The Evolution of Skin Track Setting
By Joe Stock - G3 Athlete
You should set a steep skin track. Skinning straight uphill will provide valuable experience for your life ahead. You may intimidate rivals to leave your zone for your tribe. If you’re lucky, you might attract a high quality mate to improve your family lineage. Steep skins tracks are the modern version of fighting a sabre tooth tiger. Those who push the boundaries of skinning will go farther in life. Evolution follows the steepest skinners. Without steep skin tracks, us Sapiens would be still fetching bananas for chimpanzees.
But what if you’re over 25 years old? What if you already have a high quality mate and don’t need to intimidate rivals? Maybe you don’t care about evolving. You just want a nice, easy skin track for the most downhill skiing.
* * *
A skin track that maximizes your skiing has two fundamental attributes: it’s safe and efficient. We don’t want to get avalanched while skinning. We also want to avoid wasting energy on the ascent. Unless you’re in the middle of nowhere, your skin track may be used by hundreds of people, including beginners. Skin tracks for experts and beginners have the same attributes.
Ascend the Safest Route
Make AVA Turns on Benches
Instead of kick turns, use the terrain to link together natural benches where you can make AVA turns. AVA is the shape your skins make as you step around a turn. You’ll find small benches for AVA turns atop boulders, on small shoulders or a below a tree. Your ability to link together these benches shows true terrain mastery. Challenge yourself to make the full ascent with no kick turns.
Avoid Zig Zags
When you do make a turn, have a reason. Don’t make turns for a change of scenery. A good reason for a turn is you’ve reached a nice bench and the next ascent trajectory is long. Another reason for a turn is to avoid increasing danger ahead, such as a steepening slope.
Like every rule, the no zig zag rule has exceptions. For example, a broad ridge would dictate you zig zag to avoid the steeper terrain on either side. Likewise, skinning a gully leading to a pass only has room for zig zags or booting.
Ascend at an Easy Angle
To set the ideal track angle, keep your heel lifters down and climb as steep as comfort allows. Heel lifters will tempt you to make a track that’s too steep. As the track packs down, it becomes more slippery. You want a magic slope angle? There isn’t one.
Occasionally, a steep track is more efficient. Like on a frozen spring morning, when high heels allow you to climb straight uphill and engage more skin for grip. A narrow ridge is another exception; your only option is to boot or skin straight up the ridge.
Set a Consistent Track Angle
Making a consistent track angle is not intuitive; it requires practice. Perhaps the best way to learn this skill is blindfolded. On a steep and safe slope, pull your hat down over your eyes. With your heel lifters down, climb as steep as comfort allows. Feel the pressure of your shins against the boots, the tweek in your ankle and the slip of your ski. You’ll set a better track blindfolded than with eyes open. With dedicated practice you’ll gain an intuitive feel of a consistent track angle that follows the terrain.
Look AheadDo you know what your skis look? Good, now don’t look at them again. Look up! Take in your surroundings. Look for the route ahead and hazards to avoid. Look for benches to make AVA turns. If you see a turn approaching, look over your shoulder for the next track trajectory. Looking down at your skis gives you zero information. If the allure of your top sheets is too much, tape some repulsive nudey photos on there.
* * *
Learning to set a good skin track takes years of coaching and practice. That’s why it’s a major component of guide exams. Most of your backcountry day is spent going uphill, so it’s worth working on the uphill as much as the downhill. It’s your signature on the snow that hundreds will retrace. You may not evolve, but you will get more skiing.