Ski Mountaineering is not straightforward. You simply can’t show up to a mountain as a beginner and just do it. It takes a combination of experience, gear, and patience to break into the discipline, which often feels daunting. As someone who grew up in the suburbs of Sacramento, far from couloirs, summits, and avalanche danger, everything about this world feels intimidating. But it also feels exciting. So here I am roped up on the side of a steep slope, attempting to give this a try.
The road leading to Grand Teton National Park is one of my favorites drives. Heading north out of Jackson, Highway 191 runs parallel to this big rolling butte. For a while, all you can see is the sandy hillside covered in brush and sage and then BAM. You crest the hill and rising from the horizon are the majestic Grand Tetons. They seem to pop straight out of the earth and stretch high into the sky. Thanks to the flat valley that runs parallel with the range, the view is uninterrupted. It’s a great vantage point to not only take in the scenery, but scope out potential projects to ski. That’s the beauty of living somewhere like Jackson Hole: If you can see it, you can probably ski it.
The view right from one of the many pullouts along Highway 191. Not a bad backyard if you ask me. Katie Lozancich photo.
If you told the 10-year-old version of me that I’d want to ski down the couloirs winding through these craggy peaks—I’d say you were insane. Growing up in a cookie-cutter suburb outside of Sacramento, the only people in my sphere doing said adventures were on the glossy pages of National Geographic. But moving to a place like Jackson has changed the way I think. Those mythical beings from the magazines actually live here and make adventuring in the mountains part of their daily life. There’s this contagious thirst for adventure that changes your thinking from “that’s impossible” to “I want to do that.” It’s a beautiful way to be living your life.
But how do you do it?
Starting is perhaps the hardest part of the process of becoming a ski mountaineer. There’s no exhaustive guidebook. There’s no quick and dirty tutorial on Youtube. And you sure as hell can’t show up to a line and just wing it. Well, you could, but it probably won’t be enjoyable or end in success. So where does one even start—especially in a town where most people seem like they were born with an ice axe in their hands.
With any new skill I’ve learned, I've started by taking a class. Lucky for me, the Arc’teryx Academy was offering an intro to Ski Mountaineering Class here in Jackson Hole, and I didn’t even think twice before signing up. When I told my mom about the clinic, she had a hard time grasping what we would be doing. She lives back in California, far from the mountains and has only been on skis maybe once or twice. Everything about this world is pretty foreign to her. “So you’re going to hike up the mountain and ski down,” she asked skeptically . “Ah…kind of,” I tried to explain and figured I’d send her photos to better illustrate.
Learning basic rope and anchor skills inside before we head out to the snow. Katie Lozancich photo.
Weeks later, I’m pulling into the Snow King parking lot with butterflies of excitement and apprehension fluttering inside of me. Fat snowflakes are falling down from the sky as I pull my backpack and skis from my car. Heaving the gear onto my back I maneuver up to the designated meeting area at the lodge. It’s hard to contain the deluge of questions that are bouncing around in my head. “Should I have brought crampons? Do they expect us to know how to use our ice axes? What about knot tying skills? Man, I should have brushed up on those,” I think worriedly. The anxiety dissipates when we convene with our guides for the day. They’re like a couple of golden retrievers eager to get outside and show us a few things. After a brief but insightful walkthrough of their packs and the gear they have on hand, we shimmy on our harnesses and get moving. The best learning is hands-on anyways.
Setting Yourself up for Success
With skis clicked on, we shuffle single file onto Snow King’s Summit chairlift and make our way to the spot where we’ll throw our skins on. Without realizing, we’ve already checked off step one of our lesson.
In mountain biking, there’s this thing called a squirrel catcher. It’s usually a feature at the start of a technical trail that’s meant to keep beginner riders from getting over their head. At the Whistler Bike Park, their most iconic trail, A-line, has a drop at the beginning. The logic is pretty genius. Can’t ride this mandatory drop? Then maybe it’s a sign to back off and work up to this trail. In regards to ski mountaineering, there’s no squirrel catcher at the top of a couloir. Instead we should all be asking an important question: Can you ski technical terrain?
If the end goal is to be skiing steep and technical lines, then the skills need to be there before you set foot on the skin track. Alpine missions are no groomed runs at a ski resort, and there’s no ski patrol to bail you out in times of crisis. If something goes wrong in the backcountry you could be there for a while, or even asked to pay a hefty fee for a helicopter ride to the hospital.
If you don’t feel comfortable skiing the committing terrain inbounds at a resort, then that’s a great place to start. There’s a lot of skill-building that can be done inbounds. Repetition and mileage are key. Try to accumulate as many days as possible on your skis and really gain confidence in all types of snow—not just fresh pow. The more prepared and comfortable you are on wind packed, icy, and crusty snow the less you’ll feel out of your element encountering this in the alpine.
