Not bloody snowshoes
January 18, 2018
“Are your skis like snowshoes?” asked my mate Barney, as we rode the chairlift up from Les Houches, nodding at my short fat skis, 60cm shorter than his 190s. “No - they’re real skis, they’re great”, I replied, feeling a bit defensive of my little unconventional terrors. Barney looked a little harder, then shaking his head, and his skis, said, “Why don’t you just get some proper skis?”.
A Non-Skiing Skiing Apprenticeship
I’ve been using short skis all my climbing life, approach skis they call them, skiing many miles on them long before I could ever actually ski, once even skiing the Vallée Blanche with a haul bag on my back without even knowing the snowplough!
The first skis I had - in my pre-skiing competence days - were Kästle Firn Extrem, very heavy but solid little approach skis you could carry easily on your rucksack, stick in a duffel when climbing, and allowed you to skin up to climbs in the deepest of snow in your climbing boots. These were fitted with classic Silvretta 404 bindings, tough bindings featuring a crampon style set up, with a wire toe bail and heel clip, meaning they’d take both mountains and ski boots. I used these Extremes on winter expeditions to Patagonia, the Alps, Norway and Alaska, making getting into far-flung corners far easier than using snowshoes (on foot you’d never have got there). The downside of the skis was that - well - I couldn’t ski. When you added in a huge pack, soft climbing boots, powder, straight-edged skis, often darkness, early on getting down was always the most fraught part of any climb. Often when I got to the road or trailhead, or back to our basecamp I’d not be thankful I survived the climb, but just that I’d not broken my neck on the descent.
Using short skis to get around the wilderness, rather than using snowshoes, or using your tired body like a snowplough, goes back thousands of years, with the Northern Sami tribes being the first wilderness skiers, using short wooden planks with reindeer skins attached to the bottom to shuffle around. Like them I was trying simply to use skis to get from A to B, then back to A, not shred the pow.
Not being able to ski is an issue, but when you’re waist-deep in powder, with a 50kg haul bag on your back, it helps you get a little more focused. Going up is always easy, but getting down not so. Leaving your skins on could help a little bit, edging and sidestepping, traversing etc, rather than taking the direct line. In those early days, I found that making a ski crampon out of abseil cord or two slings worked better with the skins, which due to their glide will still go downhill. I got the idea from a book about submarine crews making knotted crampons from cord so they didn’t slip on slick hulls. I never tried it but I often wondered if putting your skins on backward might also work. Anyway, these makeshift crampons stopped the skis skidding out from under you when coming down, but after many falls you also tended to get a feel for the edge, letting you side-slip or step down short sections (even going up there can be some down). If all else failed, knowing how to make sled from your skis and just pulling your pack was also an option, but very often you’d just take off your skis and walk down the steep stuff pulling your skis behind you (drilling a hole in the tips big enough for a karabiner allows you to haul them along rather than carry them).
Actually skiing on these skis was like standing on a tea tray going downhill, a technique requiring balance and nerve. In soft boots it’s hard to shift your weight around the ski, so often you’d just need to go with it, a wide crouching stance often a little more stable when wearing a pack. You could also use your ski poles, or a stick as a break, sticking it between your legs like a broomstick to slow yourself down (a trick Andy Parkin showed me). With soft boots your ability to control a ski is greatly diminished, the soft ankle making it very hard to push the ski over on its edge, apply weight to the front etc, meaning even the humble snowplough can be almost impossible to do, let alone a carving turn. The trick is to actually do some easy skiing in the combination you have before actually using them in anger, going on nursery slopes with the little kids, or the odd blue slope. Here you’ll learn - like in powder skiing - to get the skis to turn without using the skis edges so much, and more by shifting your weight. Often in powder (approach skis don’t ski well in deep powder, and you’ll be better to just use them like snowshoes), you want to be doing long easy turns, finding the right angle/steepness to get you down under control. If you can’t do a full turn, then just make a slow uphill turn until you stop, then turn around and repeat.
On harder or more choppy snow you can just twist your ankles to turn the skis. When skiing this type of snow I think of sea kayaking in a very long kayak – it’s not easy to turn the kayak quickly but you can turn it fast when on top of a wave with most of the kayak out of the water. Using this idea I got better at changing direction on the crests of the snow.
Another crossover technique was ice skating, where a direction change is most easily done by simply lifting one foot, pointing it where you wanted to go, and getting the other to follow.
All of the above was, of course, survival skiing techniques. I knew nothing about carving or the control of ski by balance, of skiing in powder, but just practical ways of getting the hell down.
