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I’ve been slow to adopt helmet use for backcountry skiing. As I’m fond of saying to those who question my lack of helmet (namely, my wife), “My head’s not a vital organ, so why worry.”
Joking aside, I certainly understand the value of wearing a helmet. I don’t get on my bike without one, and I’ve been known to wear my climbing helmet on more technical spring ski tours. Nonetheless, I’ve been slow to embrace helmet wearing for general backcountry skiing because it just feels like an extra item to manage and deal with between runs.
Knowing that a helmet has the potential to save my life and that designs are evolving toward lighter, more vented backcountry-friendly styles, I decided to take a closer look at helmet options. After talking to a few ski guides and various friends who use helmets in the backcountry, the Smith Vantage came up as a solid choice for backcountry skiing – namely, lightweight with excellent vent regulation.
Without getting mired down in proprietary material lingo and protective construction speak, the Smith Vantage has a lot to offer helmet-wearing backcountry skiers: It’s wicked light at 440 grams / 15 ounces, has two sets of adjustable vents and offers easy fit adjustment thanks to the BOA dial-adjust system. Of course, it has leading edge crash protection, meets all of the various standards for ski use and looks pretty cool to boot.
Honestly, from first fit, it felt great. I began using it at the ski hill a bit this winter and, this spring, have grabbed it for high alpine backcountry ski adventures. It mates with my older Smith goggles well and has proven to work with K2 and Julbo goggles, as well as my sunglasses. Really, what has sold me on it boils down to weight, fit and well regulated venting. The fit is light and comfortable on my head and, aside from its volume, it’s pretty low impact in/on the pack, too. The 21-vent system features two controls and actually vents well enough that I have worn it on ascent without complaint. It’s as close to feeling like you’re not wearing a helmet as I can imagine a helmet feeling. On storm days, it adds a nice level of protection from the elements while maintaining goggle venting and a warm head, though I still kind of miss the cozy feeling of my favorite boiled wool toque . . . nonetheless, the helmet offers much better protection.
Volcano Ski Access: Mt. Hood, Mt. Adams, Mt. St. Helens
It's volcano skiing season, and we've been getting a number of inquiries regarding some of the more popular access roads for Mt. Hood, Mt. Adams and Mt. St. Helens.
Here's what we know:
Mt. Hood - North side Cloud Cap Road (FR 3512): Road is closed and gated at the bottom by the Tilly Jane trailhead (trail 600A). Closure to remain in effect until further notice while hazard tree removal takes place this summer. I know, hazard trees you ask? Well, it's fire related and there's not much we can do except be patient and use the Tilly Jane Trail to access summer classics like the Snow Dome, Langille Bowls and the Eliot Glacier. The good news is that the snow from the toe of the Eliot up is in fine form as of May 22. Snow in Tilly Jane Creek and the trees below 6,000ft is not so great - lots of blow down and dirt on the snow but it's pretty skiable to Tilly Jane Camp or the A-Frame.
Mt. Adams - Southside climb access (FR 8040): The access road is closed by snow at Morrison Creek Camp - just where the road begins to climb in earnest. This sets you up for access following Morrison Creek and is nice if you plan to ski the SW Chutes, but it's considered a pretty long approach by most. Of course, you're more apt to have the place to yourself when long access weeds out the less intrepid...
Mt. St. Helens - Southside Climber's Bivy (FR 830): Climber's bivy is still closed, but Marble Mount/Worm Flows route is open, and it's still a great access point, especially if you are on skis and can cruise the flattish approach to treeline. Consistent snow is above 4500ft.
Editor's Note: In the three days since this story was originally posted, BC Parks has announced that, “The Spearhead Huts Comittee (SHC) proposal has met all of the qualification criteria”. This means that as the sole qualified respondent, SHC have been given the green light to develop the permit required to build and operate the huts in the Spearhead Area of Garibaldi Park.