Practicing your skills in-bounds can lead to success in the backcountry. Katie Lozancich photo.
When asked how she trains to ski big mountain lines in Alaska, professional skier Angel Collinson gave a lot of credit to days spent inbounds. Most of her training for heliskiing actually happens within the confines of the resorts up Little Cottonwood Canyon. But instead of skiing idyllic powder, she’s charging runs on the days most wouldn’t find ideal for skiing. And it’s not just Collinson who sees the value in lift-serviced laps. Ski mountaineer Kit Deslauriers turned to her local hill as a great training resource. At the peak of her days competing on the Freeride World Tour, Deslauriers was notorious for skiing nonstop tram laps at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort from when the lifts started spinning until the last tram of the day. Even when the conditions were dismal, Deslauriers was still skiing one 4,000-foot lap after another. The hard work paid off. In 2004 she won the Tour, and only a few weeks later she became the first woman to ski Denali—North America’s tallest summit.
Don’t have a resort like Jackson Hole right in your backyard? You’re not out of luck. “If all you have is a smaller, less steep ski resort then you need to really charge full top to bottom laps and always be chasing someone faster than you,” explained ski mountaineer Teague Holmes. Over the years he’s quietly put down first descents everywhere from his backyard of the Colorado Rockies, to the Wasatch, Tetons, and other mountain ranges across the globe. He argues that a good formula for becoming a versatile skier takes three steps. First, log at least 90 days at the resort for two seasons back to back. Then find some kind of educational supplement throughout the season, ideally freeride-oriented coaching. Luckily At JHMR these kinds of educational opportunities are part of the resort’s ski curriculum. This year they partnered with fitness coach and former FWT champion Crystal Wright for Ski Wright Camps. The camps capitalize on Wright’s FWT experience and athletic coaching to provide intermediate and expert skiers a unique skill-building experience within the resort that can be applied in the backcountry if desired.
Lastly, Holmes highly encourages finding a partner that’s faster than you and chase after them. Having a partner to push you is a great tool for improving, but finding said partner isn’t always straightforward. Unfortunately, the folks down in Silicon Valley have yet to invent a Bumble for backcountry partners. So, often finding people that you trust and work well with can half the battle.
“I’ve had it both ways,” explained IFMGA Guide Mark Smiley who’s been guiding here in the Tetons and throughout the world's most impressive mountain ranges since 2001. “In the beginning, I’ve gone out with people well above my ability, and it meant being dragged along and thrown into the deep end. But as my skills advanced I’m now in the area where I’m much more mindful about who I invite. I don’t want to be slowed down or throw someone into the deep end—I know what that’s like,” said Smiley, and it’s no fun for everyone involved.
Trying to assess a new partner’s abilities is challenging. Simply telling someone that you’re a good skier doesn’t really say much. Wanting to make this process easier, Smiley created the Backcountry Ski Belt ranking system as a way to better categorize skiing abilities. It’s like karate meets backcountry skiing—except you don’t get to wear a cool belt (though no one is stopping you from sporting one). Smiley’s thought was to create useful qualifiers to rank individuals, things like days spent in the backcountry and resort, rope skills, comfort on variable snow, slope angle comfort, and formal avalanche training.
Regardless of whether you use Smiley’s handy chart or not, these are the kinds of things you should be assessing when seeking out a new partner for ski mountaineering objectives.
Becoming in Tune with the Mountains
We’ve transitioned into touring mode, and before we leave the boundaries of the Snow King beacons are out of their harnesses and we’re checking if the whole group is transmitting. One of our guides, Christian Santelices, is stern about this step, since it’s a necessary part of the process. Even though we’re only going a short distance into the backcountry, we dutifully check one another. Not only is it not worth the risk of having someone's beacon be off or malfunctioning, but habits like these should become the norm for any time spent out of bounds. Understanding terrain, weather, how avalanches occur, and being able to extrapolate what the snow is going to do are perhaps the most complex parts of ski mountaineering. To even begin to grasp these skills starts with an avalanche course, a must-have for anyone venturing into the backcountry—not just mountaineers.
“It’s like taking driver’s ed before getting your license,” emphasized Smiley. Sure, nothing bars you from going into the backcountry if you don’t have a Level1 or higher, but is it responsible? No. Is it fair to your partners and the people around you? Hell no. “You’re a sucky partner if you don’t know how to unbury your buddy. That’s a big risk you’re asking someone to incur on your behalf,” he reiterated. Mindfulness is even more pertinent when pursuing more technical lines in the alpine—especially when risk is high. “I always try to remind others how little it takes in steep terrain to knock someone off their feet and down a run, which could lead to a serious injury or death. It doesn’t take much,” Santelices stressed. Avoiding this situation means being in tune with what’s going on in the mountains.