Taking big falls with a heavy rucksack on is never good on skis, especially with mountaineering boots, which will not release as reliably as a ski boot due to their much stickier sole. I’ve always used old Silvretta 404 or 500 bindings (you can pick them up very cheaply on eBay), which work both on the mountain and ski boots, being free-heel bindings for the flat and uphill, but locked down for the descent. The 500 are the best, being much lighter, but also harder to find, a Renault Kangoo to the 404 Ford Fiesta, the touring binding of its time. Safety-wise these bindings have a heel and lateral release, meaning if you fall forward the heel clip will release, and a twisting fall will twist the heel unit out of the binding to save your ankles and knees. The DIN setting (for non-skiers the DIN is the sensitivity of the binding), should be set low and tweaked up as you find what works, as a very low setting (e.g., 4), will often see the bindings release while skiing in powder or even when skinning up. Personally, I set the heel unit at 5 and the lateral release at 7, which works for me, but is perhaps too high. The flexibility of the boot does make it less injurious in a fall, which is important, as although a hospital is only a stretcher ride down on the piste, having a spinal fracture on a remote glacier could be terminal. Whatever you do, play it safe.
Learning To Ski
Eventually, I did learn to ski, which was a bit of a revelation, all those years of people saying “you should learn to ski” now making sense! I bought full-size skis and touring boots and became an OK skier, something perhaps helped by all those years trying to ski in soft boots, a pack and short skis - like learning to ride a bike by way of a unicycle.
It was only after I started to go on trips where I had to use very soft Nordic boots and free-heel BC bindings, like telemark bindings, that I began to get some extra hints and tips for my survival skiing. In Norway, Greenland and Antarctica I’ve skied some things in the nordic kit that were pretty much beyond me, terrible snow, sometimes with a pulk chasing me, yet I had to ski as I didn’t have any other choice. I learnt that my heels didn’t have to be locked down to ski down, that the classic constant turning you see on the piste does not work in the mountains, with a big pack, soft double Nordic boots with wool liners, and very variable conditions. I returned to my tea tray-style - kept my balance, and did not try and turn, just run it out and make it down. This approach worked as really although it seemed steep, we’d be skiing easy terrain, big snow slopes, glaciers, pre-mountain stuff (forest trails, snowed over tracks and roads). Here I learnt that skins were a hindrance, counterproductive, that yes they created more drag and slowed you down a little bit, but that drag would also amplify any changes in the snow, causing you to fall forward. Also, the trick is to get down as fast as you can, taking a diagonal line that would keep your speed in check, putting pressure through your heels to keep the ski tips up. Being able to do this without a pack is something you can pick up pretty fast, the knack not to be afraid of speed, to let it run out (just switch your brain off).
Once you add a big pack it’s never going to be easy, and just standing straight, and again trying to lose height fast is the best way down.
Having skied on powder before in alpine skis is important if that’s what you find yourself having to ski, learning to lean back, stay low, putting pressure through your heels to keep your tips up, and keeping your skis close (like a snowboard), is always helpful. I also find that with short skis you can force the back of the skis onto the snow, creating some small breaking force (like going down steep snow in your mountain boots by using your heels).
For big trips over many hundreds or even thousands of kilometres, the Nordic system is the only way to go, but they have very limited use as a mountain system. Never the less my time on them helped me enormously, helping me to become less afraid of speed, now knowing - after many falls - that for every one hundred times I wiped out, ninety-nine were caused by trying to slow down, only one for going too fast.
Now I could ski I was still interested in light skis that could be transported easily, that would work with climbing boots, mainly as I was now living in Scotland, and more often than not you’d not want to be going down to the base of a route to pick up your skis. In Scotland there was also no real solid tradition of using skis, most climbers just battling through the snow from their car and back, the reason being more down to a general lack of ski aptitude than anything else. But if people are skiing into routes in Cogne, people could be skiing into routes in Scotland, especially the more remote crags, taking hours off an approach. Even when the limits of the skier meant just skinning up and walking out on the steep terrain with their skis on their back, it was still faster than the alternative.
The skis I wanted needed to have a balance between length, weight and price, so as too short as I could get away with (so they fitted on a pack), low weight - but not some carbon race skis that cost a grand - more fun skis that you could mount a free heel binding on.
Nanook Of The North
The ski I used for a while was the Hagan Nanook, Hagan being an Austrian ski maker, a very short but fat skiboard/ski-blade style ski that unlike the usual piste only micro skis, had a clever binding system, allowing you to free-heel in them for skinning up. The weak point on the ski was probably the binding, which was made from plastic, but it would fit on both a climbing boot or ski boot, and at 1390g and around £200 this was just what I was after.
