On a long drive home from the mountains in 1999, I got to thinking
about what makes an adventurous ski mountaineering trip. My thoughts were
prompted by what I perceived as over-emphasis in the ski media on steep
skiing (also called extreme skiing). I wrote the following essay (since
updated) and posted it on the USENET newsgroup,
on January 8, 1999. It outlines my view that ski mountaineering is a
sport with two equally important dimensions, steep and far.
Ski mountaineering is an activity defined by two dimensions: steep and far. These days steep skiing gets most of the press because it is dramatic. But "far skiing," covering significant distance across the countryside on skis, is an equally valid dimension of the sport that may in fact be more popular. Thinking about these two aspects separately and then putting them back together may help us think more clearly about the sport.
The optimal tools for a steep descent are different from those for a cross country trip. For steep skiing, skis are edging tools optimized for the descent. For far skiing, skis are gliding tools optimized for climbing and traversing. So a steep skier may choose heavy skis, heavy and stiff boots, and locked heels while a far skier may choose light skis, light and flexible boots, and free heels.
For really extreme descents, the best tools may not be skis at all, but instead a snowboard with ice axes in hand. In a few years we may regard extremely steep skiing as a curiosity, after deciding that snowboarding works better for that purpose. Yet a snowboard suitable for the steeps is a poor choice for long-distance travel.
In the middle ground where most ski mountaineers play, we choose tools that are a compromise. A single pair of skis can do most jobs fairly well. The tougher compromise is choosing the right boots. We each make a personal decision according to our taste in steep versus far and our ability to compensate for the shortcomings of our gear through skill.
Barring avalanches, the risk of steep skiing is simple: you may fall. The risks of far skiing take many forms but they all boil down to one thing: exhaustion. You may exhaust your energy, your supplies, your time or your good weather before reaching your goal. It's important to note that far skiing doesn't need to involve long distances or extended times. "Far" is relative to the resources you have available. An ambitious one-day trip with a light pack can be as adventurous as a one-month expedition.
The much-abused word "extreme" has traditionally been applied to steep skiing. But there's no reason it couldn't be applied to far skiing as well. Extreme means that you have minimal backup and the consequences of failure are severe.
In steep skiing, ropes and belays are aids. In far skiing, support and resupply are aids. That may include huts, caches or air drops. The users of aids argue that they reduce the risks and make the skiing more enjoyable. Critics argue that they diminish the commitment and the level of accomplishment. As long as using aids doesn't affect anyone else, average skiers will do whatever makes their trips more fun and elite skiers will argue about them in order to one-up each other.
Steep skiers speak of the aesthetics of a dramatic line and the challenge of solving technical problems. Far skiers speak of a feeling of flow across the landscape and a heightened appreciation of the mountain environment. Skeptics complain that extremely steep skiing is applying skis where they don't make sense--like wearing roller skates on El Capitan. Critics of extremely far skiing view it as glorified slogging and dangerously like work.
An outing that achieves a balance between steep and far can provide both kinds of rewards. But striking such a balance requires compromises. One is unlikely to tackle the extremely steep or extremely far on a single trip, because the tools required for these two extremes are different. Yet for some skiers, trips that require such compromises, that are "kinda steep" and "pretty far," are the most rewarding of all.
Thinking steep and far may help us predict the sort of exploits that will amaze us in the future. Steep skiing enchainments, ski traverses over Himalayan summits, light and fast crossings of major ranges are all part of a logical progression.
For the average ski mountaineer, thinking steep and far may help clarify your taste in adventure or highlight a dimension that you've overlooked before. It may help you see old trips in a new light or consider new possibilities. If you're like me, you probably do just a few trips a year that you consider adventurous. Thinking steep and far may kindle a whole new set of daydreams.