The Fast & Furious
By Andrew McLean
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Originally published in Couloir Magazine
With Backcountry skiing being such a peaceful pursuit, you might wonder why anyone would want to ruin it by turning it into a competition.  The answer, as with thoroughbred horses or hissing cockroaches, is that racing improves the breed. True, not everyone sees touring around in emasculating skin tight suits as an improvement, but there are many other aspects of Ski Mountaineering racing that can directly improve your smiles per hour ratio.

In standard touring mode, if somebody is slightly faster than you, you can write it off to explainable circumstances; youth, training, equipment, less beer, etc.. But, if they are in a completely different stratosphere, it makes you wonder if you aren’t missing something all together. Yes, you are both using skis and appear to be carbon-based life forms with humanoid features, but when the legs start spinning, all similarities end. They are long gone and you are gasping in slow motion.

In my case, the protagonists were two skiers from Catalonia; Toti Bes and Alfons Gaston. Both are disturbingly happy, normal guys who love to ski powder, which is in short supply in the Pyrenees. To overcome this, they’ve focused on going up and down peaks as fast as possible, which has earned them jobs with the Police Search & Rescue department. They take their job seriously by constantly training, comparing snowpacks from all around the world and logging as much vertical as they can in the line of duty.

While much of their speed comes from raw natural talent and tons of mileage, they also have some basic tricks of the trade that can be easily employed. First and foremost is a devotion to featherweight gear. Starting with the lightest equipment available, they then remove anything on it that’s not absolutely essential. You’ll know if you’ve gone too far with this concept when, if anything else is removed, the system fails.

At the heart of the package is the ingenious Dynafit TLT binding, which with a bit of modification, it gets even lighter. If you live in Europe, the brakes or leashes are gone immediately. Next goes the high climbing post on the heelpiece and some desperados even remove the whole heel pivot and release mechanism to cut extra grams.

For skis, start with a sub kilo pair of Dynastar, Dynafit or Trabbs in the 160cm minimum legal length. Run them through the surface grinder a few times to thin them down. If they don’t have it, cut two notches in the tips for the skin attachment and file off any extraneous tip/tail material. Match these with a set of 120cm straight cut mohair skins with a loop of bungee cord instead of the steel tip loop. Leave an extra 3” tail on the bungee cord to act as a pull tab for stripping them off. These skins should have only a single ply backing, which means a pair of them rolls up to about the size of a muffin. Carrying a spare pair is an acceptable safety measure.

Since carbon fiber skating poles are outlawed, the aluminum versions are the pole of choice. The increased height prohibits you from steeper skinning, but lengthens your stride. For boots, you’ll want something like the Scarpa F1’s or the lightest Dynafits. Remove the tongue, drill holes in the shell, grind down the sole and replace the buckles with Velcro. For speedy change-overs, some have an integrated lockdown lever that tightens and locks the cuff with a single push.

In clothing there’s only one choice; a racing suit. Referred to as Homohoisen by some, these suits are serious pieces of equipment. They’re constructed of Scholler fabric, feature beacon pockets, integral gators, a kangaroo pouch for stuffing skins, are aerodynamic, durable and of course, very sexy. As a fashion accessory, you’ll need a flyweight pack capable of holding only a shovel, windbreaker and one liter of water. Mesh pockets on the side are good for stuffing skins, but all extraneous padding and straps should be removed. Contact lenses will do for goggles.

Now that you’ve trimmed your gear down, you have to streamline your climbing techniques to match. As a steep skinning aficionado, I hated the idea that the key to going faster was “piano, piano.” Italian for “softly, softly” the concept is that you go faster by treading lightly and carrying a big reserve. Instead of blowing yourself out by stomping your skins and trying to stick to the steepest, straightest line, keep your leg rpm’s up and the skinning angle down. Many racers only have two heel climbing positions, one being flat and the other being raised by about an inch. The theory is that you will build up less lactic acid and your legs will be in better shape for the switch over from climbing to skiing.

As in marathon running, pacing is vital. This is something that can take a while to get a feel for as you have to take a best guess at how much vertical you will be tackling, how long you think you’ll be at it, and what your reserves are. The goal is to keep it as hot as possible for as long as possible without boiling over. This can be hard, especially in the beginning when the adrenaline is flowing and you’re feeling fresh.

Change-overs are another area ripe for improvement. With practice, stripping skins from both skis, stashing them, buckling your boots and getting underway is possible in 15 seconds. To do this, anticipate the upcoming change-over, take your pole straps off and transfer both poles to one hand. When you stop, set them down off to the side and use that same downward effort to; 1) engage your heelpiece (if you use them) 2) buckle your boot, 3) reach forward and grab your skin pull-tab at the tip of your ski. Stand up and rip your skin, give it a quick fold and stuff it in a pocket or inside your shirt. Repeat on the other side, but also grab your poles while you are down there. The idea is to develop a smooth back-to-front system and to only bend over twice.

Now that you’re cross-eyed with hypoxia and clamped into fiddly gear, how are you going to ski, let alone go fast? It takes patience and practice. Instead of gaining more control out of heavier gear, you have to adapt your technique to make the most out of the least. My initial delusions that this gear was only suitable for racing was shattered when Toti and Alfons dropped into Corbet’s Couloir on the same gear they had used to win the Jackson Hole North American Championships with an hour earlier. No problem. To a large degree, skiing should just be second nature at this point, with the focus being on trying to recover enough for the next climb. It’s not a beauty contest; whatever gets you downhill with the least effort and without falling is fine.

Aside from being fun in itself, racing has lots of cross over with daily touring. For instance the idea that it’s not how fast you go, but how long you stop, or focusing on a sustainable all day pace, can greatly increase your range. Making an effort to reduce your pack weight by carrying just enough water and trimming out unused gear can make touring seem like a whole new sport. And who knows, you even start eyeing a one-piece suit instead of Gore-tex.

Copyright - Andrew McLean Back to Writings Index