I wrote a review of the Nanook at the time, which remains one of the most read pages on this site, which made me think there was a demand for such a ski - a Sami style ski - for people who neither wanted snowshoes nor full-blown Nordic nor ski mountaineering kit (both the only option for full mountain travel). Looking back I guess the Nanook came out of the ski blade trend, 100cm or shorter skis kicked off by the old Big Foot, there being a few models like it at the time. One of the biggest advantages with the Nanook was, being short but fat, it seemed to retain a good level of float when skinning or skiing - not like a full ski, but better than expected. More importantly, they could be turned on a penny, effortlessly compared to my old heavy Firn Extremes, with no need to really fully employ the edges or force the ski around via your heavy ski boots. Also, unlike straight Firn Extremes, these short skis were parabolic (meaning the skis just turned more naturally). With this kind of ski you could employ some unconventional tactics (best learnt on the piste), such as rocking back on the heels to change direction or just employing the crap skier foot lift, or a skating turn, wherein powder you just lift a ski, point in the right direction, then lift the other to follow. The short length also meant these skis were much easier to ski even in climbing boots, the length not just good for weight and portability but also manoeuvrability (this is one reason why tiny children can be seen playing and skiing around in the trees with more apparent ease than adults, their skis being tiny).
Still in the back of my mind, I had the idea that these mini skis were just very toy-esque play skis, things that remained stuck in the bowels of a ski maker’s website, just ‘other skis’. Then one day Tormod Granheim - the first guy to ski Everest - emailed me to say how he’d got a pair of Nanooks and how amazing they’d been, how he’d used them for skiing in forests while working with the Norwegian army, that the instant turn of such a short ski - but one with more float than a ski-blade - was a revelation. His comment made me think that perhaps skiing was a very conventional sport, with quite a rigid view on what works and what doesn’t, the ideal seen to belong all-mountain skis, that go fast and shred in the powder. But perhaps this focus undermines thinking differently about what actually works best all around, the most practical option.
Going For Extremes
The problem with the Nanook was it was really a fun ski, great for getting to day routes, ice routes etc, but not an expedition climbing ski (although they did fit in a haul bag, which was handy). I found an expedition ski in another Hagan - the Extreme (great write up here by Jon Griffith), more a dedicated full approach ski, longer (130cm), with no fitted binding (again I used the Silvretta 404s). It was a much more stable ski, and faster, with better floatation, but still turned very easily and was light (930 grams without bindings). You could also get pre-cut and set up skins for the Extremes (for expeditions to super cold places you need some good skin skills - and gaffer tape - or wood screws - to deal with skin problems) and at around £250 (often cheaper if you shop around), they were cheap enough to buy as a dedicated climbing ski, being a very solid high-quality ski, not just a toy like a snow blade.
And so I switched to the Extremes for a few years, using them both in the mountains (great for glacier travel), but also on the piste when conditions were poor.
One big bonus of having this kind of ski is that on bad weather days you could avoid paying for ski hire and lift passes by just skinning up, or hire some ski boots and ‘shred’. These skis were never going to do what a 190cm ski could, carve, float, or make you look like a pro (people would assume you were just wearing your kids skis!), but they were great fun, and in tight spots, such as skiing down steep narrows, they would often trump ‘daddy’ skis, skiing like the Nanooks.
And then, about three years ago I spotted a new ski in the Grand Montets cable car, another Hagan shorty, only this time instead of some climber carrying them, the guy looked like some German ski wad. They were called Off Limits and looked like a beefed-up Hagan Extreme, like Extremes for cool dudes, being fatter (like mini powder skis), more solid, and with more of a taper. The length was still 130cm, making them good pack skis, but they were a little heavier than the extremes, weighing 1250 grams. I got a pair cheap (€160), so I’d have two pairs of approach skis, as most people didn’t own something like this, fitting Silvretta 404s again (£30 on eBay), and dedicated skins (also at a good price!).
On the skin front, I’ve used kicker skins a great deal in the past, even on very steep ground (kicker skins are little skins that only cover the foot section of the ski), and would probably go for these for short skis, as they’re cheaper (half the price), less bulky (you can put them in your sleeping bag to dry if you’re camping), lighter (a third of the weight) and easier to bodge on if the glue stops sticking (for full-on expedition use on low angled terrain consider screwing them on!). While on the subject, I’d also make sure you have ski crampons, which can make skiing up frozen trails, glaciers, icy roads etc far easier and safer (again learn how to use them before you have to use them!).
