Friday, 30 September 2016

Storming into Spring

I figure I better get in a post in September...despite the at times tempestuous weather, it's been a good month for BC skiing.

Feathertop in all its splendor; Mark taking it in.

Not sure exactly how many trips I've done, but I've managed a couple of Bogong trips and a Feathertop trip since my last entry.

On Feathertop I had a nostalgic moment - it was only about this time last year that I was on the same mountain, with largely the same gear. I remember how intimidated I felt in the terrain of Avalanche gully and surrounds. I broke the spoiler on my boot, retreated off some of the lines I tried to ski, and generally felt put in my place as a first year BC skier.

This time was different. I've still got some technical aspects of my skiing to work on, but I managed some challenging and steep descents. including off the summit of Feathertop and a couple of good runs down Avalanche gully and surrounds.

Tracks off the summit

Bottom of Avalanche gully - kicked off some sluff

I've managed to get down some reasonably serious terrain - Audax area on Bogong, and Avalanche gully on Feathertop. The latter was notable for having significant wet snow slides...manageable sluff for the most part, but if it built up it certainly had the potential to take you over a cliff band or two.

Better to let the pics tell the story...

A quick break after booting up Audax on Bogong

View from the bottom of Audax

The less snow-encrusted side of Feathertop

Avalanche Gully - skied the line to viewers left

View from the summit of Feathertop, looking south(ish)

Great line, wet snow slides in lower part of shot

A rare skin up - lots of booting up stuff at Feathertop

The luxurious and spacious Nammatj 2 GT on Feathertop

Looking down into Avalanche gully from skier's right

So much amazing terrain to ski (Mark in shot)

I reflected on how far I've come in a year, and can say I'm largely happy with how my skill set has developed. I assessed conditions, skied safely despite objective hazards, had the fitness to keep going, whilst having an awesome time throughout.

Another thing which happened was that I skied for the first time with someone else (Mark from Tahoe in the US). He was up on Feathertop, and we skied together for a day or so after everyone else bailed.

I've skied solo because it felt right, and I don't know many other people out there who do this, much less in the style and with the gear that I use. So I took the opportunity to see what it was like.

Clearly not me...Mark styling it down a Feathertop gully

Mark was awesome - very experienced, a great skier and able to keep up despite having frame bindings and heavier gear.

Overall though, I would say that I still prefer the solo way of doing things. That doesn't mean that I don't appreciate people being around; I don't mind saying hello or having a chat, but there seems to be a big part of me that thrives on and enjoys the freedom of solitary ski mountaineering.

Whether it be route selection, hazard appraisal or pace, I just prefer to do it my own way. That doesn't mean that I think that I know best - it just means that I am much more at peace with having my own input into decisions, rather than having to worry and think about someone else.

It's also a much more personal experience when it is just you and the mountain. Here's a quote courtesy of Katō Buntarō (Japanese alpinist):

"If mountaineering is about gaining knowledge and hence solace from nature, then surely the most knowledge and the highest degree of solace is gained from solo mountaineering. If you have a partner with you, you sometimes forget to look at the mountains. But, when you climb alone, no stick or stone can fail to captivate your heart."


Also, skiing with someone else means that someone is there to see you when you fall!

So for now, I think that I'll stick with the solo gig, but perhaps chat more and hang out a bit more around the camp areas.

Rare photo of Team Weasel in action

Fast and light - what's the hype?

I've gone in a bit of a circle when it comes to gear. When I first started skiing, I was inspired by stories of skiers using super-lightweight gear, and naturally I gave that a go. My skiing ability lagged a fair way behind my ambitions, so I compensated by going to heavier boots (Dynafit Vulcans), and they certainly gave me the ability to ski a bit better. Or more accurately, I could leverage more off the front and back cuffs...

Getting on light gear isn't about competing with others. It's all about getting the most out of your time in the mountains. This last trip, I was a setup very similar to the one I used that whole year ago - a race boot, a race binding and a light, thin ski.

La Sportiva Syborg boot , ATK/Kreuzspitze binding and Blizzard Zero G 85 ski

The above weighs 4.4kg...not for one foot, but for the entire setup. Get some!

Things felt light and easy, whether it be skinning, booting up a couloir or scrambling up a rocky face. It was a delight to be agile and quick in the mountains. Little things like the simplicity of a race heel, or the stowage system on the Dynafit race backpacks, make things so much more efficient, which equates to more skiing, and more happiness.

