Straight From Hell
Courtney Phillips sticking to the high ground, barely.
Slip Sliding Away on the Infamous Wasatch Skin Tracks
An Italian friend described Wasatch skin tracks as being “like paying somebody to watch him make love to your wife. It’s horrible. It’s wonderful. It hurts. It’s expensive. It’s humiliating. It’s exhilarating.” A Catalonian friend cut more to the chase: “Who is the madman who made this trail!” In any case, Wasatch skin tracks have a well-deserved reputation for being steep, icy and challenging. According to the skinning police, the optimum skin track should be 18 degrees at the most and doable in your middle climbing riser, so why do Wasatch skin tracks routinely top out in the mid 25+ degree range and use the top climbing riser so often? The default answer is unbridled machismo testosterone, but there is much more to it than that.
The Golden Angle
There’s not much debate that a pre-broken, low angle skin track is easy to follow and provides all day comfort. Some of the fastest and most accredited skiers on earth swear by them, including Ski Mountaineering (SkiMo) racers and IFMGA certified guides. For SkiMo racers, where the top athletes can click off over 4,000’ of climbing per hour, part of the low angle allure is that they are using bindings with only one fixed climbing position and racing on tracks with established corresponding low angle climbs. For guides, part of the low angle attraction has to do with client comfort. As the late AMGA Examiner Bela Vadasz told me, “For beginners, the top climbing peg is just too wobbly.” This view is understandable as mountain climbing in high-heel shoes takes some getting used to and is an acquired taste. Another connoisseur of low angle skinners is Greg Hill, who climbed and skied two million vertical feet in one year. I don’t know what Greg’s rationale is for preferring low angle tracks, but his skinning prowess speaks for itself. If he recommended touring in flip-flops, my only question would be: what color flip-flops?
The debate over skin track angle really comes down to one thing: what is the most efficient way to get up a hill? Compare climbing a ladder, versus a set of stairs, versus a low angle ramp all leading to the same spot. The ladder will be the shortest distance, the set of stairs will be moderate and the ramp will be the easiest, but longest. If you have the technical ability and lungs to bound up a set of stairs, it is hard to argue that this is not the most efficient, especially if you are only doing it for a moderate amount of time.
What matters far more than climbing at 18 or 25 degrees is maintaining a consistent angle. This is easy to do on open slopes, but in more complicated terrain it requires contouring and route finding to avoid going flat, steep, flat, moderate, downhill, steep, flat, etc., all of which just wastes energy.
Angle of Despair
One of the key reasons Wasatch skin tracks tend to be steep is because of our terrain, which is predominately bowls and ridges. The bowls are often avalanche prone, so for safety’s sake it is better stick to the high ground and skin up the ridges. The angles of the ridges vary; sometimes they can be skinned straight up and other times they require switchbacks. This leads directly to the heart of the matter – is it easier to cut a low angle skin track with lots of switchbacks, or a steeper skinner with less switchbacks? Doing an uphill snap kick-turn is a challenge in itself; so many Wasatch trailbreakers chose a steeper climbing angle for less switchbacks.
Yo-yo skiing is also a greasy culprit. We often take laps for granted here, but in many or even most parts of the world, a day of backcountry skiing consists of either a single long climb or touring through different drainages, preferably ending at a café or bar. In the Wasatch, trail breaking can be tough and flipping drainages can mean moving to a crustier “off” aspect, so it is common to set a skin track and then work powder fields off to the side over and over. Our runs also tend to be relatively short in the worldwide scheme of things, often clocking in at 500’ to 1,000’. If a group of four skiers takes four laps, that’s 16 trips up the ol’ skin track, which means it is going to get slick. In popular areas like the West Bowl of Silver Fork, the main skinner can host hundreds of skiers before getting a new coat of snow.
Another major consideration is friction in the form of deep snow, which the Wasatch is often blessed with. Given the choice between breaking trail in deep snow at 18 degrees for two miles, or at a steeper 25 degrees for 1.5 miles, most trailbreakers would opt for the shorter distance, especially as progress is slowed to a crawl anyway and the trailbreaker is most likely in high pegs to keep his/her tips from diving under the snow. Steeper angles translate directly into less wallowing distance.
In a perfect world, trail breakers would set an IMFGA certified low angle track with gentle walk-arounds instead of switchbacks and leave a bag of mints at the top for all of the subsequent hundreds of skinners who will soon be schralping their powder stash. The Wasatch ain’t like that. Trail breaking is hard work and most breakers I know and hang out with are selfish powderhounds who are thinking of just about anything but making it easier for others to follow. Steep skin tracks are usually not intentionally punishing, although at times they do serve as a deterrent and powder preservation technique for what they lead to.