So how to describe the Off Limits? Well if all-mountain skis are road bikes, and powder skis are mountain bikes, then the Off Limits is a BMX. To say that these skis are fun is an understatement. First off the fatter and more shapely profile of the ski gives it a giddy turning circle (Hagan says 9.5 metres, but you can spin turn them on the spot when skiing confined or tricky spots), meaning you can zip in and around stuff: trees, people, rocks, like - well like you’re on a BMX. The next thing is the skis are solid and fast, they carve like full-sized skis and they seem to perform just as well on the piste as standard skis, skiing steep blacks easily, the level of control meaning you can tackle anything when wearing ski boots (they don’t chatter and vibrate like you’d think, probably due to being quite stiff and short). In powder and off-piste again the Off Limits seem true to their name, working as well as a non-powder ski, and in choppy, lumpy or plain horrible snow the quick turn of the ski can help find a way down that will leave a full-length ski struggling. As with the Nanook, skiing in the trees is easy with these.
In the mountains the Off Limits climb well, admittedly not having the float of a full mountain ski, but close and a million times better than on foot.
To be honest, after using these skis for only a short while I gave up on my full-length skis, mainly as I felt that the Off Limits just gave me the illusion of being a better skier than I was! It was only later when I went back to some 190cm skis - just to see if I was still crap - that I realised just how amazing a 130cm ski can be, nearly wiping out several times when I found my skis would not go where they usually did.
What’s so amazing about the Off Limits, is that they only cost €250, with older models going even cheaper, meaning for under £300 you could have a full ski set up (skis, kicker skins, Silvretta 500 bindings and crampons).
All of the above covers a very specialised subset of ski mountaineering gear, and the ideal will probably always be to ski to and from your route with full-sized skis and ski boots, especially if carrying a pack, and just climbing in your ski boots (Sportiva, Scarpa and Dynafit all make boots you can ski and climb in). Matt Helliker told me how these days he’s given up skiing in mountain boots and just carries them in his pack, leaving his ski boots at the base, which makes sense now mountain boots are getting so light. This approach is good for day routes but less viable in the greater ranges. Here a ski that will work on all types of boot is best, and full-length ski wise it’s not necessary to get anything fancy or a dedicated short ski, with some using cheap ladies or kids skis (again eBay is a great source of skis).
Binding wise the pin-style binding is by far the best, but these will only work with ski boots (maybe one day we’ll get a climbing boot that will work with the system), while more traditional bindings like the Fritschi Eagle or Diamir Scout will work at a pinch, working with both mountain and ski boots, I think the Silvretta bindings remain the best bet (404 or 500). Colin Haley uses a pair of 157cm Sportiva Cyborgs with Silvretta 500 bindings, finding they’re a good weight and short enough to turn when wearing Spantiks, G2s or G3s.
Another option is to use a Nordic mountain ski, which is lighter than an alpine ski, with the Asness Amundsen or Gamme being perhaps the best models on the market (Asness have the best method of attaching short kicker skins), but again longer skis cannot be carried up routes, and are just for approaches. Asness also make a Nato military ski that often appears on eBay very cheaply, and Hagan offers the X-Trace, which sounds perfect for getting around on the flat.
On the unconventional binding front, beyond the Silvrettas, there are a few free-heel bindings that will take any boot, even boots without a toe and heel welt (wellies, trainers, crocs!), handy if you’re using soft bunny style boots. The best known of these is the Ice Trek Flexi binding, a very simple design that’s pretty much indestructible (it’s used by the US military), having a simple strap system attached to a polycarbonate sheet. The other model that will take any boot is the Hagan X-Trace binding, like the Ice Trek, but with snowboard style strap system on a flexible base. This kind of free-heel binding has carried many to both the North and South poles, and so is worth considering, plus it’s cheap and simple (cheap enough to carry as a spare binding on icecap crossings).
This was meant to be a review of the Hagan Off Limits but went down its own path a little, which is good as there’s very little good info on the web on this subject - which although niche, is very important to those in need of it.
As for the Off Limits, well Hagan has now dropped the Extremes, and this is its heavier offspring, a ski that offers a great deal to both the climber and the climber/skier. Yes, they’re unconventional, but also a little bit revolutionary, far from just overgrown snow blades. Most of all this is maybe the best value for money ski you’ll find out there - only in a niche way - like the BMX.
So no, they’re not bloody snowshoes!