I was out ski touring yesterday in a very popular area, one that I pretty much learned to ski in. I was musing about changes in skiing in the last 20 years.
When I first visited this area, we would be traveling in ski tracks from the parking lot – the trip up was just parallel tracks, and the trip down was often terrifying for a new skier in that the tracks were narrow, and when conditions were bad (for a new skier bad is most of the time) it was a huge 20 minute snowplough down the old road. We called this track the “luge”. It was almost impossible to make a turn.
We never saw a snowshoer in those days, except once when I saw the bravest and most cutting edge snowboarders I ever met – back when snowboarding was still being outlawed, these two snowshoed into the Elfin Lakes hut carrying their boards on tiny backpacks. I often wonder what became of them.
Cut to yesterday; it’s very common to see snowshoers in this area, and the track to the Red Heather area is wide and easy to ski out on; it’s easy to turn and stop. I thought this was because I am a much better skier now, but when I take beginners to this area I used to warn them about the “luge”, and I find that the warning is not warranted any more.
The other major change from way back then is that skis are roughly twice the width now. Could this account for the wider, easier to ski track out from Red Heather? Just like snowboards clear the powder from ski runs (much to the chagrin of skiers), perhaps the wider, heavier and easier to turn planks are responsible for the groomed quality of the old trail.
“If I’m looking at one do-it-all ski, then I’m looking for something that’s 85 to 90mm under foot… From guiding I’m fairly confident that going lighter and skinnier (85 to 90mm skis) than the current ‘fatter is better’ mentality is significantly more efficient. Maybe that doesn’t matter on a day trip, but when I’m out with clients who are stacking up 6 hard days in a row, efficiency matters to them by Day 3. Likewise when I’m guiding for 20 straight days, the skis that average things out the best and accomplish the most work for the least effort become really important to me.”
— interview with Martin Volken
Now I have a history of longish ski traverses in my background, where 10 days is longish (I know this is relative; compared to most weekend routes, it’s long, but compared to massive 60 day routes it’s tiny). I’ve been saying this about skis for many many years. In backcountry skiing you spend 90% of your time going uphill, and unless you’re in a very popular area, you’re breaking trail doing it. Not all of us are ski guides, who break trail for their clients all the time, but all of us could benefit from their advice.
I’ve been looking at the trend in backcountry skis with much dismay as they get fatter and heavier. The only good thing is that boot and binding offerings have been getting lighter, for AT Gear at least. I think the width trend has been following the downhill trend; if you don’t have to walk uphill, a heavy ski can be a very good thing, The other factor is that there are less fully self propelled skiers now – many of then are heli-skiing, getting heli-drops, cat skiing, or snowmobile assisted skiing; most are just “slackcountry” skiing. Under these circumstances you may not even need touring boots and bindings.
In the words of guide Volken, there may only be a few days a year where those fat skis are worth it. And as I mention in my post on snowshoe accidents (reference the sidehill image), in firm or icy conditions the large platform underfoot decreases your ability to edge properly. This is why alpine racers still use a narrower ski.
I have to say all I can do here is echo the guide’s opinions, most of which I believe are common sense. You would do well to read the interview yourself.
Meanwhile, I’m using my Movement Red Apple 74’s for the next few tours.