10 basic rules of ski-mountaineering
by Mountaineering Academy, 2012 ©Lynx Trails
There is no “official” definition but, in practice, SKI-TOURING involves classic ski routes where skis are used all the time during the ascent and the descent, whereas SKI-MOUNTAINEERING includes climbing sections (on foot and with possible use of crampons, iceaxe, and rope) and/or technical descent (steep passages with possible rappelling).
If one uses the snowboard or the telemark, instead of skis, still we speak generally about ski-touring or ski-mountaineering.
Beyond the technicality, the ski-touring” definition is more widely used and commercial, whereas “ski-mountaineering” is somehow less popular and mostly used by experts and practitioners.
For the purpose of our Decalogue, the 10 basic rules apply to both ski-mountaineering and ski-touring. Besides, the border between the two may sometimes be rather fuzzy.
Why such a Decalogue ?
Well, every serious discipline should have one, right ? … and for ski-mountaineering we did not find many good ones around, to be honest.
Of course writing the primary rules of ski-mountaineering would require a dedicated book or a complete training, theoretical and on field. Indeed there are plenty of such manuals, tutorials, videos, training courses, all providing procedures and suggestions mostly of a technical nature (how to assess the risk of avalanches, how to turn on a steep slope, how to set up an emergency bivouac, how to understand the wheather …).
But what follows is totally different: here we focus on the behavior (human factors) and the management of the activity, rather than on the technical issues.
From the cumulative experience of our staff and collaborators, in a nutshell we have identified 10 primary rules for best ski-mountaineering practice. Read on …
1. Acknowldge your limits.
It is important to know your technical level and experience well, as a prerequisite for all subsequent points.
Normally a responsible adult person should be able to self-evaluate, but not a teenager. In the latter case, it is recommended to ask an expert friend or a professional (mountain guide) for advice.
Sometimes the self-evaluation process is warped by psycological biases and a strong ego.
2. Choose your fellow adventurers.
If you self organize your team, it is necessary to know well your companions and share the objectives with them.
If you are not a true expert, hire a guide without hesitation. If you join an organized tour, make sure to have selected a programme that is suitable to your skills and expectations. Talk to the organizer.
3. Carefully plan your adventure.
Define your objectives, according to your own limits and those of your companions, and take into account the terrain, the mountain conditions and the wheather.
Study the itinerary on a map, read the existing reports, establish the intermediate steps (and the absolute deadline for return), assess the exposure of the slopes and the risk of avalanches (after consulting the relative bulletin).
Decide about the necessary gear and check it well in advance before leaving.
4. Assess the situation on site.
Once reached your destination, evaluate the conditions of the mountain, especially in terms of the risk of avalanches. If you are unable to do so, it is advisable to join a team of experts or rely on a mountain guide. If the result of the assessment is negative, do not hesitate to change the your plan or even give up.
5. Stay alert at all times.
Pay attention to the hazards and take adequate prevention measures (for example: keep a safe distance between skiers). Risk assessment is a dynamic process: it must be mentally reworked at each new warning event, several times during the day. You should observe and take into evaluation any change of all objective parameters (snow, temperature, wind, slope inclination, crevasses) and subjective ones (technical ability, fatigue, risk appetite, etc.).
6. Keep a margin of safety.
Having adopted all the risk reduction measures, we shall evaluate the residual risk, to be maintained below the threshold of the risk accepted and shared with the companions. For example, it is advisable to reach the summit still in good shape, in order to preserve the physical and mental capabilities for a safe descent. We shall respect the established times and, if we approach the limit, get back to the valley (especially in winter, due to the short days and the cold).
Finally, a good measure is to adopt a pace of progression according to the weakest partner.
7. Have a “plan B”.
Having a back-up plan (agreed with your companions before leaving) in case something doesn’t go as planned is an obvious risk management strategy. If applied to manageable practical aspects (for example: what to do if the road access is closed due to a landslide?), we speak of a “contingency plan”; when related to major problems or safety in general, we speak of an “emergency plan”. You don’t need to foresee everything, but at least be prepared for the most likely adverse events.
Do not listen to the “success gurus” who dislike plan B: they are a typical case of survivor’s bias; moreover they build their success also thanks to good luck and in contexts where, in case of failure, life was not threatened in any way.
Before the activity it is important to have tested all the basic technical maneuvers such as self-rescue in avalanches, self-rescue in crevasses, belaying, abseiling, etc. This is essential to get familiar with the gestures when needed, and to make sure that you have at your disposal all the necessary equipment with you and the same is perfectly working.
(image source: Petzl)
After the activity, evaluate with your team mates (and also with experienced people who were not on site with you) everything relevant that happened during the outing, both positively and negatively. It is a key phase to learn from your successes, and above all from your mistakes. Without feedback it is impossible to utilize the experience as a tool for continuous improvement.
10. Use YOUR mind!
This is a key aspect, rarely considered in most training sessions. Especially if we are beginners, let’s try to think with our own mind without being much influenced by the team (friends, instructors, guides, etc.). The attitude to keep is: “OK, I move along with the group, but what would I do if I were alone?”. Only with this attitude can the true experience be built, to the point of becoming independent mountaineers over time.