By Bob Lee
From a previously published article that I wrote; all pictures by me unless noted.
Me in my happy place.
I’ll take turns pretty much any way that I can get them, but skinning up a hill holds a special place in my heart – skiing down afterwards just seems better somehow. That might be because skinning can take me to a secluded, out-of-the-way place, or because it can be more contemplative and serene than the busy resort scene, or maybe I just get a little endorphin buzz from having some good exercise outdoors in the mountains during the winter.
I have to confess something here – I used to hate skinning. Hate might be too mild a word to describe my feelings – I loathed it and feared it. I’d always loved backcountry skiing, but skinning seemed like torture and if a slope was slightly steep and the snow was firm enough I was generally happier carrying my skis and hiking uphill on foot. I didn’t care if it was slower.
That all changed when I got some mentoring from an accomplished ski mountaineer who taught me about graceful and efficient skinning. These days, while I may not totally love the climb, the tips I got and the things I learned have made it a lot easier to climb steeper slopes…and sometimes it’s even enjoyable. It turns out that skinning is a skill – it isn’t just walking on your skis. To go comfortably up steeper slopes you have to develop a feel for it and know a few tricks. The tricks break down into two categories: equipment and technique.
In the Tetons - the Middle dead ahead
On the equipment side, I like skins that have both a tip and tail attachment. A tail attachment isn’t strictly necessary – the glue will keep the skins well attached if you’re careful and lucky – but it can serve as insurance if you have a glue failure from age or contamination with snow or spruce needles or dog hair.
I also like free-pivot bindings for skinning. All modern Alpine Touring (AT) bindings pivot freely at the toe when the heel is released for skinning, but not all telemark bindings have this feature. I’ve skinned for many years and many miles with conventional tele bindings, but once I tried the newer ones that allow you to raise your heel without resistance on the uptrack I became a convert. The free swing makes it much easier to move your skis forward. If you tele, consider giving them a try.
You’ll want heel lifts. Again, these are built into just about all modern AT bindings, but they’re sometimes sold as “optional” equipment for tele bindings. Heel lifts serve two functions – they provide relief for your calves and Achilles tendons on the uphill and they allow you to pressure the back of the ski while climbing (more on that in a bit).
Keep your boots loose, especially the top buckles, so that you aren’t fighting them while going up. However, I should mention that keeping the lower buckles more or less tight can help prevent blisters (especially on your heel) by keeping your foot from moving around. I put my boots into the “walk” mode so that I can have a freer stride.
When going uphill, I like to shorten my adjustable ski poles down quite a bit. This helps keep my hands warm because the blood isn’t draining from raised arms, and it allows me to push instead of pull with my arms. I think we can all agree that push-ups are easier than pull-ups – a little, anyway.
Headed for Sin Nombre in the Sangre de Cristos
Don’t be overdressed at the start – you should feel a little bit cold at the trailhead. You’re going to warm up quickly when you get moving and if you’re overdressed you’ll get hot and have to stop and take clothes off which leads to you getting cold again, especially since you probably got wet from sweating. And stopping to deal with all this will keep you from developing a steady and efficient pace.
Now for some technique tips. Once you’re headed up the hill, a steady pace is key. It takes a while to hit your stride, but if you go slow and steady you’ll go much farther and ultimately faster than if you’re huffing and puffing like you’re in a race. If I can hit a mellow groove, it takes me to “my happy place.” Not stopping to fiddle with your clothing is crucial to maintaining a steady pace, like I mentioned above.
Concentrate on keeping as much contact as possible between your skins and the snow. If your weight is on your edges, you’re more likely to experience some slipping. .
Push through your heels. This will keep pressure on the back part of your skis, which really, really helps traction, so try to lean back a bit. To help with that, stand up straight and keep your shoulders back. Leaning forward at the waist puts your weight forward and on the tips, which leads to slipping. If you find you are slipping, shift your weight back. This seems very unintuitive, but it works.
To save energy, slide your skis forward rather than lifting them. If you are right on the edge of traction, giving a micro little “push” down will help set the skins. Stomping doesn’t really work – the little hairs in the skin plush need to be “set” but they can only hold so much. Pick a track that takes advantage of little areas of “lift” like knolls or subtle ribs in the terrain.
Think about your stride and look at the track you leave – it should be straight and parallel. If your boots/ski/bindings are out of alignment, you’ll almost be herringboning instead of gliding. Skinning is the art of the micro. There may not be that big a difference between 50 steps of good form and 50 steps of bad form, but after a few miles there is a huge difference.
The last tip for you is to learn the uphill kick turn, where you do a 180 turn by kicking your uphill ski out and around to point the other way, then bring the downhill ski around and it becomes the new uphill ski as you motor on up the slope. Uphill kick turns are more efficient than downhill kick turns – maybe trickier to learn, but worth it.
And a last word: Sometimes it might get a little weird. Just press on:
This made sense at the time