Ski Mountaineering – An Amazing Outdoor Adventure

June 23, 2008 by  
Filed under features

As the name suggests, ski mountaineering is a combination of the techniques of snow skiing and mountaineering. As is the case with traditional mountaineers around the world, ski mountaineers enjoy the challenge of conquering a mountain. Unlike, traditional mountaineers, however, ski mountaineers then take on the challenge of skiing down the mountain they have just climbed.

Although similar in some respects, ski mountaineering differs from the popular sport of ski touring in that ski mountaineers have the goal of traveling over any part of a mountain, which may include enormous rocks, ice or sections of broken glaciers, regardless of the conditions. Ski mountaineers use skiing techniques for much of their journey, but climb slopes that are inaccessible to skiers. They do this by strapping their skis to their backpacks, and using a range of mountaineering equipment, including ice axes, crampons and ropes. Making use of these mountaineering techniques allows ski mountaineers to traverse extreme slopes and other terrain in order to then continue their journey on skis.

Ski mountaineering is popular in the European Alps, where participants enjoy traveling from hut-to-hut through the mountains. These adventurers will often cross difficult terrain where mountaineering skills are required. This sport is also popular in the Tatra Mountains between Slovakia and Poland, and the Pyrenees between France and Spain. A number of North American mountain ranges offer exciting ski mountaineering opportunities, including the Sierra Nevada, Tetons and Wasatch, as well as the Pacific Rim volcanoes of Mt Shasta, Mt Rainier and Mt Lassen. Ski mountaineering is also gaining popularity in New Zealand and the South American Andes.

Ski mountaineering racing is also becoming increasingly popular. This timed event follows a pre-determined, established trail through extremely challenging winter alpine terrain. Racers are required to pass through a series of checkpoints as they climb and descend unassisted, using backcountry skiing techniques and equipment, along with mountaineering techniques and equipment.

Although only categorized fairly recently as a sport, ski mountaineering goes way back in history. One of the pioneers of ski mountaineering was John “Snowshoe” Thompson who, beginning in 1855 and continuing for 20 years, delivered mail approximately twice a month to remote California mining camps and settlements. Thompson’s ninety mile, five-day journey took him up and over the steep, rugged eastern escarpment of the Sierra Nevada – not an easy task, especially as he was carrying a pack of mail weighing around 100 pounds. As impressive as Thompson’s achievements are, however, they were work related, and German Wilhelm von Arlt is generally considered to be the founder of the sport of ski mountaineering. Von Arlt made history when he completed the first unassisted ski ascent of over 10,180 feet by climbing the Rauris Sonnblick in 1894.

Certainly, the demanding sport of ski mountaineering opens up exquisite terrain that is seldom seen, and ski mountaineers consider it a challenge to conquer the path less traveled.