Sunday, 15 October 2017

Spring Frenzy

Just got back from a busy week in the mountains.

Over the course of eight days, I managed to accumulate about 11,000 meters of human-earned turns. I felt pretty wrecked by the end of that last day!

My first day started with a day trip up Bogong. I didn't stay longer due to the threat of poor weather (which didn't materialise!), and made up for it with a massive day on the Big Fella.


Besides enjoying being in the mountains, I was also there to assess how carrying a beefier setup might impact on my ski mountaineering experience. As mentioned last time, the heavier gear has been a revelation on the way down, but I don't want to tour significantly less as a result. According to my own and other's predictions, I was going to do about 20% less skiing as a result of putting on the extra weight of the setup below.

TLT6 Performance out of shot

Turns out that I could still get plenty in during the day. If anything, it may mean that I move at a slightly slower pace (meaning longer days)...but looking over past sessions, the time difference is negligible. I also think that I didn't realise how difficult downhill skiing  on Syborgs and thin skis was in terms of adding to leg fatigue. The above setup (at 6.51kg) felt like a great compromise between downhill prowess and uphill efficiency.


Cairn Gully has the goods

After a big day on Bogong, I ended up exploring Hotham 'sidecountry' areas for the next couple of days. I found one great area (I think near Blowhard gap?) where I spent a day and a half, followed by some more quality time on the Razorback. Photos below are of this unknown new area.





All of this was just a prelude to the main event - Feathertop for a few solid days of steep skiing.


I was pretty surprised that I was the only person out there skiing the steeper aspects (except for a few snowboarders on my last day who did a single run down Avalanche Gully).

Boarders (aka Mountain Peasants) enjoying a steep climb out of Avalanche Gully


I got quite a few great runs down both the major gullies, and undoubtedly the ZG108s made my life easier. They were confident and predictable whether it was corn, ice or fluffy wet melt. They were stable at higher speeds whilst being capable and reliable during jump turns. Paired with my TLT6 and ATK FreeRaider 14, there was much joy to be had on the way down; especially in comparison to my last visit here on Minims and Syborgs.

Some wet slides were occurring, particularly in Hellfire Gully - nothing too serious, just had to wait for some snow to slide past a couple of times...with some of the terrain traps here, trying to race the debris was maybe not the best idea.

 A very small wet slide

The more sedate side of Feathertop is still great fun

Steep entry into Avalanche Gully

Maybe why so few customers - the long boot out of Hellfire

Turns down the middle of Hellfire Gully


There's still a few solid weeks of snow up high, so my main goal is to get up there as often as possible.


And now, it's that time of the year again...

The Second Annual Team Weasel Gear Awards

For gear that gets my full attention

  • Most Valuable Contributors - gear that has been outstanding and influential in having a great time in the mountains. Basically, stuff that I would wholeheartedly endorse and buy again. 

 

Millet Pierra Menta Jacket

 

This jacket has been outstanding and my most used item this season - so much so that I've got two of them. It is perfect for a wide variety of conditions, and most of this season I have only had a wool t-shirt under it and been more than warm enough. The pockets are accommodating and easily accessible, the hood is very effective and the fit is extremely comfortable. Could not speak any higher of this jacket.


S-Lab 20 skimo pack

 


I've had more ski touring packs than I care to admit...all in the search for that elusive, perfect pack. The S-Lab 20 is my favorite pack so far. It has almost every feature that I want for a pack: light weight, rapid to use diagonal ski carry, separate and easily accessible safety box compartment, plenty of space for its size and nice features like a drink bottle holder and hip pocket.

The only minor issue I've encountered is when walking downhill with longer skis - diagonal carriage results in the tails sometimes hitting the ground as I descend. Having the option of A-frame carriage could be the solution.

Blizzard ZeroG 108 ski

 


I've skied extensively on the ZG85, and not so much on the 108 due to not really having the snow depth here to justify it. I decided to give them a go this year after purchasing my Ravens; touring with the ZG108 would give me a feel for a weightier, longer ski.

Turns out these things ski remarkably well in almost any conditions. They have quite a straight sidecut, making them able to hold an edge on icy snow. In softer snow, they are outstanding. They like to go fast, but are still capable of short radius turns if you put the energy in. Not a ski for meadow-skipping, but a great tool for committing and challenging ski lines.