For backcountry recreationists the recommended track is to start with Avy 1, before proceeding through Avalanche Rescue, Avy 2, and additional pro-level courses. Any of these can be repeated for additional practice too. The great thing is that these courses are offered all winter, and all throughout the world. Avalanche.org is a great resource for finding classes and the local avalanche forecasting center near you.
Getting that AIARE certificate isn’t a magic stamp of approval. The hope with these classes is to introduce students to assessing avalanche hazards, how to make smart decisions in the mountains, and of course, perform rescues. It only marks the beginning of a lifelong learning experience that will be heightened each time you venture into the mountains. “This is definitely the hardest part of it. It just requires a lot of experience. Whether you’re following the weather, or getting outside and seeing what the snow is doing. But in many ways it’s the most fun too—you’re always learning,” said Santelices. Supplemental education is also pretty easy to find as well. Most mountain communities will host events, like Jackson’s WYSAW, which is a full-day workshop for local avalanche professionals and backcountry recreationists. Or, if you’re a fan of podcasts you’re in luck. Turn your work commute into an educational session with The Avalanche Hour Podcast and hear from experts all over the world talking about safety and the snowpack.
But to really take this education to the next level, it means finding yourself, good mentors and partners. Don’t be afraid to reach out to people who have more experience than you, and definitely ask questions. Weeks after my class at the Arc’teryx Academy, my boyfriend and I scoped out a little couloir in one of our favorite backcountry zones. My stomach squirmed from the nerves as we threw our skis on our packs and went in for a closer look. Sensing my apprehension, he asked what I was thinking which prompted a flood of questions. Calmly he answered each one. At first, I felt like I was being a nuisance, but he pointed out that even the most experienced skier should be able to talk out their decision making. “When you’re skiing with partners who have the same ability as you or higher, it’s easy to settle into a routine and just assume that the other person knows what’s going on. Asking questions never hurts,” he reassured.
Collaborating, in fact, is a great way to heighten your knowledge in the mountains. If you have friends ticking off objectives, then ask what went right and, even more importantly, if anything went wrong. “It’s more important for all of us to share our failures. Because every failure is an opportunity to learn immensely,” said Santelices. Things, like getting into a line and not feeling comfortable to ski it after kicking off a small slide, are great examples of experiences that have important takeaways. All the little things you learn while being in the mountains are important.
Fellow students practice their rappelling techniques as our Exum guide watches from the sidelines. Katie Lozancich photo.
For example, my roommate gave me an impromptu lesson while I was making lunch when he unexpectedly came home early from a day skiing in the National Park. Expecting to hear how awesome the experience was, instead he dejectedly explained how they decided to back away. A party above his crew had seen large wet slides on an aspect similar to the couloir they’d been hoping to ski. Realizing that the temperature had warmed quicker than they expected and should have been here earlier in the day, they backed off and skied down the way they came. “It was the right decision to make,” he said bummed but relieved. Despite being a “failed” mission, it ended up being a good learning experience for him and me.
If you want a more formalized mentorship experience, then there’s always the option to do a ski mountaineering course with experienced guides, like what I did with the Arc’teryx Academy. The academy is likely the most affordable option, but guiding services like Exum or Jackson Hole Mountain Guides also have camps or clinics available throughout the winter. “The great thing about doing a course is that a guide can teach you their decision making, how to make a plan in the mountains, and cover technical skills,” explained Santelices. For the people who enjoy a straightforward step-by-step process, this may be worth the investment. But whatever you choose to do, nothing beats learning hands-on in the field. Intuitive mountain skills can’t be gleaned from Instagram, Mountain Project, and articles like this.
Using the pointy and dangly things
After a quick skin up to a cluster of trees, our guides stop the party and start constructing anchors. They demonstrate how to build a t-slot anchor in the snow, and then set us loose to make our own. Each group experimented with burying different anchors—a stuff sack filled with snow, an ice axe, or a tree branch—to demonstrate the resourcefulness of a t-slot. With the anchors buried, we used our entire body weight to pull against the ropes and marveled at how they held up. Later the guides strung up rappel stations so we could practice moving on a rope down the steep slope behind us. This is the sexiest part of ski mountaineering because nothing feels more badass than rappelling into a steep line with skis strapped onto your back. But there’s a lot that needs to happen before you can embody your inner James Bond. First, it means figuring out the gear.
Putting the new skills I learned to the test during our hands-on lesson.
Prior to our hands-on lesson outside, our guides neatly laid out everything that was in their pack. Crampons, ropes, first aid kits, ice axes, and more were displayed out on the floor. It’s a lot to acquire, and if you choose to do it all at once it can cost a hefty penny. Aside from helmets, ropes, and harnesses, which for obvious reasons shouldn’t be bought used, much of these tools can be bought secondhand. Especially be on the prowl on Facebook or online gear marketplaces which can be a good spot to find both secondhand hard and soft goods. A basic kit should consist of a climbing harness (bonus points for a ski mountaineering-specific harness), a rappel device, 2 locking carabiners, and a mid-length sling. From here, you can look into ropes and anchor supplies.
