Avalanche safety equipment has long revolved around what most skiers will agree are the three essential companion rescue tools - beacon, shovel and probe.
Of course, having these tools in your pack doesn’t make you any safer unless you have the knowledge to use them and at least a basic understanding of how to recognize potentially hazardous conditions and terrain. Education and backcountry experience are the true foundation to safe backcountry skiing.
While avoiding an avalanche remains your only guarantee to survive one, continued innovation in avalanche safety gear is helping to stack survival odds in a skier’s favor. Avalanche transceivers are easier to use and more efficient than ever before, and the advent of the Avalung and now airbag pack are aimed at improving your chances for survival in the event of a slide. Whether viewed as self-preservation devices or essential safety tools, Avalungs and airbag packs are growing in popularity thanks to user-friendly, lightweight designs as well as a few high profile incidents where both devices have helped skiers survive deadly slides.
Although not yet as common a sight in the backcountry as Avalungs, airbag packs are gaining momentum in avalanche safety circles. Although they come with a significantly bigger price tag ($700+) than a standard ski pack or even an Avalung pack ($200+), airbag packs are even gaining visibility among recreational backcountry skiers. Pack and airbag designs have made significant strides in reducing weight and complexity of the system over the past couple of seasons. The newest crop of airbag packs is proving that manufacturers can design and build ski touring friendly systems that maintain the operational feel and look of a traditional ski pack with the added safety edge of the airbag system.
Founded on the basic principle that larger volume objects will better stay on the top of a turbulent medium, airbag packs seek to dramatically increase a skier’s volume by way of inflating a durable balloon or air bag around the upper body. The design serves to promote keeping the skier on the surface of the debris and to help protect the head from potential trauma. The packs have proven to be quite effective, but should not be viewed as substitutes for education, experience, informed decision making or companion rescue gear.
Packs and technology are also evolving every season. While we await new offerings from Black Diamond and Arcteryx that will feature battery driven inflation devices, compressed air technology rules the scene. We sampled a variety of packs last spring and are currently field testing the new Ortovox Tour 32 ABS pack (review to be added soon).
The idea of a dedicated backcountry ski area may sound like a contradiction of terms to many veteran backcountry users. But it’s a concept that has brought the backcountry ski community in Smithers, British Columbia together and launched a new concept in human powered skiing. The project is called Hankin-Evelyn and it revolves around creating access to skiable acreage plus basic facilities to support the local ski scene including a day-use shelter, an overnight shelter and gladed ski runs.
Access is by skinning from a variety of trailheads and the terrain ranges from modest tree glades to full alpine bowls. You should read more about it because it's a great place to go visit and ski but also because it's a great concept in community building and resource use. It fits the Smithers area very well because non-motorized access to good skiing was limited, but the result is a great resource that would make any backcountry ski community stoked.
If you've seen the full Valhalla ski movie (which you should), the forest scene segment below likely elicited the thought, "How the heck did they do this?" Well, it sounds like we can actually find out, but not 'til next week when Sweetgrass is going to release a behind the scenes edit. In the mean time, if you haven't seen it, check this out - shot at Mt. Baker, home to big trees and a big snowpack.
Shane McConkey helped push the sport of skiing to new levels and is widely credited with innovating fat skis and rocker ski design. He also pushed the sport of BASE jumping into the public eye, pioneered ski-BASE jumping and, after watching the new movie McConkey - You have one life. Live it.by Matchstick Productions, you’ll appreciate that he was way ahead of his time documenting every stunt and event possible on video, too. Sadly, he died in 2009 while doing a ski-BASE jump in Italy.
Shane McConkey’s ski and stunt legacy is long and well deserved, but does that translate to over 100 minutes of engaging footage and stories? The answer is yes. Matchstick Productions (MSP) has a history with Shane McConkey and it shows in the film. MSP worked with him throughout his ski career and reached out to his family and friends for pointed interviews, touching stories and a great collection of Shane’s home videos in addition to the high quality footage in the MSP archives.
If you only know of McConkey from a few ski film clips, the film will give you a new appreciation for a guy who skied and pushed the adventure envelope as a way of life, and like few others. If you are well versed in his exploits, the film sheds light on Shane the person and how, in his words, he lived for “maximum enjoyment” in life. Insights and interviews with family, friends and peers celebrate his achievements, his notorious sense of humor and his impressive contributions to the sport of skiing. They also acknowledge the risks inherent in his chosen path.
McConkey the individual is as engaging and entertaining as the footage of him skiing and BASE jumping is mind bending. Sadly, Shane McConkey is now part of ski history, but the film McConkey offers an endearing and pointed celebration of his legacy.