  • Unsung Heroes - less noticed and less obvious, but these items have made life significantly easier by increasing efficiency or by doing a tough job so well that you almost forget that they are even there.


Direkt 2 tent



After using Hillebergs for the past 10 or so years, I've been making greater use of my Direkt 2 this season in an effort to cut weight. There is really only one big limitation to this tent; it has a tendency to collect significant condensation due to having a single wall with not a lot of ventilation. Aside from that, it has many excellent qualities - you can sit up in it, it is the perfect size for one person, the optional vestibule is a handy addition, and then there is the super light weight (1.42kg).

Grivel Ski Tour 2.0 

 


I always carry crampons, and these ones are excellent for ski mountaineering. The main advantages these have over things like the lightweight CAMP options are the steel front piece and the quick and easy manner of attachment to the boot. Definitely my go-to crampon if conditions are going to be firm.

Plasma 1000 down jacket


This jacket has been used throughout this winter, and has been more than sufficient at keeping me warm in the evenings or when I'm stopping for a quick break. It also packs down into a very small bag and weighs less than half of my other puffy jackets - highly recommended.


  • New Players with Bright Futures - these are bits of kit that I haven't had quite enough time on to fully appreciate, but their utility is already very apparent and I am definitely excited to make greater use of these thangs.

 

Elliptical rocker skis



The irony - last year I dissed upturned tails. Now I'm wondering if they are perfect for me and my style of skiing. Going fast and slarving my turns feel very appealing - hence the Raven is joining the family. I'm also interested in the Hoji and seeing how the new Dynafit Beast 108 skis.

MSR Reactor stove


After years of making use of my MSR XGK, I grabbed the Reactor and have made much use of it so far this season. Besides saving a bit of weight, the Reactor is super efficient and easy to use. In full winter, a canister lasts about two days (cooking and meting snow). Simmering can be difficult, but the solution is to simply cook to a boil, allow to sit and then restart the stove for another round as needed.

ATK Free Raider 14 2.0



I've used ATK bindings for a while now, and consider them to be the best that I have skied. This latest version will be standard binding for almost all of my skiing - light, reliable, variety of heel lift positions and the stomp block all make this the perfect free-touring style of binding.



  • Underwhelming, Disappointing or Superfluous - Stuff that was hyped or promised much, but failed to deliver (for me, at least).

 

Skimo gear in tough conditions



I've come to realise the limitations of skimo gear for ski mountaineering. It's great to have the light skis and boots, but if the descent is conducted in dubious conditions, going down becomes much harder work than it needs to be. I will continue to experiment with gear combinations, but I no longer believe that the advantages of light gear on the up counteracts the extra energy you have to expend to safely negotiate the down.

Gaiters 


This feels like the one part of my setup that I just have no idea of how to address. I've tried purpose-built ski pants, I've recently used mountaineering gaiters...and still I have sometimes been pouring water out of my boots at the end of a day. I'll be mighty satisfied if I can resolve this issue sometime soon.



Team Weasel

Sunday, 24 September 2017

Inopportune Exit

This was going to be my last post for the foreseeable future. After a couple of days on Feathertop, I was feeling like I'd reached a point that I'd long aimed for - I was skiing steeps on narrow skis, having days of big elevation gain, and just generally enjoying the mountains.

Skied many lines here; the one with tracks on it, the taller gully to looker's left, and the left-facing corner in the background


And then I skied the Buller chutes on an icy day.

I did have a bit of an epic in chute one - I had that horrible feeling of losing a ski in a pretty dangerous situation. Not only did the ski detach (most likely from ice buildup in the toe - shoulda done the usual few fore/aft movements of the toe to make sure if was good to go), but my leash came off too. Basically, it was so steep that it slid right off the end of my boot. After that, I had to put on crampons and down climb...so, a few lessons were learned. Despite that, I just want to get back out there and improve to the point where I can ski terrain like the chutes in a fast and competent manner.

It is partially technique - I'm using too much edge angle too quickly on icy slopes, resulting in my downhill edge grabbing...which throws me into the backseat, and that's the last place I want to be in steep and narrow terrain.

