It’s not all downhill

  • By Andy Rathbun Herald Writer
  • Friday, November 2, 2007 2:41pm
  • LifeGo-See-Do

Plenty of people can shuffle along a hillside on a cross-country ski trip, gliding over the powder, past the evergreens, pausing on occasion to take a picture.

Downhill skiing might take a little more nerve, but, of course, that chairlift up makes things a bit easier.

Ski mountaineering — now there’s a challenge.

The sport, in which skiers use special slips on their skis to move up a mountainside before shooting back down, requires expensive gear, good physical conditioning and, if the skier hasn’t taken it yet, training in avalanche survival.

The Everett Mountaineers begin their winter season with an instructional meeting on Wednesday, highlighting courses including ski mountaineering. That course is scheduled to last from Nov. 14 to April 6. Students cover a wide range of topics in the classroom and on field trips.

During those trips, usually into the North Cascades, a student may attach synthetic skins to the bottom of their skis. The skins allow the student to grip the slope as they shove themselves upward, covering from 1,000 to 2,000 vertical feet.

“In some ways, that’s actually the easier part, if you’re a novice skier,” Corrina Marote, 41, said of the climbs.

Marote, an Anacortes resident, started skiing when she was in her mid-30s. As a member of the Everett Mountaineers, she sought out a course on avalanche training last winter. The ski mountaineering lessons include instruction in that area, and so she ended up taking the whole course.

Going uphill is strenuous, Marote said, but going downhill is no picnic. Ski mountaineers travel with a load usually ranging from 20 to 50 pounds, carrying items such as food, water, a shovel, a tent for overnight trips and, in case an avalanche buries them, a transceiver. The extra weight alters a skier’s center of gravity, she said.

Class instructor Oyvind Henningsen agreed with Marote, saying the pack can throw a person off balance. As one of the three ski mountaineering instructors, he recommended students make sure they’re in shape before trying to tackle the sport.

“They will have so much more enjoyment if they’re not worn out all the time,” he said.

Granted, there are risks to the sport beyond muscle strain. Most are fairly obvious. Any skier has to be concerned about taking a fatal spill or breaking a bone. Additionally, since ski mountaineers are not shooting down well-groomed paths, there is also the risk of avalanche, which is why the course trains students in the area.

“Most avalanches aren’t released by themselves,” Everett Mountaineer Evan Moses said. “They’re released by humans.”

The class is recommended for those of intermediate skills or better who are able to ski down an incline of at least 25 degrees.

Even those with some alpine skiing experience may need to invest in gear. While the boots and skis used for ski mountaineering are similar to alpine skiing equipment, Henningsen said the items don’t convert that well between the sports. He encourages students to rent or invest in ski mountaineering-specific items.

That can be pricey. Buying the items — which for newcomers includes pants, a shovel and a transceiver, along with skis and boots — can run from $1,400 to $2,700. While Henningsen said rental gear is out there, finding it can be tricky. Neither REI nor Mount Pilchuck Ski and Sport rent the necessary equipment, according to clerks at the stores.

Generally, the full ski mountaineering course attracts 10 to 15 students, a fairly small number. Its earlier portions, focused solely on backcountry skiing and avalanche training, could draw two to three times that.

Safety is always a concern, which is why instructors try not to push students beyond their abilities, Henningsen said. Thus far, the course has succeeded in limiting injuries to the occasional bruised bottom.

“I don’t think we’ve gotten beyond that,” he said.

Reporter Andy Rathbun: 425-339-3455 or arathbun@heraldnet.com.

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