For a long time, one of the foundations of my identity as an athlete has been going FAST AND LIGHT in the mountains. That is still the case – moving unencumbered through terrain is an amazing feeling. More recently however, my mindset has shifted, particularly with skiing. Fast and light can certainly be an exciting way to move through the mountains but I’ve come to two realizations.
1) Going as light as possible obviously isn’t particularly safe. You can watch any POV footage of skimo race folks skiing steeps and it looks sketchy! Skis are flopping and chattering, and the skier is rarely really in control. Ultralight race gear cuts into your safety margin. Sure, there’s lots of justifications to do it (that I’ve made) but I’ve realized that I don’t want to be riding that edge ALL the time:
I’ll take risks when necessary, not needlessly.
2) There absolutely can be performance losses when going as light as possible. Sometimes (often?) the weight savings don’t actually offset the performance losses! Especially when your partners are on significantly heavier equipment (or are less fit) and your weight shaving is for no reason!
I’m not advocating for switching to the heaviest possible equipment either however. Often we think of things as being fairly polarized – we think we have to choose either super light carbon race or it’s heavy duty four buckle slogging. Not too long ago, with the gear available at the time, this may actually have been the case. Now however, gear has advanced incredibly far. We have very light equipment that skis surprisingly well and equipment that skis even better while still surprisingly light. Before, you had one or the other but now we have a spectrum to choose from! Instead of polarization, let’s talk optimization!
This leads me to my new mantra: Fast and Light but Fun and Functional! Choose the right tool for the job that will ensure the most amount of fun – combining both efficiency and performance at the ratio that’s most appropriate for the objective! For this reason, on any given day in 2023, I’m generally skiing a moderately to considerably heavier setup than what I used in 2015.
Overall, this attitude towards the mountains has been pretty successful. What I consider some of my greatest accomplishments on skis have all been in this style. It’s certainly hard to shake the urge to go as fast and light as possible but the payoff is almost always more fun while skiing and that’s my highest priority!
Tools for the job.
For the second half of this article, I’ll swerve into a pseudo gear-review. A few bits of equipment lend themselves to this mindset. First up is bindings. PLUM bindings are extremely light and durable. This season I’ve been using the Oazo for steep skiing and the Pika for powder skiing & charging. Either option is extremely light for its performance. A light binding means it’s reasonable to choose a heavier boot or ski!
Modern touring boots have gotten much lighter and stiffer overall. It’s easy to find extremely light racing boots, but boots like the Scarpa F1LT are still very light and much more capable for driving skis in the 90-100mm range while boots like the Dynafit Radical Pro are rad for charging 100-120mm skis and still maintaining a reasonable weight with an incredible range of motion, making touring very tolerable! All of these boots climb well and are compatible with crampons and boot pack plates.
Finally, there are race skis that conform to the 160cm, 65mm ISMF standard at the lightest possible weight but now we see really rad skis built with the same construction techniques and materials at the slightly wider and stiffer 172cm, 80mm. These are just a bit heavier but provide much more float when the skin track isn’t well prepared. I’m using a pair of Ski TRAB XXXX as my “mountain race” ski – perfect for doing something like the Spearhead Traverse as fast as possible. Ski manufacturers have also taken traditional construction skis and made them much lighter. I’m often using the Majesty Superwolf (~90mm underfoot) or the Supernova (~105mm underfoot) for my general touring days. These Majesty skis charge hard but keep the weight low, meaning I’m not totally wiped out doing a massive ski mountaineering day while still being able to feel stable and in control.
I’ll use the Joffre Couloir on the Duffey Lake Road as an example. It’s a BIG ski line, accessed from the south side by climbing the Aussie Couloir, a 2000+ meter day. There’s a rappel to enter and then the choke is ~200cm wide before opening on the the apron, over a bergshrund and down the lower glacier. A skimo race setup sure makes sense for parts. It’s light to carry up to the summit (though maybe a little frustrating if breaking trail). It’s easy to pack away for the rappel and certainly nice for skiing through the choke. But overall, it’s going to be very slow, jump turning down the couloir proper. Hucking over the shrund is going to be a little scary, trying not to pick up too much speed, and the lower glacier will need to be skied in pretty careful control!
The opposite, polarized choice is, for example, a long pair of 4Front Hoji skis, Shift bindings, and Technica 4-Buckle boots. These are going to be a slog for the climb and legs are going to be considerably more tired dropping in (a legitimate safety concern). Turning through the choke might require slowing down a bit to avoid hitting the walls or just straight lining it! The couloir, bergshrund, and lower glacier however are going to be awesome to open it up and rip it in just a few turns!
Finally, the optimized setup: a pair of Majesty SuperNova skis, PLUM bindings, and Radical Pro boots will be halfway between the weights of the other two setups: fairly comfortable for climbing up (especially if you’re breaking trail) while still able to charge hard on the lower mountain – my kind of compromise!
One of my major supporters is SkiUphill. If you’re thinking about picking up the latest featherweight OR fun and functional gear, give them a look!