(This article was originally published in a local Seattle magazine back in 2006 or so. I’ve updated it a bit as of 2016 to maintain basic relevance. Honestly, not a whole lot has changed!)
It wasn’t long ago that randonnée skiing was largely a means to an end for salty alpinists bent on getting deep into the folds of a mountainous winter.
However, a new breed of skier has discovered the benefits of randonnée and it’s redefining the sport. Randonnée (or alpine touring (AT) ) gear is opening up the backcountry to people seeking fresh snow, fewer crowds and the freedom of the hills by allowing your heels to be free for ascending and then locked-down for the return.
“It’s a good marriage of downhill and wilderness,” says Scott Schell of Seattle’s Pro Ski, one of the nation’s busiest and most respected purveyors of AT gear. “There are generally three types of people we see coming in. People are either sick of the crowds, sick of expensive lift tickets, or just love skiing so much that they’re looking to do more with their skis.”
If that sounds like you, a a bit of gear and some avalanche safety training could send you on your way to your best ski season ever. Here’s what you’ll need:
First, decide the type of skier you’re going to be. Are you a “side country” skier, mostly riding lifts and taking the occasional short tour, or are you going to be spending the majority of time in the backcountry? The former needs a binding that can take the harsh abuse of resort skiing, while the latter will benefit from something that pushes low weight to the fore, saving you vast amounts of energy at the end of the day.
With that priority fixed, look for bindings that are durable, easy to operate and have the latest DIN release safety. Stepping into the bindings and locking and unlocking your heels between climbs and descents ought to be as simple and reliable as possible. Also note that bindings with tiny moving parts can get jammed with snow or ice and be a nightmare. Always look for clean, simple designs.
A good binding will also have a multi-height heel lift for climbing that helps neutralize the steeps, saving your legs on the way up. If you can’t easily operate these from a standing position with a pole tip, keep looking.
Fritschi and Dynafit* bindings continue to dominate the market, though since the Dynafit patent has expired, a number of other players have offerings in the newly minted “Tech” genre of bindings. Recent improvements and their light weight have made Dynafit the choice for pure backcountry skiers, and the ease of use and downhill-like design of the Fristchis have made them a favorite of hard-charging side-country skiers. Recently, even mainstream downhill companies have jumped on the bandwagon, with offerings from Marker, Solomon and others targeted at side country skiers.
*Be sure your boots are tech-compatible if you want these bindings. Only boots with the metal toe dimples (shown above) work with tech bindings.
Though an essential part of the equation, the only big difference between a great downhill ski and a great AT ski is weight. The rest of the equation is largely the same – choose the ski that best matches your weight and style of skiing, then get the lightest one you can.
Sticking to the bottom of your skis with an adhesive back, skins are the magic carpets of the AT world. On the snow side, short, backswept hairs glide forward, but grip the snow in reverse, turning your skis into your ticket up.
Skins are bought by width. You buy them to match the widest part of your ski and trim them to match your ski’s silhouette, being sure to leave the ski edges well exposed for gripping on traverses.
Here again, weight vs. durability is a key metric. Most of today’s synthetic skins do a good job of delivering both. Skins from Black Diamond and G3 (Genuine Guide Gear) remain the top choice of most skiers.
Randonnée boots are light. Once scorned as “too light” for aggressive skiing, the latest AT boots are available in a spectrum spanning whatever level of performance you need. While some might take issue with that proclamation, you’d be hard-pressed to find an honest skier who’d not blame a bad turn on their fitness or skill, before their choice of boots.
The latest boots feature ultralight, heat-moldable liners for exceptional comfort, dual-density shells for maximum stiffness and comfort, and uphill walk modes that free the cuff for a wide range of motion that makes skinning tolerable. Like bindings, they are available in a broad spectrum spanning burly and rigid, to ultralight and comfortable to match your style of skiing.
Brains and Other Essentials
Yes, AT skiing opens up a whole new world – one that deserves your respect. Avalanches happen all the time and they will likely kill you if you don’t educate yourself about how to avoid them. Without question, you must own and know how to use an avalanche beacon, probe and shovel. Carrying a shovel might look cool, but without knowing where to dig, they’re just for building jumps. Take a class and ski with experienced people that can mentor you in safe route finding and snow science. Most mountain regions also have an Avalanche Forecast Center that posts daily avalanche conditions. Nearly all of them operate on a shoestring budget so, should you find yourself addicted and have re-set your browser homepage to their site all winter, make a donation and help keep it safe out there for everyone.
(Boots, skis, clothing, skins, bindings, poles, avy gear, etc.)
(Boots, skis, clothing, etc.)
(Boots, skis, clothing, etc.)
(Skis, bindings, skins, avy gear, etc. )
(Skis, Boots, Poles, Avy Gear)
Backcountry Access (BCA)
Northwest Avalanche Center
Bergdorfer, Rainer. 100 Classic Backcountry Ski & Snowboard Routes in Washington. Mountaineers Books; 2nd Edition, 1999.
The Northwest Mountain School
Wild Snow – The Backcountry Skiing Blog
(Blog of renowned skier Lou Dawson.)
Turns All Year
(Conditions, trip reports, reviews and classified for Northwest (and beyond) backcountry skiers.)