Top of the Buller chutes - challenging terrain


In addition, my gear was less than ideal in some of my recent situations. There's a reason why freeride skiers aren't on skimo boots with race skis and bindings - you just can't go very fast on that kind of setup without it being terrifying and your shit just folding over.



I can ski on a rando race rig; the picture above is of jump turns down a steep pitch on a 3.5kg setup. Besides not going too fast, the other thing about the super-light gear is that it works well for the most part, but if conditions are a bit tougher (icy, variable snow, etc), then things get very shady - as in survival skiing rather than fun.

After skiing on my Syborg / Backland / Trab binding combo (4.43kg) at a resort, later in the same day I got on my TLT6 / Blizzard 108 / ATK FreeRaider 14 setup (6.51kg)...and I quickly realised how compromised my skiing had become by using ultra-light gear. Yeah, I can ski the skimo race toothpicks, BUT there's some significant qualifiers in there - not too fast, and not in really tough conditions.

The Zero G 108s crushed through variable snow, loved being pointed downhill, and still retained a really solid edge. I used to think that they were overkill for most Australian conditions, but the difference of a 'heavy' setup almost completely changed how I skied. And I liked it.

I'm not sure if it was simply going to a heavier boot that made the difference - I'll be doing some more experimenting to figure out where my sweet spot is in terms of weight to drag up versus performance on the way down...starting with getting back into my TLT6 boots.

I'm thinking that boots around 1.2kg each are about right - the TLT6 feels plenty of boot for me (although I still have my Mtn Labs too...may have to give them a burl at some point).

I'm going to keep my bindings light, but may go a bit beefier than some of the race bindings I've been using lately. Again, I've got both the ATK Raider 12 and FreeRaider 14 to take care of my needs (so about 350g per binding).

As for skis, I'll keep making use of my extensive quiver during the rest of the season. I've skied my Minims, Backland 85s, Alp Tracks 100s and ZG108s this season so far, and each have their place in my skiing repitoire. What I am interested in exploring more is the freeride side of the house, which has resulted in yet another ski joining the family.

Departure from my norm - 4FRNT Raven

Skiapler likes them, which is a good start. I'm interested in skiing in a more balanced, slarvy way on the middle of the ski rather than constantly pressuring the tips, and these guys fit the bill. They weigh about 1kg more than my Movements, and it will interesting to see which ski gets more use - the light and agile Alp Tracks 100, the beefier Raven, or the more traditionally-constructed ZG108s.


A recurring theme in my mountain experiences has been the style or nuance in which I explore the high places, which is important but has also changed over time. I think that with skiing, I've realised I like it all; I love the idea of a super long spring mission on rando race skis, or jump turns down an icy couloir, or sking fast down steep big mountain faces and spines.

One place that I didn't expect to end up was in the terrain park of a resort - but even that has a role for me now, in that jumping stuff is now a possibility with some heavier-duty gear. As a result, I'm focusing on skiing faster and more down the fall-line, turning more with my thighs and getting comfortable with hitting jumps.

Both the major lines in Hellfire were in great condition - plenty of snow all the way down

In terms of executing jump turns, it is a bit like a dark art that not many openly discuss. This this guy does - and in great depth at times. I have found the most helpful points to be getting one's weight low and down over the bottom ski, to work on getting forward just before initiating the turn, and to focus on lifting from the heels rather than straight up.

Just as with everything in ski mountaineering, no amount of talk can compare to the experience itself - and beyond a few pointers in the right direction, that is all most of us need - to immerse ourselves in the mountains in whatever way our predilections and desires take us. And that's where my passion and focus is.

A long way down Avalanche Gully

Team Weasel

Monday, 28 August 2017

Skimo Winter

Whilst Spring is known to be the ski touring season, there's something enjoyable about ski mountaineering in winter.


The great thing about winter skimo isn't really the powder snow, which has been there to a degree this season (along with the very wind scoured faces). I've realised that snow quality is kind of secondary to me; it's all about the terrain. It's also more about experiencing the mountain in a very quiet and solitary state without the crowds in spring.

