The 5 best backcountry ski tips I learned while touring in Chile
By Sarah Rawley
I’ll admit it. We cheated and got a head start on ski season this year. My two compadres, Yeti Beti’s Amy and Chelsea McSizzle, rendezvoused with me in South American for two weeks of skiing volcanos in early October. While one may argue that we were on a wine tour with some ski touring on the side, I would reason that we learned valuable skills in Chile that translate to a more efficient and enjoyable experience in the backcountry back home in Colorado.
As we warmed up on the flanks of Volcán Casablanca, our guide Donny Roth, owner of Chile Powder Adventures, set the pace and shared the best tricks in his toolbox, to ensure our group moved with optimal efficiency. Here are my top five takeaways that will undoubtedly ratchet your ski touring efficiency to a new level, so your friends stick around in the backcountry, even on a powder day.
- Wind your way up the mountain like you’re riding on singletrack— As soon as your skis hit the ground, it’s instinctual to start charging straight uphill (especially if you’ve had your serving of Beta Red 60 to 90 minutes prior). Set a moderate pace from the get-go and imagine where the train track or singletrack would go. “Theoretically the optimal angle for a skin track is 17 degrees,” Roth says. “Look for flat spots to change direction.”
- Hips don’t lie— Similar to effective pedaling on the bike, you want to generate power from your core and hips for an efficient ski stride. “Swing your leg forward from the hip, rather than push your foot in front and then pull your body toward it.” Not only will you prevent your major muscles groups (quads/hamstrings) from fatiguing, but before you know it, you’ll be dancing your way up the mountain.
- Manage your temperature— Bring appropriate layers that you can add or subtract to minimize unnecessary energy expenditure. Don’t wait until you’re soaked to shed a layer. This transcends being comfortable; while you may think you’re slowing down your friends by stopping to rearrange, you will prevent more serious delays if/when the weather changes quickly and drastically.
Take snack breaks… and lots of ‘em— I measured our progress each day solely by how many snacks breaks we had taken, and how many I had to look forward to. A 6,000-foot day (such as our summit of Volcán Villiarrica) amounted to approximately five snack breaks, spread out every 900 to 1300 vertical feet.
Incorporate a variety of pre-packaged energy, savory snacks, and of course, local treats to keep each stop enticing. Stick with the schedule; it’s important to keep the fuel tank topped off to avoid hangry behavior. This is where you most certainly lose friends on a powder day. Every day I took a few flavors of Enduro Bites, rice cakes, Alfajores (Chilean dulce de leche cookies), and if we were lucky, huevos in the form of frittatas. Keep Enduro Bites accessible in a pocket at all times for quick fuel when moving. And hydrate like it’s your job.
Tricks with skins impress your friends— Knowing how to be quick and agile with your skins also makes you more efficient while transitioning from skinning to skiing. You can remove your skins without taking your skis off (assuming you are using a standard tech binding and have some degree of flexibility) with these simple steps. Lock down your heel on the ski you intend to remove the skin from. Cross your ankle over the opposite knee so the tail is within reach (those with a good ape index will prevail). Unclip the tail and as you peel away the skin, slide the ski forward and back into standing position as you simultaneously peel the skin towards the tip of the ski. “The key is to use the strength of your leg, by pushing your heal back, to peel the skin. Don’t try to pull it off by reaching your arm way in front of you.”
Want to know more or learn from the pro himself? Give Donny a shout! He’s back in Colorado and guiding trips in Crested Butte, Marble and the North San Juan Mountains this winter as well as guiding customized, full-service trips to Iceland, Canada and Chile throughout year. Tips aside, if you haven’t invested in avalanche training education, this is your first step in enjoying a fun, efficient, and ultimately safe backcountry experience.