Choose Your Tools: Universal Gear Truths

This is Part 4 of the Choose Your Tools series.  Also check out Part 3: The Seven Needs of Backcountry Travel.

Before delving further into the specifics of gear selection for the backcountry, there are some universal truths that need to be carved into stone. These are concepts that many folks understand in one way or another, but few have said aloud.  I hope that by sharing them with you, reader, you will be one step farther on the path to gear enlightenment.

What's in your pack matters less than where you take it.

What’s in your pack matters less than where you take it.


What is gear enlightenment you say?  Gear enlightenment is attained when there is nothing more to take away, and nothing is missed. That is, when you think not of gear. Read on →

Choose Your Tools: The Seven Needs of Backcountry Skiing

This is Part 3 of the ‘Choose Your Tools’ series on Gear Selection for Backcountry Skiing. See also Part 2: Avalanche Hazard and Safety Gear

If you were ever a boy scout, or made fun of one, then you’ve probably heard of the 10 essentials. Though beloved by those scarf-wearing hikers, the ten essentials were actually invented by the Mountaineers, the Seattle-based club-cum-Company which now publishes the book that everyone recommends, and no one reads:

You haven’t read it all, though perhaps you’ve glanced over it.  Or if you have read it, do you remember anything particularly useful? The reason that the Mountaineers other series is much more popular is that each volume is tailored to different sports and their needs. The ten-essentials list has the same problem: by trying to do everything for everyone, it does nothing of use to anyone.


Even at my local mountain, Mt Hood, a sign implores climbers to take the ten essentials along, and then the wilderness permit form asks you to check them off of a list before heading out to climb. It’s the old-school mentality that you should never go on a day hike without ’em.  However, even with small maps and bottles of sunscreen, the 10 essentials are going to weigh you down with at least five pounds of extra nonsense that most likely you don’t need.

Still, the boy scouts were onto something. Their list is too specific to be useful, but the abilities that they suggest remain important to backcountry travelers.  Here, those abilities are distilled into a systems approach that I call the Seven Needs. Read on →

Choose Your Tools: Avalanche Hazard and Safety Gear

This is Part 2 of the ‘Choose Your Tools’ series on Gear Selection for Backcountry Skiing.
For Part 1: Introduction Click Here. Or check out the next in the series: The 7 Needs of Backcountry Travel

Backcountry skiing is an inherently hazardous activity.  Many factors, including exposure, weather, speed, and most of all, avalanche hazard combine to make backcountry skiing into what is called a “risk sport”.  Part of the appeal of backcountry skiing is the environment of consequence, which adds a degree of satisfaction to a day which ends uneventfully.  But some elements of backcountry skiing, like avalanche hazard in particular, contain chaotic and unpredictable hazards.

These hazards come into being from two intertwined hazards. First is the snowpack, which is a source of risk which is both variable/unpredictable, as well as one which doesn’t provide good feedback on the quality of our decision making.  On top of that, we humans are fallible and subject to heuristic traps, aka Human Factors.  This means that we are essentially never sure of our ability to make good decisions in avalanche terrain, and as a result, most skiers choose to carry with them tools and equipment which help to reduce the consequences of poor decision making.  These include, most commonly, the holy trinity of beacon, shovel, and probe.

The goal of this article is to discuss how terrain selection and avalanche hazard affect our decisions about which tools are appropriate to throw in our packs on different kinds of ski days. This discussion is followed by some example days and the tools which might be appropriate on those days.  As always when in avalanche terrain: it is important that you take this information for what it is–information and not definition.  Hands-on training with a professional is required and cannot be replaced by watching videos, reading books, or by articles on the web.  Your own experience and judgment are of paramount importance.

Read on →

Choose your Tools: Gear Selection for Backcountry Skiing

I am excited to announce this project, which will be ongoing over the course of the next few weeks, published in digestible parts. I hope to produce a resource that’s valuable to you, whether you’re new to ski-touring or a backcountry master. After this introduction, look forward to a series of posts which will appear in the blog feed, and which will also be linked to from the bottom of this page. Cheers! and happy skiing!

The purpose of this series of posts is to break down not just the gear required for different types of ski touring, but also the principles that govern gear choices for the backcountry and the result that these principles have on gear selections for different days out in the field. Plenty has been written about this subject, but there is a lot of misinformation, or at least, a lot of poorly organized and synthesized information out there.  I propose that a gear list of the sort that one finds on some full-page spread in Powder Magazine or on the TGR forums, while useful as a mental checklist, doesn’t contain much information that is transferable to different climates, snow packs, objectives, and styles of skiing.

Read on →

Mounting Dynafits at Home

I’ve skied for around 20 years now. My first pair of skis, Salomon X-Screams, are the sort of ski that’s now being turned into fences and benches in ski towns around the US. Since that pair, I’ve cycled through many pairs, and several different bindings to boot, but I had never performed my own mount.  I knew that I’d have to do it some day– It’s a right of passage for life-long skiers– but I’ve always been too afraid that I was going to screw it up.  Well, when I was given a new pair of skis by my two favorite parents this season, it seemed like it might be time.  You see, I’m no rich man, and I can’t afford another pair of Dynafits right now.  But what I can afford are Quiver Killers, the binding inserts that allow the user to move one pair of bindings between many skis using just a Phillips head screw driver.  They’re cheap, elegant, and increase the strength of the mount without adding significant weight (MFD plates anyone?).  They’re also a labor of love to install on an undrilled ski, and the local shop wanted $110 to do the job.  That sealed the deal– I’d do the mount at home.

(Workspace courtesy of post-futurist retrograde thought-pilot inventor Alex Ragus)

mounting skis at home with dynafit using simple tools

The workspace: Oxyacetylene welder, shopping cart, wheel-truing stand, and fixie handlebars optional.

Read on →

Umbilicals “Not For Climbing Use”


While watching this video recently, I was struck both by the mechanism of the fall, which resembles a rag doll falling down a laundry heap, as well as by the failure of a piece of equipment which has recently regained popularity and widespread use among ice and alpine climbers. I’m referring of course to ice tool umbilicals.

The umbilical is an old idea which briefly fell out of style with the advent of the wrist loop for vertical ice climbing.  Old umbilicals would prevent dropping axes, but leashes offered a much more efficient resting position while climbing.  Recently,  as tools have developed steeper picks and larger pinky-hooks, umbilicals have regained popularity as a means of climbing longer and more committing routes without the risk of dropping a tool.  Though they create slightly more hassle and clutter, they are a clear choice compared to carrying a third tool.

But drop-protection is not the only way that they’re used.  There is an implicit understanding among climbers who use umbilicals that they function as a sort of moving belay.  Or at least, we would hope so.  As the video shows at 00:45, the leader’s umbilical fails under the sudden load of his weight. This illustrates a fundamental deficiency in the design of ice umbilicals which should be fixed. Read on →