Have you ever wanted to climb mountains? If not, I don’t blame you, it’s a lot of effort. But it’s also a lot of fun. If the terrain allows, skiing down after a climb feels great, and is far more efficient than being on foot. Although, you’ll be carrying more equipment, so beware that you’ll be slower on the way up!
Ski mountaineering is becoming increasingly popular, and for good reason. More and more people are getting out in the mountains, equipment is advancing, and accessibility is improving, along with education.
Mountaineering is incredible, the views are insane – the alpenglow at dawn and dusk is often indescribable. Sometimes you feel like you’re the only people in the world. A beautiful silence or hiss of the wind. You can climb any line up any peak and pick any line to ski, with fresh tracks guaranteed. Mountains make us feel insignificant amongst their magnificence. But they’re not to be underestimated. I know firsthand how they can humble humans, all too often causing injury or death.
To safely enter and climb mountains, you must do the appropriate courses and/ or be guided until confident and educated. Glacier travel is dangerous to the untrained eye. As for avalanches, if you don’t know already, they are the biggest cause of death off-piste, with over 150 deaths per year, 90 percent of which are human-triggered.
It’s also essential to have the knowledge, skills and experience for backcountry ski travel. There are so many variables that affect the snowpack conditions such as sun, wind, rain, aspect, angle, elevation, storm cycles, terrain, and the list goes on. Once you cross under the rope there’s no ski patrol to determine safety or perform avalanche bombing for you. You must have a beacon, shovel and probe and know how to use them. Because ultimately, knowing how to perform a burial rescue is crucial to saving your friends from suffocating to death.
It’s not uncommon for mountaineers to ditch these items to save weight, particularly in Summer when heavy snow events are less frequent – and most slopes are icy at best. I do not condone or condemn this decision for I am guilty of it. Most avalanches occur on slopes with angles between thirty and forty-five degrees and for climbers forty-five-degree slopes aren’t very exciting, but we certainly travel through these zones on each peak. As for skiers, this is the exact terrain you will skin up and want to make turns down.
Male climbers under the age of twenty-five are the higher percentile of deaths and to my frustration; I’m often reminded of this sad truth by older people I meet in alpine huts. There’s an accepted risk that we climbers, may fall or get caught in an avalanche with no expectations that our partners will dig us out. That’s where making smart decisions on travel and techniques used to match the conditions and terrain come into play, along with a hint of luck.
Even the most highly trained and accomplished climbers and skiers have come undone. There is definitely an element of luck. No great alpinist will disagree with that. You can enjoy the many experiences that snow, rock and ice can provide, as long as you don’t push the fine line too far. Don’t go out in bad weather, if the forecast does not support your objectives, your trip can wait, the mountain will still be there.
People get cabin fever and enter the hills with bad forecasts, or false weather windows. Sometimes, it may be bluebird and look perfect, but if you are in the snow settlement period; which is typically twenty-four hours after a storm event, then you are actually far more likely to get caught in an avalanche. Sadly, this is not an uncommon cause of tragedy. Summit fever is another to be conscious of; knowing when to turn around even if the objective is almost complete can be the difference between your last experience and creating many more memories. On my last trip to New Zealand, I didn’t even put crampons on and ended up flying home two weeks early due to the terrible forecast.
The forecast and conditions were so bad that there were four deaths within a matter of weeks. Two German mountain guides were buried in an avalanche and another accomplished Kiwi climber was tragically swept off his feet over a terrain trap. An Australian passed away a couple of weeks later, again from another avalanche. This shows that even the most highly trained people aren’t invincible. Don’t try to find ‘windows’ in forecasts that aren’t there. There are already so many objective (uncontrollable) dangers in the mountains, be safe and reduce the subjective dangers (factors in your control).
Australia is the hot, dry and flat continent with barely any snow, really only has one decent mountain range, it’s just across the Tasman Sea. The Southern Alps are an incredible destination for ski touring, and ski-mountaineering and they provide a great training ground for mountaineering. The mountains are at low altitude (highest peak at 3724m) but offer elevation gain comparable to many world-class ranges.
Once you’re educated there’s so much ‘fun’ to be had. Reputable companies working in the Southern Alps include Alpine Recreation, Aspiring Guides, Alpine Guides and Adventure Consultants. There are also many private guides and instructors that will provide more personal, worthwhile experiences and education for you.
Be safe, be smart and be fit. See you in the hills.