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Backcountry Skier vs. Ski Mountaineer vs. Skimo Racer

One of the things I love most about backcountry skiing is how much it allows for a creative expression of freedom. Backcountry skiers don’t follow trails, we put our own skintracks or bootpacks up. We decide where we want to go.

I thought it would be helpful to explain the differences in these disciplines of skiing. Just like there are different kinds of ski racing (slalom, giant slalom, super G and downhill), there are different types of backcountry skiing.

Speaking broadly, backcountry skiing is skiing done outside of controlled areas. You can access the backcountry from gates at a resort or from a helicopter, but my favorite way is human-powered. The human-powered backcountry experience involves special equipment and training, using climbing skins on the bottom of skis and special boots and bindings to climb up the mountains we ski down. It involves managing risk factors like avalanches. I’m drawn to this type of skiing because I’m actually a big nerd and I love the techy scientific parts of it: snow science, route planning and mapping. For me, it’s a way to use both sides of my brains to plan routes, execute and to take the best photos and videos along the way.

Ski mountaineering is using skis to ascend peaks. It is more technical than backcountry skiing. Sometimes it involves ropes, crampons and ice axes to climb up more difficult pitches of rock or ice or rappels to get down.

Skimo is short for ski mountaineering and it usually refers to skimo racing, which is using lightweight skis to climb up mountains and ski down them, as quickly as possible. Competitive skimo racing came from military traditions when armies organized races to test soldiers abilities in alpine environments. Skimo is different from cross country because the equipment allows you to ascend and descend very steep slopes that wouldn’t be possible on cross country equipment.

There is overlap between these disciplines. You can take methods from one and apply it to the other. Over the years, it’s also been called randonnee skiing and alpine touring.

Whatever your motivation and discipline, being able to climb up mountains and ski down is my favorite thing to do and I can’t wait for the adventures ahead this spring! Check out my stories for a few of my favorite items for ski mountaineering and use code CAROLINE15 for 15% off your first order from backcountry.com.

Here are some of my favorite pieces of gear:

https://bit.ly/3eNgQQP

Scarpa Alien 1.0 boots

https://bit.ly/3eLOUg8

Petzl RAD system:

https://bit.ly/3eO3mEk

Petzl Leopard crampons:

https://bit.ly/2OHFeIT

Patagonia Ascensionist GTX:

https://bit.ly/38RKArT

Patagonia Capilene Cool Lightweight long sleeve shirt

https://bit.ly/3lryBGM

Elan Ripstick

https://bit.ly/2NV55fz

Plum Race 150

https://bit.ly/2NrgqnP

Contour Skins Guide Mix

https://bit.ly/3vCNBG6

Petzl Gully Ice Axe

https://bit.ly/3vtjzEO

Julbo Shadow goggles

https://bit.ly/3tzYwPj

Julbo Fury sunglasses

https://bit.ly/3qXkhGO

Julbo Aerospeed sunglasses

https://bit.ly/2OHI80f

Julbo Vermont classic 

https://bit.ly/3vXPNIz

“Everest” On Skis

Seeing firsthand how climate change is affecting mountain communities and how important it is for the world to transition to a renewable energy future, I’m going to climb up and ski down for 24 hours or until reaching 29,031’/8848m, whichever comes first.

I’m encouraging folks to join me and sign up for Protect Our Winters for their March #CrushIt4Climate Challenge and donate to Utah Clean Energy for the Running Up For Air Series.

Sign up with POW:

https://bit.ly/37L6Lj6

Utah Clean Energy Fundraiser Page:

https://www.givesignup.org/carolinegleich

I’ve done a lot of 12-18 hour pushes in the mountains before, but this will be my first 24 hour push. I’m excited and nervous to see where my mind and body will take me.

I’m doing the challenge starting Sunday night, March 7 at 6 pm at Brighton Ski Area up and down the groomer on the Great Western Lift. Brighton has been incredibly friendly to the uphill ski community, hosting races and other events, and they have committed to achieving net zero emissions by 2030, which I hope other ski resorts will follow!

As a ski mountaineer, I’ve seen that we can no longer expect historic weather patterns to be indicators for future planning, especially in volatile alpine environments. In the Himalayas, air temperatures have already risen by nearly two degrees Fahrenheit since the start of the 20th century. Permafrost is melting, as are the glaciers that provide reliable water sources for millions of people.

Climate change is not a thing of the future – it’s happening now. In my home in Utah, our historically light, fluffy powder is changing as temperatures warm to the extent that our state’s slogan – the Greatest Snow on Earth – may no longer hold true. The average amount of snow in the West has dropped by 41% since the early 1980s. By 2090, projections indicate Park City will lose all of its snowpack. Nationally, low-snow years have a negative impact on jobs and the economy, costing us more than $1 billion and 17,400 jobs.

