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.