot, fuel

These aren’t the only things you’ll need to take, sometimes it’s more, sometimes it’s less. You’ll need to experiment with how much you bring. More gear can be safer because you can use it if you get caught in an emergency but it’s also heavier, using up energy that you could be using for traveling farther and faster. The trick is in the 3s. If you remember one or two of the three then you’ll remember the third. 

Avalanches

Avalanches are the scariest part of ski touring but a lot of training and learning around how you go about your planning before and during your trip will help immensely.

From Backcountry Skiing:

“Terrain selection is defined as the decisions we make about where we go. This is the ultimate application of our decision-making in the backcountry. You can’t get caught in an avalanche if you’re not in avalanche terrain.”

and:

“Remember, good terrain selection is the key to not getting caught in an avalanche and correctly implementing travel techniques is the key to not having multiple people caught.” 

STOP

These guys like their acronyms and rightly so, they make the important information so much easier to remember.

STOP is what they use to aid decision making pretrip, at the trailhead and throughout the tour. STOP stands for

Snowpack and Weather: Checking any avalanche bulletins and weather forecasts or snow reports. What are the concerns?

Terrain: Using any information you can find in books, photos, online or from friends or guides to aid you in your terrain decisions.

Options: What’s the ideal route? What are the alternatives or backups?

People: What are the skills and dynamics of the group? Ability? Fitness? Compatibility? Leaders? 

Human Factors

We humans are not perfect. A lot of decisions are made before and during ski touring trips and how those decisions are made and who they’re made by can affect the safety of your tour. We’re not perfectly logical. A lot of emotion and past experiences are involved in dealing with other people in your group. A variety of factors can come up when dealing with the other people in your group.

A couple common human factors can affect how your tour ends. Poor communication the group is a an obvious big one. If your group isn’t talking about important things between everyone and that information is just stuck in one or 2 peoples heads, there can be problems. Communication is very important with ski touring in mountaineering.Other things like the “Blue Sky Factor” or the “Back to the Barn Syndrome” can lead people to misdiagnosing situations as safe when they’re not. The Blue Sky Factor issue comes up when the weather is fantastic. Everyone assumes the risk is lower when the weather is good. They are more careful when the weather isn’t so great. Risk can be just as high or higher when the weather is nice.

“Back to the Barn Syndrome” comes up when it’s time to head home. You’re almost home and you tend to focus on how good the beer is going to taste when you get back to the truck. The tour isn’t over till it’s over and the risk doesn’t go away until you’re safely in your car. 

Dressing warm enough

One of the parts I was not expecting in this book was about caring for the mountains and dressing for backcountry travel. It totally makes sense to me now that I think about it. If someone were picking up a general ski touring book aimed at beginners or those looking to expand their knowledge they may not know a whole lot about how to dress most efficiently. When the cold temperatures out ski touring can make you extremely uncomfortable or worse, it’s important to dress properly.

From Backcountry Skiing:

“It’s a lot easier to stay warm than to get warm, and one of the best ways to stay warm is not to get too hot.”

Don’t get too hot. Don’t wait until it’s too late to take your layers off. Start touring when you’re a little cool. You don’t want your body to have to go to extremes to have to try and cool down by sweating profusely and then shock your system by taking all your layers off when you’re sweating too much. Then your body freezes and you’ll be trying to warm up then. Try and stay as even as possible, and not yo-yo up and down with your heat level. 

The Mountaineers Books

If you think this would be a good book for you, swing by The Mountaineers Books and grab a copy.

You can download a sample chapter from the book. This an eBook version as well if you’d prefer to read on an eReader.