Turns down the north face under Bogong's summit

I can also start to see an end in sight for this blog, or at least this incarnation of it. What I do feels very different to the skiing I see at resorts, and even to some of the BC skiing I see...almost to the point where I call it something else. Right now, I just think of it as spending time in the mountains - which is the reality of it when I consider the amount of time I spend going down versus the hiking, climbing and skinning I do to get there.

I feel like the gear-centric aspect of my thinking has also diminished, perhaps as I've progressed and no longer feel the need to justify every type of equipment choice. I'm happy enough that my path to this point has been well-documented for others to possibly gleam some information from.

The final frontier for me feels like skiing steep terrain in a safe and technically competent manner. Whilst I do achieve this at times, there are still moments when it feels as though my skiing ability deserts me and I end up flailing around in the back seat.

One of the most challenging aspects of skiing is knowing how to get things right. Often I wish that I could see myself skiing to get a better understanding of where things might be going wrong.

My new favorite terrain on the Big Fella

If I can continue to fix my technical shortcomings, I feel like my skiing will be in the place that I've always wanted - where I can ski steep and committing terrain in the BC with confidence and composure.

I've managed a lot of good skiing so far, and Spring is just around the corner. Photos below are from Bogong and the Razorback.










Next stop - Feathertop and the Buller chutes...and hopefully one more detailed post about unlocking the secret to skiing steeps. After that, I think this will be a glorified instagram page for the foreseeable future.


Team Weasel

Saturday, 22 July 2017

Resort Uphilling, Chasing Angels and Fleeing Demons

The season down here has kicked off - although only just so for the BC. The resorts have been pumping out the snow, but the natural snowfall has been marginal until this week, when it is really starting to come down.

As a result, I've done some skiing in the resorts, and also done resort uphilling for the first time.

I've seen that Dynafit are seeing the potential of this new market by bringing out relatively cheap piste-orientated touring gear this next season. The advantages are many - fitness, reduced costs of skiing, autonomy to go and ski where you like...will be fascinating to see if there's more people earning turns at resorts.

It's an interesting way to ski; definitely closer to my experience of the BC, but in other ways much more like going to the gym to get a workout in. Lessons learned so far include:
  • Dawn patrol is the way to go. You get the beautiful sunrise, easy skinning up the hill, and most importantly, the whole mountain to yourself for an hour or two before lifts start turning.
Stunning - Buller at dawn
  • Another advantage is being able to work on that one part of the run that is actually stimulating. Often ski runs are a mix of easier terrain and more fun / challenging bits. No more need to ski the flats or boring stretches when you can choose when you ski back down.
  • The route getting back up can change throughout the day. Sticking to a side is a given, but as the snow changes, your skin route back up may now be the site of a sick jump that people will launch off, or some softer snow that people pop on to. Don't expect your skin track to last long. 
  • You get to see lots of different people ski - from the excellent to the beginners. The only issue I've encountered are with those folks who are intermediate skiers looking to show off their skills by skiing as close as possible to you as you skin back up. I'm watching you ski, and I can tell you that you aren't as secure in your skill set as you think! 
  • Extra calories are abundantly available...and they can definitely be needed if you go hard.
Overall, it is good to see this as a viable alternative to simply sitting on lifts, particularly in bad weather or heightened avalanche conditions. I will buy lift tickets every now and then, as the sheer quantity of descending can really benefit my skiing. Nonetheless, it's great to know that the up and the down don't have to be so far divorced from one another even in a resort.

Race skis and an almost deserted ski resort

BC Kicking Off

Snow has accumulated nicely on Bogong, and from a distance Feathertop is looking pristine. However, avalanche conditions are in effect - witness this monster:

A big slide on Bogong (skier triggered)

As has been said elsewhere, Australians have a tendency to look for the pillowy lines in the Oz BC - everything else here is often wind-scoured scratchiness. The good news is that it doesn't usually take too long for our snow to stabilise - and it is only the windloaded aspects that are really worrisome at the moment. I'll play it cautiously for the first part of winter I think.

So the plan is to take advantage of the weather windows and time off work to get out and about whenever possible - with the ultimate goal of long spring days in the alpine later in the year.

