Go Big or Go….Little
One of the most challenging aspects of ski touring is not breaking trail in deep snow, learning about avalanches or safe route finding, or skiing breakable windjack; it’s deciding what gear to buy to do all those things! For better or worse, the many players in the backcountry ski market have a wide array of products to choose from, and in many cases the differences are really nuanced. But fortunately, in addition to our friends’ opinions we have the interweb, which offers unlimited abilities to research specs, read manufacturers’ spiels, and digest other consumers’ spray. So theoretically we can make good, appropriate decisions on what skis and boots to buy for our styles. So why do most of us do it all wrong?
“Wrong?!” you say, indignantly. “What do you mean, ‘wrong’? I am perfectly happy with my ski purchasing decisions!” And indeed, if you are happy, then that’s all that’s needed. But bear with me as I use a bit of logic…..
I have often thought that backcountry ski equipment should be bought as a function of skiing ability and fitness, since those are the two main aspects of backcountry skiing: ski ability for the descents and fitness for the climbs. Here is a simple graph:
So theoretically, if you are, for example, a person who’s been a lifelong resort-goer and as a result you’re at least a decent, if not shithot skier who has no problem slaying chunder to hardpack and the everything-in-between that resorts tend to offer, and you’ve been aching to get out beyond the boundaries and would like to hike for untracked snow but – because you spend your weekends riding cables and not running hill intervals with the gazelle crowd – your fitness isn’t top notch, so you’d be in the upper left quadrant. But if you are a runner or cyclist who wants to get into skiing but you’re not that interested in the crowds and expense of lift-served skiing you would be in the lower right quadrant.
So why is it that:
- The best skiers, who theoretically could ski any conditions well – because they already do, at resorts – buy 130 underfoot skis with commensurate skins, freeride boots, and Marker Duke bindings to ski the same 30 degree shots in untracked powder that backcountry skiers wearing low top leather boots were tearing up on 210 cm x 50mm skis mounted with 3 pin bindings 30 years ago, despite having less fitness to be able to haul all that gear up the hills?
- The gazelle crowd, who already have the aerobic capacity of a horse and simply whisk their way up skin tracks anyway, but sort of flail a bit on descents in sub-optimal snow, buy too-short, too-light skis with minimal boots and toy bindings?
The answer is a complex blend of psychology and sociology. Instead of purchasing equipment that will address our relative weaknesses, we buy gear that reinforces our self-perception of our strengths; that is: “I’m a good skier, therefore I need good shit to maintain my status as a good skier!” However, we all know that the truest sign of a good skier is the person who can ski any snow conditions well on any gear. Yet God forbid that our friends might see us flailing a little or (gasp!) – crashing! – whilst skiing down! And the light/fast guy? “I’m a runner/road cyclist/nordic skier, and I go uphill fast!” So why would they want to haul around any equipment that would slow them down on their latest 10k mission? And God forbid that our friends might see us falling behind on the skinner! Which brings up a question that might be worth asking: if we all skied in our own personal vacuums, with no one around to see us skiing (shredding, flailing), would we be making the same purchasing decisions?
Years ago in a meeting talking about the ski line at Black Diamond the product director declared: “I like the biggest, burliest boot/binding/ski combo I can get.” To which I responded: “Indeed, some of us need all the help we can get from our gear!” That didn’t go over very well, but there was a shred of truth to it: theoretically it’s the least-experienced people who should be getting the best gear to enable them to attain skills/mastery more quickly, but the reality is that it’s always the least experienced who get the bought-for-cheap-at-a–swap, ill-fitting, too-soft, too-long/short gear to essentially ensure that they are retarded in their progress, and it’s the most-experienced/skillful skiers who have the phattest skis and highest-performance boots. But if we all skied by ourselves, would we still make sure to buy the big gear to look sick on the descents, or the light gear to keep up on the climbs?
But we don’t ski by ourselves, so realistically your gear choice should be a function of the posse that you hang with; if you are the guy in your typical group who’s always draggin’on the skin track but can slay the descents, maybe lighten things up to get closer to partner-parity and revel in the challenge associated with skinnier skis. Or if you’re the skin track Chatty Cathy while your pards are always struggling and bathed in sweat, but you wish you could point ‘em a bit harder down the fall line, then mount up a bit with bigger gear and get a better workout when you are out with your gang.
Or not! The great truth is that it doesn’t matter; the act of skiing is great no matter what gear you’re on, and some folks – though they may never admit it – get almost as much of a kick out of the researching and decision-making on which gear to get and actually buying it as they do out of using it.
So yes, perhaps you are talking yourself into bigger or lighter gear for subconscious, inappropriate decisions so maybe your purchasing decisions are “wrong”, but it doesn’t matter; it’s skiing, so it’s all right!