Skin choice also plays a big part in steep skinning. Regardless of the angle, the coarser plush (hairs) on nylon skins works well with cold, dry snow, essentially biting into it like a fork into cotton candy. Mohair skins, long favored by Europeans, have excellent glide, especially on warmer snow, but tend to shear in loose powder. The modern day “mixed” skins which are half nylon, half mohair also work well in the Wasatch. Between nylon’s better bite and being readily available in Utah through Ascension/Black Diamond, they’ve become the de facto Wasatch skin and since they favor climbing over gliding, the skin tracks often reflect that.
The compass exposure is also a guilty party. Little and Big Cottonwood Canyons each have dominant north and south facing sides which receive different amounts of sun. After a day or so, the south facing skinners become glazed with ice, or even worse, ice covered with a trace of slick new powder. One of the primary offenders of this is the infamous Flagstaff Ridge skin track. Flagstaff’s easy access tends to suck fledging skinners in and then crush them with a series of unrelenting steep, icy switchbacks. I’m sure it has been the end of many relationships as I’ve seen people taking slides-for-life on this and openly crying or fighting. The prize is the north facing powder bowls on the backside, but there is often a steep entry fee.
North facing slopes can often be tough as well, but instead of ice, they can suffer from just the opposite: unconsolidated, loose, rotten snow. Known as “skinning in the sandbox,” this is a phenomenon where the snow crystals are shearing on each other, not at the skin/plush interface. The Argenta avalanche path in Big Cottonwood is a primary offender of this and can often be, uhmmm, challenging.
Unlike snowshoeing, which has been described as a 12 Step Program (you take 12 steps and you’re an expert), skinning requires a very subtle touch which can take years to master. At a basic level, it is all about slide & glide, not romp & stomp. Stamping your ski down seldom improves the grip, and instead it is all about developing a feel for what will hold in what conditions, much like friction climbing on rock. Another key aspect is to remember is that skinning up is just the opposite of skiing down – you want to lean back, push through your heels and focus on your uphill, inside edge. Trying to drive your downhill, inside edge into hard snow is nothing but an invitation to faceplant on the uptrack. Bending at the waist does nothing for you except burn more energy.
Loosening your top boot buckles and powerstrap will allow you to roll your skis laterally to match any skintrack undulations. The idea with skinning in general and steep skinning in particular is to maximize the amount of skin to snow contact, especially from your toe pieces aft, which is your skin’s grip pocket. Because touring bindings pivot at the toe, it is almost impossible pressure the front of your ski or skin.
Conventional wisdom says longer poles are better for skinning, which is true if you are on low angle slopes and can take longer Nordic style strides, but on steeper slopes, I like to shrink my poles down so I can get on top of them and push instead of pulling. Shorter poles also mean warmer hands as it gets your fingers down below your heart and better stability as your hands are in front of you instead of above.
Another huge factor with slippery Wasatch skin tracks is that they get a ton of traffic. Being a small mountain range right next to 2 million people is the major part of it, not to mention all of the out-of-state visitors we get. Switchbacks often take the brunt of abuse on heavily trafficked skinners as people tend to “rush” them and try to make their turn too soon. Instead, if you come to a blown out switchback, push the track up higher a bit and make a kick-turn which steps down onto the new direction rather than try to climb up to it.
Oftentimes short little stretches of firm snow or ice can be nearly impossible to skin through, like when trying to bump up onto a ridgeline. Instead of trying to dig your edges in, turn your skis up into the fall-line, roll your bases to get maximum skin contact with the snow and contour sideways and up in a sideways crabbing type of motion. This is not a very effective way to travel for extended stretches, but it is often enough to skirt over the hard spots and connects the dots of soft, grippy snow.
Breaking trail is like eating Jalapeno peppers – it is an acquired taste that few people instantly warm to. It would be a rare human who broke trail in knee-deep powder on his first day of touring and said “That was great! I’ll take some more!” Instead, most of us learn how to skin by following pre-broken trails, which mean we get a lot of practice following the good, the bad and the ugly. Where and how a track is broken is definitely the trailbreakers choice and there is always the option that if you don’t like it, you can break a new one. But there is a lot more to trail breaking than meets the eye as it is not only a physical endeavor, but also entails avalanche safety, teamwork, route finding and efficiency. Like skinning cats, there are a million ways to skin a peak and creating or following steep tracks is just one of many useful tricks to have in your bag. At the very least, steep skinning is a mental game which requires far more focus than mellow cruisers, and it can be satisfying in its own kinky, perverted way. Keep your back straight, push through your heels and let the games begin.