Once you’ve got all the shiny and dangly bits you need, it’s time to learn how to use them. Equipment skills can be distilled into four main categories: knowing how to rappel, knowing how to belay, knowing how to use the rope effectively, and building anchors. The beauty with most of these skills is that you don’t actually need to be in the high alpine to practice them. You can start by going to a rock climbing gym and familiarize yourself with tying knots and being on a rope. Or during the summertime, simply go climb with your buds and practice working with a rope to cement baseline skills. “Just moving in the mountains—like finding short places to do rappels—really builds your foundational skill set,” said Santelices. Plus, you can also use the warmer months to collect beta on lines you want to ski.
If you’re starting from scratch and have never handled a rope before, then a few lessons would do you good. Nothing beats in-person training, but a great secondary resource worth considering is Smiley’s online mountaineering courses offered through MTN Sense. Thank goodness we live in a digital world because now you can practice most of these techniques from the comfort of your own home. Last November, Smiley launched the online curriculum with the hope of it being a one stop resource for everyone from beginners to pros. He created the series with his 26-year-old self in mind because looking back he wished he’d known many of these skills when he was learning the ropes. “Had I had this helpful resource 12 years ago, I would have been skiing bigger lines, more safely, in a fraction of the time,” said Smiley. Bingeing these courses won’t make you a full-fledged mountaineer in a week's notice—you still have to go outside and practice. But it’s a great starting point to build on.
Once you’ve become acquainted with your equipment and know to use it, then practice, practice, and practice. When we did our first round of rappelling in the clinic, my hands awkwardly fumbled in my thick winter gloves while trying to unlock the carabiner and thread the rope through my ATC device. Having previously climbed before, rappelling wasn’t all that new to me, but trying to do so in 15-degree weather with heavy snow falling around was. Being in the alpine brings in a whole new set of factors you need to be mindful of. The end goal is for all these maneuvers to be familiar so that you don’t get hung up on them when caught in a risky situation. “When these rock climbing and equipment system skills become a habit and second nature, one will be much better prepared to then add the complications of snow stability and avalanche assessment, ice, skis, altitude, and winter weather,” said Holmes. Our guides really emphasized locking down your transitions: the transition from skiing to booting, putting your crampons on, deploying rope, putting the rope away. Having those transitions dialed is one factor within your control to being more efficient and staying safer in the mountains.
The Learning Doesn’t Stop
The three-hour lesson whizzes by. After a few run-throughs with rappelling and anchor testing stations we’ve reached the end of the class. Our studiousness is rewarded with a completely empty run down through the resort’s S Chutes. The snow isn’t stopping and we gleefully charge through the untouched powder. Reaching the parking lot felt like coming back to reality. My friends and I exchanged notes and photos from the day in hopes of retaining all the information we’ve learned, but three hours doesn’t even scratch the surface of what I need to do to progress further.
And that’s okay.
On top of all these new skills, you’ve got to have the right mindset. The way you approach ski mountaineering will ultimately play a role in both your successes and failures. “People who force things don’t always get away with it,” reminded Santelices and the consequences can bite you hard. Keeping this in check is just as important as dialing your rope skills or jump turns. Be ambitious, but also recognize where you’re at today.
Hours after the class I sent my mom a photo of me roped up and about to rappel. I’ve got the biggest grin on my face even though it’s nothing crazy. Half expecting her to chastise me for wanting to pursue such a dangerous hobby, instead, she exclaims, “that looks fun!” She’s right. It was fun, and I couldn’t contain my excitement to take these new skills into the field. Then life happened. Shortly after the Arc’teryx Academy, I tweaked my knee. Thankfully, it wasn’t too serious but the PT orders were less than ideal: lay low and stay off your skis for a few weeks. I fiercely swam laps at the pool and rode on the stationary bike at the gym in hopes of salvaging my plans with the spring skiing season. By the time I was healthy the world was suddenly grappling with a global pandemic. For obvious reasons, my skiing goals seemed worth putting on hold. This unexpected hiccup ended up teaching me one of the biggest lessons of all: Ski mountaineering isn’t a sprint, it’s a marathon.
Despite not checking off some big goals, my winter wasn't too shabby. Maybe next year i'll get 'em. Luke Toritto photo.
Thankfully, the mountains will always be there with a lifelong worth of adventures waiting for you if you approach them right. Grand Teton National park has shuttered its entrances for the last month due to COVID-19 concerns. The closest we can get to that beautiful stretch of mountains is a scenic drive down Highway 191. Now when I look out towards the mountains I’m not just in awe of the view, but I’m seeing all different kinds of opportunities.
At least next year, I have a grasp of where to even start.