American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Wilderness Skiing

  • Book Reviews
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  • Publication Year: 1973

Wilderness Skiing, by Lito Tejada-Flores and Allen Steck. San Francisco and New York: Sierra Club, 1972, 310 pages, 11 photographs, numerous drawings, $6.95

Wilderness Skiing, hot off the presses of the Sierra Club’s publishing empire, is a timely book, appearing in the midst of the recent fad for ski touring. It replaces the badly outdated Manual of Ski Mountaineering, and is better organized, more readable and complete than the old Manual. Especially needed is the updated survey of equipment (now complete with brand names) so we no longer need hear about box-toed Army surplus ski boots with tricouni nails beartrapped onto solid hickory skis.

A pleasantly conversational style replaces what had obviously been rewritten from old Army operations manuals, and occasionally breaks into humor: “Having arrived at the summit of your mini-hill, turn to face the void.” The book begins by delineating the styles of lightweight Nordic touring and its more steeply ranging Alpine counterpart. The aspirant tourist is given the very sensible advice to “begin with Nordic touring.” Nordic touring is a new and essential addition, especially valuable because it extends this technique beyond the packed tracks (and their corollary of racing) that have dominated Eastern texts on the subject and limited their usefulness to the wilderness skier who will be breaking his own tiail and must be prepared to ski all the changeable snow conditions he will encounter. Elsewhere we find good practical advice on organizing tours from a day on up, camping and cooking in the winter wilderness and a good treatment of avalanche theory and practical avoidance. It is illustrated with photos and many line drawings that are helpful for technique but look distractingly as if they were run over by a snowmobile.

Most of my touring has been of the Alpine variety, seeking the freedom of the highest mountains in winter, so I was most interested to see how this subject would be handled. Lito is a downhill skiing teacher, and I was pleased to learn from him some things that have improved my downhill ability in the wilderness, such as wide tracking and radical up-unweighting for turning in the heavy snow so common in the Sierra. There is even an intriguing section on the so-called “extreme skiing” which has recently claimed descents of the Grand Teton and the west flank of the Eiger.

For equipment the highest recommendations fall to Hexcel skis and Silvretta bindings. I use both and find them clearly superior. But they cite old Head Standards for their soft flex and low price over such an excellent and specially built ski as the Bonna Mountain which is half the weight and only slightly more expensive. Then we hear that, “frankly, any old ski poles will do.” Frankly, you would be badly frustrated trying to tour with your short Alpine poles; full Nordic length is necessary, and Alpine strength is advisable as well. Mine double as tent poles.

But the most serious error, and the one that undoes most of the usefulness of this book for me, is the incredible statement that, “Since climbing will be done with skins, the low wax adherence of plastic [bases] is not a major factor.” This is an unsupported false assumption, and all the more important since most of one’s touring time will inevitably be spent going uphill. Climbing on skis would thus seem to deserve some serious thought, but less space is devoted to it than to converting old ski pants into knickers, and that little information is grossly misleading. Anyone who will simply try putting touring waxes onto plastic bases can find out for himself that it works just fine. I have skied many hundreds of miles on wax on plastic bases, never carried skins and never needed them. One waxing has occasionally lasted me two days. Skins are heavy, dangerous on steep or icy terrain and completely kill the glide that is the secret to covering long distances on skis. An alpine tourist on skins is just barely mobile in the winter wilderness, and would be sure to agree that this is a “downhill oriented world.” I have enjoyed learning many subtleties of climbing on changing terrain covered by variable snow. These need not be laid out in detail since discovering them will entertain many hours of climbing, but you must at least know that such things are possible.

In retrospect I’m happy I didn’t have Wilderness Skiing around when I was learning alpine touring to poison my mind about the wax which has been my key to freedom in the Alpine winter country without sacrificing the way those plastic skis can boogie when pointed downhill. But this downhill run was supposed to compensate me for “the lost freedom of the Nordic skier” gliding his diagonal stride. I found out for myself that with Silvretta bindings I could kick and glide in spite of stiff boots, so I waxed my plastic skis and have been happily running around the Sierra ever since. Ignorance is bliss.

Having opened up this chink in the book’s logic through which most of my winter wilderness freedom and mobility escapes, I see that by polarizing wilderness skiing into nordic and alpine, this book has really left out the whole middle ground of a wide spectrum of possibilities, and it is precisely this intriguing middle ground which tries to merge the distance-covering freedom of the nordic skier with the downhiller’s control and precision on the steep that occupies the creative imagination of every serious ski tourist I know. The dream is to be at once light enough to run across frozen lakes and snake through the forest while still precise enough to climb icy cirque walls without crampons and ski down whatever you find on the other side. Wilderness Skiing goes a little way toward the realm of the dream synthesis from the nordic end by suggesting that Silvretta bindings can be fitted to general touring skis, but half recants by branding it “eclecticism.” They do not even mention the Marius edge, an ingenious aluminum add-an-edge that can go under the instep of the ski to take it further into this middle ground. And we have seen that they make no concessions from the alpine end of the scale.

So this is a good introduction to the arts of wilderness skiing as long as one reads the waxing chapter again instead of the silliness about skins, and bears in mind that the extremes of the range have been defined but the possibilities of enlightened combinations of mobility and control (which are the real future of the back-country skier) haven’t even occurred to these authors.

Doug Robinson

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