While often depicted as a pleasurable activity, in truth skinning is nothing less than a blood sport with the goal being to lay down a track that would make Mr. Manly proud. There is nothing finer in life than enjoying a chilled tin of congealed octopus while listening to the moans and groans floating uphill from fellow human beings as they struggle on a slick 45° track. This, my friend, is living and I’m proud to say that I’m one of those jerks that revel in setting those calf burning up-tracks.
In all fairness, steep skinning isn’t just all attitude. There are tricks, techniques and technology that can help you achieve your full potential as a despised trailbreaker from hell.Mental
Like tacking a sailboat into a headwind, steep skinning requires a fine balance between pointing too high versus falling off too much. The key to an aggressive line is step-by-step concentration. Focus on staying just below the grip coefficient of your skins. In many ways, it’s akin to friction climbing on rock where you have to learn to trust your feet and develop a feel for what will stick. The idea is to find an angle that you can keep moving at, yet keep taking as big a bite of vertical as possible with each step. When skinning around rolling hills, ridges and trees, work the terrain for any sort of little “lifts” you can get — they all add up in the end. And, perhaps most importantly, start out slow and establish a pace you can keep up for hours. Being able to breath through your nose is a good indicator of a sustainable pace.
Skinning is an art form that requires practice and rewards those with good technique. One of the most important concepts is to try to keep your back straight and weight your heels. This is easier said than done and requires heel lifters to be most efficient. Another important technique is to try and keep your skis in full contact with the snow, which can be assisted by loosening your boots and keeping your ankles flexible. In tricky snow conditions, try weighting your uphill, outside edge to help keep the track from collapsing while you are traversing. And last but not least, remember the person breaking the trail will often have better traction than people trying to follow it.
Technology is your friend when it comes to steep skinning. First and foremost, heel lifters are a must – the taller the better. Another, often overlooked, trick is to shorten your poles down so you can get over the top of them and push, versus hanging from them. This will also help to keep your hands warm. Needless to say, wall-to-wall skins are key, as are ski crampons if you do lots of firm ridges. On those long traverses, shortening your uphill pole and lengthening your downhill pole will help keep your hands level and thus improve your balance.
Aside from just being more fun and challenging, there are lots of pragmatic reasons to skin as steeply as possible. Not only do you get there faster (yes, you do), but you are able to stick to ridgelines, which is safer, you are able to conserve more powder by not cutting huge zigzags across the slope and if people can’t follow your track, then you have lots more terrain all to yourself.
This is a reprint of an article first published in Couloir XIII-4, Winter 2001