I've managed a fair bit of skiing already; besides the resort stuff, I've got up Bogong and Stirling (the later for the first time). Bogong was awesome, but in need of a tad more snow and a bit of time to settle down in terms of avalanche hazard.

Not bad for mid-July

With some dubious weather and snow stability, myself and some friends went up Stirling for the first time. There was an enjoyable approach to the summit (most of which was on skins) through beautiful native bush, and then some spectacular views to be had.

Buller from Stirling

The skiing itself was good but limited to a single, quite small area. I'd say it's a good place for a day out, but I know I'd rather be on Bogong/Feathertop or skiing the chutes across the road.

The best on offer - Stanley Bowl on Stirling

In summary, it's been a good start to the season, and I'm very much looking forward to skiing every weekend for the next few months!

 

Is there anymore gear to talk about?

 

I think I have surpassed peak gear whoredom - there's just less stuff catching my eye as I have so much gear already!

I've acquired the Ski Trab Gara Titan Release binding, and so far they have been excellent. I'm starting to see that having a heel piece with some kind of lateral elasticity is often the key to staying in a tech binding. My Trabs have a release value around 12, and have been excellent in all conditions so far.

Ski Trab Gara Titan Release 12 with ATK adjustment plate

The toe piece is a bit unique in terms of entry, but has a simple and reliable function. I'm looking to run this binding on my daily driver and powder skis for this season.

My favorite ski presently has got to be my Minims. Going uphill is never easy, but these things almost make it so. On the down, they are snappy, stiff and reliable - they are pretty much everything that a skimo stick should be. They have seriously grippy edges, a no frills-design and enough underfoot to handle the snow I've encountered so far. And then there are the transitions - ridiculously fast! When you see other skiers still plodding uphill after you've ripped skins and are descending, you can start to see how addictive these little beasties are.

 Light never felt so right - Minims on the summit of the Big Fella

The fixings for the above are an ATK Revolution toe and a Plum 170 Race heel, coming in at 300g for the pair. I'm liking being closer to my skis too - less ramp angle as well as lower height overall. I'm looking to mount some of my other skis in a similar manner - less use of adjustment plates and shims, more proximity to the ski underfoot. Sounds promising.

 

Winter is Not Spring - No Matter How Fast You Travel

 

Lightweight BC gear is addictive, and it is hard to go back to weightier options. I've only been up Bogong once so far this season, but besides some shoddy packing, I was definitely on the less well equipped end of the spectrum. No thermal bottoms, winter mitts, spare socks or waterproof trail runners - all things that would have made life more comfortable and easier.

I think that I'll be splitting my gear into winter and spring groups; if only to remind myself that there's only so much moving you can do to keep warm in the mountains, and that cutting weight shouldn't cut too deeply into safety and comfort margins. Deep down I know that I'll keep cutting down the weight as much as practicable in pursuit of more human-powered turns...

More Mad Max memes needed

 

 Love

 

I think this moment happens to me at the start of every season - I have this feeling of trepidation...what if my love for skiing has waned? I've invested a considerable amount of time, energy and cash in this pursuit, all on the pretense that the passion I felt last time I BC'd is still there.

But then it all comes back, and I remember what a deep affinity I have with the mountains. It can be hard, intimidating, work at times...to sit with uncertainty and self-doubt, especially when you just want to be told that everything will be good and to have someone point the way for you (both in the BC and ordinary life).

Maybe that is the kind of absurd tension that people like Camus have written about - seeking and venerating freedom whilst seeing the sometimes barren plane that can be man left to his own devices. Some wise words provide some succour:

The quest for certainty blocks the search for meaning. Uncertainty is the very condition to impel man to unfold his powers. (Erich Fromm)

That next turn on that steep slope could equally be personal ruin or ephemeral transcendence. It could be an expression of love or an emphatic rejection. As Fromm says, the difference between those two states is in our control - by living productively, passionately and with notion of unfolding our powers and purpose within the world.

I'm trying to focus more on being immersed in the moment in which I am, and to remember that the presence of mountains in my life is a form of love that has many dimensions and feels deeply moving. That's worth being grateful for.

I also love skiing steep scary shit. Add that to the list.


Team Weasel