There will always be people out there who will shake their heads and grumble into their designer ski jacket - what about the compromises on the way down?

The harsh truth is that it's only a compromise if you have been relying on your gear to help you get by. The norm for most people's skiing is for resort-style bindings; forward pressure, adjustable DIN, that reassuring thwack of the heel being held in place. What if all that could be replaced by just becoming a better, more responsive and balanced skier? What if that gear that you think you need is actually holding you back?

Besides that, there is this point; I read somewhere recently that an additional 100g per foot increases VO2 usage by 1%. That adds up pretty quickly when it comes to ski touring gear.

Contrast my setup above with something like this: Volkl BMT 94 skis (2940g for the pair), Salomon Mtn Lab boots (3100g) and Marker Kingpin Bindings (1536g). Total weight = 7576g (or 7.6kg). I choose these items as representative of the 'beefy' or 'freeride' side of ski touring.

That's a 3.2kg difference between setups. Which might not sound too outrageous. What is though is the idea that I'd be working 32% harder with that gear on my feet. That results in about a third less skiing, a third less distance traveled...essentially, 32% of my day skiing is gone, solely due to the equipment I choose.

Which returns me to my point - I want to ski on the absolute minimal gear I need to have a good time. In terms of technique, I've got much to work on - I still don't get forward enough, my uphill ski is still doing too much of a wedge-like position, and I'm still playing with my ramp angle.

Uphill ski still not parallel...yet

I'm ok with that - in fact, that this isn't easily and quickly mastered makes me love this activity all the more.

The whole fast and light thing does come down to what you truly value - and for me, I accept a slightly greater degree of difficulty on the way down in exchange for more time skiing, more terrain covered and more distant objectives accomplished. It's not a compromise in any way for me, and using any other gear would be letting myself down.

Tasty looking chutes on northern aspects of Bogong - good luck getting there with a sick freeride setup!

And now for something completely different...

The Inaugural Team Weasel Gear Awards

For gear that gets my full attention

After a year of skimo shenanigans, I thought I'd give out some awards to pieces of gear that have been of note along the way, within the following categories:
  • Most Valuable Contributors - gear that has been outstanding and influential in having a great time in the mountains. Basically, stuff that I would wholeheartedly endorse and buy again.
  • Unsung Heroes - less noticed and less obvious, but these items have made life significantly easier by increasing efficiency or by doing a tough job so well that you almost forget that they are even there.
  • New Players with Bright Futures - these are bits of kit that I haven't had quite enough time on to fully appreciate, but their utility is already very apparent and I am definitely excited to make greater use of these thangs.
  • Underwhelming, Disappointing or Superfluous - Stuff that was hyped or promised much, but failed to deliver (for me, at least).
Here we go...

Most Valuable Contributors

TLT6 Performance (Black model)

This was the final evolution of perhaps the best all-round ski mountaineering boot in human history. The TLT6 hit the mark for performance on the way up, support and stiffness on descent, for hiking, climbing or just kicking arse in the mountains. An outstanding and highly recommended ski boot, which is on discount thanks to being last season's model.

Race Bindings

Some have fancy features (ATK Raider 12 2.0), others are minimalist (Dynafit Expedition), but they all have the same goal - attach a fucker to a ski with minimum weight and fuss. They are durable, simple and are perfect for skimo applications, and weigh at least a quarter less than standard touring bindings.

A personal favorite combo - ATK 12 toe and SCTT heel

CAMP Skimo Gear

These guys have made some outstanding skimo accessories, including their Corsa ice axe and Nanotech crampons, which are both about half the weight of more typical offerings. Add in a light avalanche probe, gloves and backpack, and you have the basics of a great BC system on your back. Performs when needed, weighs fuck all when it's not.

Unsung Heroes

Binding Freedom Inserts

All my skis are insert fitted, and the best thing that I can say about them is that you never notice them whilst skiing. They are strong, durable and never come loose - until you want to swap a binding out, or just transport your skis without bindings attached. As a bonus, they end up being a stronger mount than standard screws. Every ski I own is insert-fitted, and that will continue on into the future.

Arcteryx Outer Shells

I've had my jacket (Alpha LT) and pants (Alpha SV with bib) for a few years now, and both these items have stood up to hard use whilst retaining their flawless performance. They give me the confidence to go out into the mountains, knowing that whatever conditions I encounter, my outer shell will help me cope with the elements. Worth the significant price tag.

