In the chronology of human history they’re called a classic; magnum opus; great work.
We’re talking Dostoevsky, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Dickens.
And now, Martin Volken. Okay, I’m just joking. Sort of.
Volken’s new book “Backcountry Skiing” (with co-authors Scott Schell and Margaret Wheeler) is indeed a magnum opus. Not only is this one of the most current backcountry skiing how-tos I’ve ever seen, but it covers an amazing gamut of information — everything from numerous historical tidbits all the way to six copiously illustrated pages on how to cut climbing skins. Indeed, if print is trying to compete with what you can do with Internet publishing, not shirking on space is key. Thus, 339 pages of ink on paper and you know these guys are making a good stab at keeping pressed sawdust a viable option for communication.
In the intro, “Backcountry Skiing” is said to be organized “according to the progression of a ski tour.” Shopping is the best way to start any real adventure, so chapter one gives an incredibly thorough take on gear. Balanced info about difficult decision points such as ski length and weight will help anyone trying to avoid Prozac while shopping. Extensive info on avalanche safety equipage keeps it real. Indicative of the deep nature of this book, you’ll even find four detailed pages on picking a rope. Even I, in my infinite wisdom, will admit to learning something from that.
After shopping, what’s next in a planning a backcountry ski trip? Probably figuring out how not to get killed by an avalanche. Thus, chapter 2 “Decision-Making in Avalanche Terrain.” Again, an incredibly detailed effort that could easily be used as a text book for outdoor education. Essential modern content includes a good look at the now popular “human factor” aspect of avy safety, in less polite circles also known as “how could we do something so stupid?”
Chapter 3 (whew, 129 pages later) covers navigation. I guess the authors knew the reader would be overwhelmed by now since this chap is only six pages long. I guess GPS use really has made things easier. But here we do find a bit of a copout, as GPS use receives one paragraph with the disclaimer that “Entire books have been written about…using a GPS…” Ho hum, I guess mercy is required here on the part of the reviewer. Let me just say that whole books have been written about many things, so that excuse is lame.
On the other hand, GPS is indeed complex and would require a ton of space, so choices have to be made. Ah, the limits of sawdust publishing. At the least, Volken could have mentioned that your GPS is nearly useless without setting the same Datum your source information uses. That’s a common oversight and would have been good to include in a short list of GPS tips.
So on to Chap 4, “Uphill Movement,” which again gets incredibly detailed. If you’re new to the game, I’d say this chapter alone makes the book worth the price. Gad, just taking a step while using climbing skins gets three pages of details! The part about kick turns continues the trend, detailed beyond belief.
The next chapter “Transitions” is an interesting concept that I’ve always been aware of in an intuitive way, but never organized in my mind. Skinning to skiing, skinning to booting, moving onto glaciated terrain, roped to unroped. Super info about all these little glitches in the day that can cause problems as small as lost minutes — all the way to something as compromising as dropping your gear off the side of a mountain.
Now you’re seeing why I call this a magnum opus. We’re about half through the book and here is Chapter 6, “Ski Mountaineering Techniques.” As you can imagine, detail oriented guide Volken and his friends pull out all the stops here (and Martin shows his Swiss heritage). Four pages just on building anchors with skis. The T-anchor; H-anchor; I-anchor; N-anchor; X-anchor. Yep, it spells “THINX,” and that’s used as a mnemonic to remember all the trick ways you can save your rear end by using skis to pin your ropes to the side of a mountain.
I’ll wind down now, otherwise this’ll be the longest blog post in Wildsnow history. Additional chapters on ski technique, self care, and rescue/emergency round out the encyclopedic tome. Also, throughout this book you’ll find writings from various authors that liven things up with slightly different points of view. Lowell Skoog gets things started with a nice take on ski history, and other pages give views about everything from setting a skin track to tips about how to take our alpine ski skills and become a backcountry skier.
If you can’t learn something from this book, you’re either brain dead or terminally arrogant (let’s see if that gets quoted in the publisher’s promo). Highly recommended. Good gift for a backcountry skier or alpinist of any ability level.
WildSnow.com publisher emeritus and founder Lou (Louis Dawson) has a 50+ years career in climbing, backcountry skiing and ski mountaineering. He was the first person in history to ski down all 54 Colorado 14,000-foot peaks, has authored numerous books about about backcountry skiing, and has skied from the summit of Denali in Alaska, North America’s highest mountain.