The skintrack can make you or break you. We prefer the former rather than the latter. ACMG/IFMGA guide Alex Geary shows us a shining path toward skintrack setting bliss in his digital handbook, The Art Of Up-tracking For Skiers And Splitboarders.
Many of us know the Goldilocks and the Three Bears fable. It’s rather uncomplicated as plots go. “Just the right amount” of this or that becomes the legacy of Goldilocks’ trespassing in the bears’ humble home and her tasting from the three bowls of porridge; one too hot, one too cold, and one just the right temperature. Through the mild brainwashing that can be children’s fables, kids learn that the principle of just the right amount is axiomatic to a humble but well-lived life.
But we are backcountry skiers and riders, and we have bigger things to worry about than porridge; things like proper skintracks. I’ll take downright poor weather and poor snow conditions and, most often, still enjoy the day in the backcountry. But a poor skintrack? That can ruin the day and even steadfast backcountry partnerships.
My main ski partner (he may read this), sometimes, not all of the time, punches a steep skinner. It’s not so much flexing as it is his path toward what he perceives as the least resistance. He also sports bindings with some hefty risers — just sayin’.
I’ve gotten hand slaps too. On a traverse last spring, honest to hail Mary, I thought I was setting a skintrack that wasn’t too steep, wasn’t too shallow, wasn’t too twisty, and wasn’t too exposed to hazards. In other words, applying the Goldilocks principle, I imagined the skinner was just right.
My two partners diverged from my track low on a grinding climb to one of the day’s high passes. “Why are you punching this line?” came a query from a hundred yards away. I’m uncertain if I replied verbally. I’m sure I shrugged. The point being, deep down I thought the skinner was, as Goldilocks might note, perfect. Evidently, it was not.
I’m glad someone like IFMGA, Revelstoke-based guide Alex Geary is around to set me straight gently. He’s written up the second edition of The Art Of Up-Tracking –digital handbook— For Skiers And Snowboarders.
In 40 pages, Geary specifies what is and is not the proper art of setting a skintrack. There is ample text, ample anecdotes, and clear notated photos to spell out the finer points of this backcountry art form. As much as this digital handbook is for beginners, it is also an excellent resource for those with years of skintrack experience, either sitting in and letting others break trail or those workhorses up front setting the track.
One aspect of skintrack setting I love is seeing the terrain, visualizing it internally (the mind’s eye), and setting the track. The goal is to gain altitude and maintain efficiency by not going too steep. It seems simple enough.
Early in the handbook, Geary writes:
“The feeling we get from our legs as we break trail doesn’t deceive us. When setting a track, we want to dissociate what our legs are feeling from what our eyes are telling us. This is more difficult than it sounds and takes a lot of practice (hundreds of hours). The most effective way I’ve seen people learn this is by closing their eyes when following a consistent up-track. With your eyes closed, you can concentrate on what you’re feeling in your legs. I find it most helpful to concentrate on my uphill leg and the pressure on my uphill shin. Remember what this feels like and adjust your incline to keep it feeling consistent while you’re walking. You should end up with a smooth and consistent incline on your track.”
All this is to hammer home the concept of “setting a consistent incline.” An idea that sometimes is hard to execute. Yet Geary’s advice is clear and establishes a core value of skintrack setting relying on reading terrain, sensing how your body feels, and finding a “just perfect” middle ground of consistency.
As you can imagine, the handbook does get granular. There is advice on contouring around knolls, setting a path in glaciated terrain, digging out corners, when and when not to employ kick turns, and on and on. After all, skintrack setting is something we likely spend 90% of a backcountry day doing, so we might as well allow Geary to meditate on the minutia.
The handbook aptly uses the term “art” in the title. Imagine a late December day, a low-hung Sun in a late afternoon sky. The light can sometimes be purply that time of year, the snow a blue hue. A zig zagging skintrack or a flowy skinner in more complicated terrain, cast in that light, is sublime. It shows our uncanny knack as a species to make upward progress look beautiful. And that beauty shouldn’t be fraught or tainted with poor decision-making, excessive work, or, dare I say, a too-steep skinner.
There’s also another upshot: Geary seems a generous soul. He asks readers to decide how much they want to pay — consider it a sliding scale. The digital handbook will be available on his website beginning November 1.
But here is the truth. If you are new to the skintrack art form, or someone you routinely partner with is hellbent on flexing, or you prescribe to the steeper=efficiency equation, spending money on the The Art Of UP-Tracking is priceless.