Dynafit Race Backpacks

Touring and ski mountaineering with a 40 or 50 liter pack used to be the norm for me. Then I started using race backpacks like the Dynafit Broad Peak 28. They have just enough room to fit everything you need for a day out in the mountains, but more importantly, packs like this have some amazingly user-friendly features. Ski carriage is fast and efficient, the pack sits low and close to the body, and there is excellent access to your safety equipment...all for less than a kilo.

Black Diamond Carbon Whippets

In some ways these break the trend of lightweight gear - a Whippet weighs 500g, which is quite a bit for a ski pole. The benefits are worth it. Not only is the Whippet a super reliable and durable pole, but it also gives you the chance to arrest a sliding fall whilst skiing or booting up steep terrain. And they are also useful in scaring people if you go resort skiing.


Crazy Idea Century Pants

A good pair of touring pants goes a long way to making days in the mountains comfortable. These pants (from an Italian company that make a lot of skimo race attire) are awesome - a great combination of warmth, mobility, durability and comfort. They also have an excellent zippered lower leg section that function like defacto gaiters.



New Players with Bright Futures

Billy Goat Ascent Plates

Few things are as energy-sapping as climbing a steep snowy slope, where every step you kick in sinks even further as you weight it. Ascent plates offer more flotation, resulting in less energy wasted wallowing in fluffy snow. The downside is that you are adding about 600g to each boot on the way up (plate plus crampon). I'm thinking that they are probably more suited to longer, single ski line approaches. If I'm doing laps, I might just be better off sucking it up and booting the first lap. More to follow.

Salomon Mtn Explore 95 Ski

I've skied these guys only a couple of times, but have been very impressed so far. Nice flex pattern, good width and not too heavy (2800g for the pair). These skis are most suited to Australian conditions after some recent snow fall, or spring conditions in snowier climates. I say that as their dimensions and rockered tip are more soft snow than harder snow orientated; however, I've seen no lack of firm snow performance so far. Looking forward to a couple more trips with these guys in our spring.

La Sportiva Syborg Boot

This is probably the piece of gear that I am most excited about at the moment. These have comparable forward flex to the TLT6, but weigh in at 750g lighter (for the pair). The range of movement whilst skinning and climbing is outstanding, and transitioning is extremely fast with the single throw switch at the top of the boot. Downhill performance will need more time to be properly evaluated, but so far that has been more than satisfactory. Looking forward to getting on these for the rest of this spring - including finding out if they can drive the wider skis in my quiver (in preparedness for Japan early next year).

Underwhelming, Disappointing or Superfluous

Skis with Rockered Tails

I find rockered tails to be a hazard in skiing the lines I'm interested in - skis with tails like this give no support if you get put in the backseat, or if you want to impart more force to the tail end of the ski. They actually help your skis shoot out from under you. Add in their dubious firm snow performance, and you have a ski shape that is the last thing you need for a versatile touring and ski mountaineering ski. Flat pintails are the way forward - the profile of the ski below is one to avoid.

'Performance' AT Boots

My Salomon Mtn Lab boots have spent most of this season sitting on the shelf. If you can get by in a TLT6, it's hard to justify adding another 700g for these boots. There is a massive market segment in attracting resort skiers over to BC gear, but the companies need to do it right - make it look like resort gear, minimise the 'compromise' on the way down whilst making it lighter than resort gear.  Gear like this is suited to people who use mechanical help to get to their lines with a bit of touring tacked on. For typical touring or ski mountaineering, these boots are heavy, unnecessary overkill.

Ski Brakes for Touring Bindings

These things have lulled me into a false sense of security - they work so well most of the time, and they make things very simple and efficient. However, there is the danger of losing a ski, either due to brakes failing to deploy (thanks to icing), or even if the brakes deploy, your ski can go the journey if the snow is steep and firm. And that can be one long arse journey...I've done it at resorts once or twice when I fucked up, and doing it on a real mountain like Bogong or overseas would be a whole new level of bad day. Leashes all the way from now on.

That's it for now - I'll do something on nutrition when the ski season is over. I'll be getting up to Bogong and Feathertop hopefully a few more times before it all melts away.

And it's already October by the time I posted this...

Team Weasel

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