In my role as an ambassador for Protect Our Winters, I have worked diligently to educate the outdoor recreation community on the systemic policy changes needed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions at scale. Now is the time to require polluters to pay for their emissions by setting an economy-wide price on carbon. This is a market-based solution that can garner bipartisan support. We must invest in a clean energy economy and move toward achieving net zero emissions by 2050, if not sooner. Now is the time to reduce emissions from our transportation sector by rapidly deploying zero-emission vehicles nationwide. And, perhaps closest to my heart, we have to protect public lands, our national treasures, from fossil fuel extraction.

Follow along on my Instagram during the event and stay tuned for a recap!

Caroline Gleich, Wasatch Mountains, UT

Martin’s Poles

20 years ago, my half-brother, Martin, was killed in an avalanche in Stairs Gulch, a steep chute in Big Cottonwood Canyon in Utah. These were his poles. Martin was an important person in my life because he was someone who invited me to be a part of his world of mountaineering. He was an instigator of adventure, and taught me how to rock climb, backpack and ski. I’m lucky I had people like him in my life who could teach me what they knew about the outdoors.

When I went to ski all the lines in the Chuting Gallery, I knew that one day I would have to ski Stairs Gulch. It took me fifteen years of tiptoeing around the backcountry and learning about snow and avalanches to muster up the courage and the emotional energy. Still, to this day, when I go backcountry skiing, I think about Martin and I see a picture of his hands at his funeral after he died. They were crushed – black and blue – from the trauma of an avalanche.

When I went to ski Stairs Gulch, I found that being there, where Martin had his last moments, was strangely healing. I got to see what he saw and experience what he did. I’ll always have a deep, emotional connection to Storm Mountain and Stairs Gulch.

My experience of skiing that line and the rest of the Chuting Gallery project was documented in a short film called Follow Through. A few months after the film was released, someone reached out to me via email saying he had found a pair of poles in Stairs Gulch the year Martin died and was wondering if they were his.

At first, it felt like a punch in the gut, and I wasn’t sure how to react to the email. I procrastinated and put it out of my head. The next season, I got another email and I finally went to pick them up.

Low and behold, they were still in usable condition. I remember picking them up from this kind man who had held on to them for almost twenty years and feeling a special energy through the pole grip. I took them home, took a picture and sent it to Martin’s widow, Gitte. I asked her if the poles looked familiar. She said, Yes, they do. Wow, that’s crazy.

The logo and markings were preserved, the grips were intact, the adjustments still worked and the craziest part about it is that they are made by Leki. Leki was my first sponsor in the snowsports industry and I’ve been an athlete for them and part of the family for a dozen years and counting. They are a wonderful company to work with. 

It’s pretty incredible that someone held on to them for all these years and they were able to make their way back home to our family. These poles are an incredible treasure to me. Holding the grips, I feel like I can touch a part of Martin. I’m excited to take them on many more adventures as I continue to remember and celebrate his legacy. When I think about Martin, I think about the responsibility I have now to continue to inspire people outdoors safely and educate about avalanches.

This post isn’t meant to give you practical tips about avalanche safety but instead to urge you to make decisions conservatively so you can ski, ride or climb another day. Your decisions in the mountains – they affect far more than just you – and the wound of losing someone you love never heals. You just learn to live with a hole in your heart.

We miss you dearly Martin.

January 7, 2021 Martha’s Bowl Avalanche

Today, we had a close call with an avalanche. No one was caught, buried or injured, but it gave us a good scare. We unintentionally remotely triggered a D2 avalanche in Martha’s Bowl in Big Cottonwood Canyon as we were skinning across the flats below.

As we were heading to our objective, we approached a zone where the skintrack went underneath a steep , northwest facing slope. Naturally, our group of three spread out with Rob in the lead. At the end of the traverse underneath the rocky cliffs, Rob skied down a small slope on the previously set skin track. None of us heard or felt a collapse or whoomp or any noise at all, but we looked up at the steep face and saw it break into pieces above us. Adam yelled “avalanche” and we all shuffled to get into a safer place.

Seeing the avalanche start, I quickly realized the crack in the crown was spreading hundreds of feet across the slope. Not knowing how far it would go (and knowing from experience that avalanches have a nasty habit of running farther than you think they will), I started to run in my skis with skins on down and away from the slide to get to a safer spot out of the way. As I ran, I fell into a flat depression. I was certain I was going to get buried. I prepared to pull my airbag. Luckily, the slide stopped above us, and no one in our party was caught or buried. If there had been a little more snow or energy behind the slide, we would’ve all been buried.

After we determined we were safe and unscathed, we saw that part of our skintrack was buried 5’ deep. Pine trees were snapped with fresh branches around. As we composed ourselves, we talked about the mistakes we made that led to our error. We determined we had oversights in route planning and communication.

When we share our close calls, we can help make the backcountry safer for everyone. Our team was on the right side of luck today. But today’s forecast read, “I suspect our luck will run out soon.” In Utah’s Wasatch mountains, we have a dangerous snowpack. Prior tracks do not indicate that a slope is stable. As much as we want to rip steep lines in blower powder, it’s going to take some time for the snowpack to heal. I don’t want someone to die when it snows again. We’re in a tricky situation because yesterday’s sun left on a crust on our South facing aspects, so we are pushed to the north facing to find soft snow which harbors the dangerous avalanche layer.

