The Rise of Ski Mountaineering 

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Story and photos by Vince Shuley

It's an exciting time to be living in the mountains. While our beloved resort infrastructure continues to expand beyond its bursting boundaries, the core community of skiers and snowboarders is seeking out remote powder playgrounds to escape the crowds.

Helicopters and snowmobiles allow quick access to remote backcountry areas, albeit for a price. Touring bindings and split boards now allow folk to push beyond the ropes and enjoy unblemished slopes. With the exception of people taking the time to get educated about safe travel in the mountains, what is stopping us from getting after it?

It's hard to point fingers at the equipment any longer. What used to be feeble and unreliable a decade ago is now stalwart and innovative, and without the weight penalty. If the gear climbs as well as it descends, can't hiking up a ridge with resplendent mountain views and gliding across a voluminous glacier offer fulfillment? We need not suffer like we once did, though the desired freedom is amplified if we choose to endure it.

Ski mountaineer (or 'skimo') racing is the pinnacle of self propelled backcountry skiing. These men and women (who race in aerodynamic suits and equipment that is literally weighed in grams) ski more vertical than almost any recreational skiers in the backcountry. They may not necessarily be 'all about the down' but they certainly get to experience more 'down' than their burdened brethren.

 

Humble beginnings

While ski mountaineering is perceived as a relatively new form of recreation and competition, the roots go back to the origin of skiing itself.  The Norwegians of the Middle Ages were known to use skis to hunt and to travel over distances during the winter months. A legend exists that around 1000 AD the Norse explorer Leif Ericsson brought the first skis to North America after landing at the northern tip of Newfoundland. While there is little supporting evidence that the travelling Norsemen were actually skiing in the Maritimes, there is early literature describing the northern ski touring folk in Scandinavia.  The oldest lengthy description of skis and climbing skins has been found in Historia de Gentibus Septentrionalibus (A History of the Northern Peoples) by Olaus Magnus, published in Rome in 1555. An excerpt from the English translation reads:

"...having their feet fastened to crooked pieces of wood made plain and bent like a bow in the former part, with a staff in their hands to guide them; and by these, at their pleasure they can transport themselves upward, downward, or obliquely, over the tops of snow. They provide that those pieces of wood be covered beneath with the tender skin of a young fawn, the form and color whereof is like to a deer skin but it is far longer and larger. But why the pieces of wood are covered with these tender skins there be diverse causes given; namely that they may transport themselves the swifter over these high snows, that they may the more nimbly avoid cliffs of rocks, and steep places with an overthwart [transverse] motion, that when they ascend to a place they may not fall backward: because the hair will rise like spears, or hedge-hog bristles, and by an admirable power of Nature hinder them from falling down."

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