Jason Albert comes to WildSnow from Bend, Oregon. After growing up on the East Coast, he migrated from Montana to Colorado and settled in Oregon. Simple pleasures are quiet and long days touring. His gray hair might stem from his first Grand Traverse in 2000 when rented leather boots and 210cm skis were not the speed weapons he had hoped for. Jason survived the transition from free-heel kool-aid drinker to faster and lighter (think AT), and safer, are better.
That photo combo of inset and close up shots is amazing! I am sure we all understand that concept, but to see it visually play out in real life is awesome.
Thanks Slim, I was lucky to get a good angle on that one on a subsequent day ski touring across the valley.
What a time to be alive. I can’t wait to read it. Setting a good skintrack is a skill I do not possess. Left to my own devices I’d engage the highest riser on my Plum Guides and go direttissima whenever possible, but strangely none of my partners seem to enjoy this form of punishment the way I do.
Jokes aside, it is just this kind of obsessive meditation on an easy-to-learn, hard-to-master type of thing that really tickles my fancy. See any of Andy Kirkpatrick’s work on the minutiae of climbing technique, particularly his “Ode to the Piss Bottle,” for other good examples.
Looking forward to Reading this ! Alex is a solid guide and all around good guy with a ton of knowledge and experience. Good on him for writing about a topic that gets little attention but a whole/lot of discussion! I’m always happy to learn more efficient ways to set a skin track.
Thanks Miles, I hope you enjoy the book!
Speaking of uptracks and Revelstoke, long ago I was skiing with Ruedi in his Durand Glacier domaine. He spent some time demonstrating what makes a good uptrack. I recall silently admiring across the valley an uptrack from earlier in the day, how it comments so beautifully on the terrain. Ruedi broke in on my thoughts saying, An uptrack is not a work of art! I had not invited him into my head, but he got in somehow.
Ruedi does that.
One of my first experiences with Alex was also one of the most impressionable. It was end of the day with the group starting the last homeward skin. We were at a spot in the terrain I had experienced, and relatively clear of subjective hazard. Alex asked if I wanted to boot home (I am the chef at the lodge), which would have involved me breaking trail, and making some decisions along the way up and over the Knob (traditional homeward track).
I opted to stay with the group, and jumped in line behind Alex. Now, normally I would have jumped ahead, as even with breaking trail I can reasonably outpace most groups to make the effort worthwhile… We were back at the lodge only about 10 minutes longer than me on my own (on an hour of climbing), and I didn’t break any sweat, and more importantly he discussed the hazard assessment with me that evening.
Over the ensuing winters I have gotten to know many guides, and self guided clients, and seen a lot (I mean A Lot) of not great to downright terrible skin tracks (steepness, exposure, soooo many kick turns). Alex (and Mado, and Pierre,) are definitely the guides I look to for learning really good technique. I have followed some awesome, stupidly simple strolls into complicated terrain set by these people.
The pictures Wildsnow pulled from his guide are spots I know well (Ice Pass, upper Seduction) and are spots that I consider tests any time I am setting a skin track… there’s a hundred ways to waste your time and energy, and I think I have found most of them!
Alex’s advice is solid! Buy the guide, learn something new!
So many nuggets here; thanks for the comment. “there’s a hundred ways to waste your time and energy, and I think I have found most of them!” I think this applies to most of us as we make our way forward.
Thanks Geoff! Looking forward to skiing with you again this winter! (and of course eating your scrumptious food…)
Easiest way to set a good skintrack without even reading the handbook (which I’m sure is great) just don’t use risers (or the lowest possible one on race bindings). Easy way to even keep yourself honest
I agree, Cody. Heel risers are archaic, left over from the antediluvian age of touring boots with little cuff range of motion. The other thing is learning how to avoid kick turns, which are to be used mostly as an admission of failure. Careful choice of terrain features can often avoid kick turns.
However, number one for a good uptrack is the safety of the route. All other considerations fall before safety.
Efficiency can be solved for using r = P/C.
In practice, there is no right or wrong… just a lot of ‘exceptions to the rule’.
Kick turns spell failure?
Risers need not apply?
I smell mutiny?
Lol. Most things in the mountains are a grey area. Eg. There is no such thing as “safe”, and sometimes I do kick turns. I also use heel-risers most of the time and I explain why in the book. I try to provide guidance on things to consider when making decisions on what technique to use, or which way to go, as we could all make better up-tracks including myself.
A relevant but rarely discussed angle is how human anatomy and skin tracks merge. A great thing to add if not already in your article. Happy to share thoughts… email@example.com
Hi Dan, I do touch on this briefly, particularly with reference to using heel risers (assuming I’m understanding you correctly). Have a read and then please feel free to send me an email with any thoughts you have.