I also want to ask for compassion, kindness and a lack of judgement when you read this report and others so we can help create an inclusive backcountry community where people can share their close calls and accidents with honesty, transparency and free of fear.

For more info about snowpack and conditions, check out:

https://utahavalanchecenter.org/

and read our full observation online:

https://utahavalanchecenter.org/avalanche/57268

Responsible Outdoor Recreation During the Coronavirus Pandemic

This is a rapidly evolving situation and things are going to be changing quickly. This guide may not be applicable in a few days.

This information was gathered, in part, from an interview with University of Utah epidemiologist, Dr. Lindsay Keegan, to help disseminate information about Coronavirus or COVID-19 to outdoor recreationalists. Here’s a video of our chat.

These are some considerations/ideas for responsible outdoor recreation and social media messaging for people in the United States.

  • If we don’t respect social distancing at trailheads and on trails, they could close. So let’s be proactive and set a good example.
  • Be sensitive to the fact that people in many places are in lock down. While people there can go outside for walks, they may be limited in how far they can go to get to trailheads. Other areas may be following and restricting movement.
  • Keep in mind Instagram is a global platform so people in Europe are experiencing something different than we are in the USA right now.
  • Look at Italy to expect what we are going to see in the US in a few weeks.
  • As the virus spreads in the USA, the healthcare system is going to become overloaded. That means if you tear your ACL or break your back, there may not be a bed for you. If you do require hospitalization, it might be at the expense of someone else’s parents or grandparents.
  • Keep this in mind as you talk about skiing. This isn’t the time to send it off a cliff, tackle that big project or set a FKT. Going for long hard days can weaken your immune system.
  • People are sad right now that the resorts have closed. Be compassionate.
  • This also isn’t the time for people who have never backcountry skied to learn. Pick objectives that are well within your ability level.
  • This is also not the time to go on a road trip to rural areas as their hospitals will also be over capacity.
  • Consider taking a break about posting in real time about skiing at all during this time and stay home whenever you can. Think about how you can serve others while still maintaining social distancing.
  • Cancel all non-essential travel.
  • Going on a ski tour with one or two people is a good compromise, but practice strict social distancing. That means six feet apart. Don’t gather in closer to talk, as we spewing viral particles that transmit diseases when we talk.
  • Avoid being in a large group. The more people you come into contact with, the more risk you are at, and the more you put others at risk.
  • Here’s some info from Lindsay Troy:
  • People without symptoms can be testing positive.
  • We don’t know how long closures and social distancing will last. The better we are at it, the longer it will take.
  • When we say flatten the curve, what does that mean? The curve is the epidemic curve, the number of people affected each day. With a typical disease, you see exponential growth, and then it drops off. Health systems are not built to withstand massive numbers of people coming into the hospital. We want to flatten the curve, but when we don’t that, we don’t actually change the total number of infections that much. We just make it so everyone doesn’t get affected at once. Flattening the curve helps the healthcare system and workers because it means there will be beds available, protective equipment for the doctors, ventilators available. If we let it burn through the population really fast, the closures will be shorter, but more people will die in a traumatic way. It’s a tradeoff.
  • Coronavirus does affect young people. You could have a mild infection, severe flu, and/or potentially pneumonia. It can lead to a serious hospitalization for young people. When you think, I’ll just go skiing, I’ll just go climbing, it’s not a big deal, think about if you have the healthcare coverage to pay for a few days stay in the ICU. Also consider that if you get pneumonia, it’s going to put you on your back for awhile. Your summer sports season is not going to be good as your lungs will be recovering and your muscles will lose mass. You aren’t going to bounce back as soon as your fever goes away. Some people will get mild infections but from what researchers know about SARS, there’s evidence of long term lung damage (perhaps even permanent lung damage) from the pneumonia that you get associated with SARS. It’s like a respiratory virus crossed with HIV because it has such severe impacts on your immune system. It’s not something to take lightly
  • This is a serious public health threat. Even if your personal risk isn’t high, the risk to people you know and care about is. Grandma, your neighbor, your friend who is immunocompromised, someone who has cancer. We all know people who are older and whose lives are at risk. You might walk out of this totally fine. You might get a bad flu, with pneumonia and recover in six weeks. You could be back skiing in six weeks, just like you were yesterday. Or you could kill your grandma.
  • It’s hard to evaluate your own personal risk. It’s hard to evaluate these pandemic situations because they are so rare. People are dying from this. People will die from this. If we all act according to social distancing and try to have some compassion for our neighbors, we can kill way fewer people than are projecting. Models are projecting worst case scenarios right now. Let’s make the models wrong.

Thanks to Backcountry for supporting this message. I’m grateful to work with brands who are willing to be flexible when content plans change.