The December 2013 issue (volume 59) is in production and scheduled to mail next week. Our second issue of the season includes ski pack reviews, the misadventures of Zed part II, words of wisdom on ski cutting and more.
December is also the last month to subscribe for a chance to win a pair of custom Prior Husume skis! In cooperation with Prior Skis, we're giving away a pair of the award winning Husume boards made to order with XTC construction. One lucky subscriber will win the Husume of his/her choice come January 2014. You just need to subscribe to enter. Existing subscribers are eligible, too. Get the beta
Continuing with our side project to visit and highlight local and regional ski related businesses, I recently made a trip to backpack maker, CiloGear, located in Portland, Oregon.
The small, independent pack company is named after the Cilo Mountains, a remote range in southeast Turkey where Graham Williams, owner and founder, actually spent time climbing while living and working in Turkey. Today, CiloGear occupies space in an old Columbia Sportswear factory in North Portland where they (actual humans) design and build a wide variety of backpacks plus a few travel and urban bags. They've been building packs commercially for nine years.
According to Williams, CiloGear is a "lean manufacturer" meaning they build packs when ordered. This not to say they make custom packs, but rather they offer a stock line of packs that are assembled and sewn in their Portland facility as they are ordered. Williams showed me around the shop on a Saturday afternoon offering a first-hand look at the process. Utilizing a one-piece flow, they prep and stock a supply of pieces and parts for all of their packs (many share components). When an order for a pack comes in, the crew collects the requisite components from the stock on hand and begins the final sewing process. Williams said they average about 6-10 packs a day and customer wait times vary from just a few days to a couple weeks depending on their current workload. The one-piece flow process is very efficient and CiloGear takes every step possible to reduce material waste throughout their pack building process. By batch producing the pack components, they are able to keep wasted fabric to an impressive minimum - literally just tiny pieces.
CiloGear's focus is creating lightweight, practical packs with a decidedly minimalist style. They utilize quality materials, including Dyneema and Cordura laminated five-ply with Dacron X-Pac. All packs utilize their signature d-ring compression strap system, which allows you to custom configure the compression straps and various ski/board carry systems (on ski packs). The packs are impressively lightweight and bomber in feel. Given the collection of well-worn packs hanging in the corners of the shop that have been on a variety of international climbing expeditions, the packs are built to withstand serious abuse.
Williams walked me through the ski pack line, which includes five models ranging from 30 to 45 liters in volume. I've been able to get out and ski with a ClioGear 30Z a couple times, and it's included in a full ski pack review in the December 2013 issue of the mag (due out Dec 2). In brief, the 30Z is a traditional top-loader with a small design twist - a zip-closure lid. Think trad top-loading shape and access with a lid that zips closed. It's a lightweight, minimalist pack with surprising versatility. It features CiloGear's signature d-ring strap system to customize compression and ski or board carry options. The pack’s narrow profile, lightweight construction and minimalist design are in lockstep with the priorities of many backcountry skiers.
As backcountry skiers, we carry a variety of "essential" gear: beacon, shovel, probe and skins. But, in keeping with my "it's the little things in life" mantra, a hot drink on a cold day in the mountains goes a long way and has become part of my essentials list.
For the most part, I've replaced carrying cold water on a typical day tour with carrying a thermos of hot tea. I drink more and can ward off the chill following a long up track or given stormy conditions. My favorite brew is a lightly sweetened chai with a dose of cream but some days a straight up tea or even hot Emergen-C really hits the spot. A thermos of hot chocolate, or even coffee, stashed at the snowmobile or car goes a long way too, especially if you've got a long drive ahead of you.
Sure, I lose the drink-on-the-fly experience of using a hydration reservoir, but I'm able to work my tea breaks into skin transitions and routine snack stops without issue. And my tea never freezes. A good insulated thermos keeps tea hot all day and even overnight. I've owned a variety of thermos bottles over the years - everything from basic REI units to high-dollar push-button models. That said, few have stood the test of time and abuse of life in a ski pack.
I'm looking forward to putting the new Stanley units pictured to work this winter. Stanley literally invented the stainless steel vacuum bottle 100 years ago. I think they've got it figured out. I dig the retro-style, bomber feel and the 25oz size of the smaller green one pictured is an ideal volume. The big guy (1.1 liter) will serve the car/snowmo stash nicely and the flask, well, it'll come in handy in its own way.
Sad news on the loss of ski mountaineer Magnus Kastengren. He was skiing with friend and renowned ski mountaineer Andreas Fransson in New Zealand when he fell to his death on Mt. Cook. story link
Fransson is well know for skiing incredibly steep, technical lines around the world along with creating eloquent narratives about his experiences. The following video produced by Fransson and Bjarne Salen offers a window into Fransson's ski world.