Long before the first ski lifts appeared on the slopes of Whistler and Blackcomb mountains in southwest British Columbia, skiers sought out the area’s now classic Spearhead Traverse, a u-shaped ski tour that follows the Fitzsimmons Range from the Whistler Mountain / Garibaldi Provincial Park boundary at Flute Mountain around to the Spearhead Range at the edge of the Blackcomb Mountain / Garibaldi Provincial Park Boundary at the East Col.
The 35-kilometer (21-mile) route crosses 13 glaciers as it winds through stunning alpine terrain with countless ski opportunities and mountaineering objectives along the way. Given the relatively easy access to such incredible terrain, the area sees plenty of skier traffic and the area is now being considered as the site for three new Alpine Club of Canada mountain huts.
A 2010 proposal by regional Vancouver and Whistler affiliates of the Alpine Club of Canada looking to build three huts along the classic Spearhead high-route has strong public support and was recently endorsed by BC Parks in a their new management plan for Garibaldi Provincial Park, where the huts would be located. As per BC Parks:
"Given widespread indications of support for the hut concept, the plan amendment provides clear direction to allow huts. This includes provisions to ensure the location and is carefully considered to minimize environmental footprint and avoid impacts, in particular impacts to Mountain Goats and their habitat. The management direction also includes conditions that will be used to assess hut proposals to ensure that the hut system is safe and affordable for a spectrum of park visitors."
With the support of Parks, the proposal still faces environmental and public reviews, not to mention a significant fundraising campaign. On April 4, BC Parks took the next step, releasing a public Request for Qualifications (RFQ) and the the Spearhead Huts Committee responded witha Statement of Qualifications on April 30.
The project is still open to comment, but Spearhead Huts proponents are hopeful they could see approval to proceed with the project as early as the end of May, but could be subject to another round of comments and response delaying the process.
The plan calls for huts designed to comfortably accommodate 35-40 people and be available to the general public by reservation at a modest cost (approximately $20 – $30 per night). They will be built and operated using the best standards in the industry, minimizing environmental impacts in the area. The cost of building the three huts is estimated to run as high 1.6 million dollars. You can follow up on the latest status at www.spearheadhuts.org.
Finding the right backcountry ski boot has a lot to do with good fit, but it's also important to find the right combination of uphill functionality and downhill performance. La Sportiva nailed both in the Spectre alpine touring boot. The Spectre AT boot offers great walkability with the flick of a lever and excellent downhill performance without being uber stiff. It is a true quiver-of-one alpine touring boot.
Weighing in at 6 lbs a pair (size 26), the Spectre is impressively lightweight for a four-buckle touring boot. Some of the weight savings are owed to the unique buckle system, which turns out to be easy to adjust and easy to open. The micro-adjustability of the binding is the best I have ever used. All buckles open wide for unobstructed boot entry and removal, too.
Walk mode is advertised to offer 60-degrees of cuff range and it feels great. The full range is really smooth and not overly dependent on cuff buckle tension. They walk as good or better than any other four-buckle boot I've ever used.
On the ski front, they are stiff and powerful enough to run some pretty burly skis at the ski hill during testing, more burly than a Garmont/Scott Cosmos and on par with the popular Scarpa Meastrale. But the best part is Spectre maintains a degree of progressive flex and are not uber stiff like many carbon fiber cuff designs. The cuff, like many of the light 4-buckle boots on the market, is made of Grilamid but also adds some carbon fiber in the rear spine. Functionally, the Spectre feels powerful without feeling too stiff; it lets your ankles have a little give and take with the ski, snow and terrain when neceessary - like they should. There are three forward lean positions from which to choose.
Best of all, they are not a strict narrow italian fit. In fact, the boot feels great for for my arguably wider than average foot. To help with fit, the boot features an adjustable tongue to dial in volume, too. Obviously, fit is rather subjective, but if the Spectre feels good on your feet, you should give it a try on snow. The Spectre is a true quiver-of-one alpine touring boot.
Spring is gear testing season here at Off-Piste Mag. And though no one seems to respect how much work it really is to test skis, boots and bindings, we've been hard at "work" checking out 2015 backcountry gear. Mount Hood has served up a classic mix of spring powder, bluebird days and everything in between. There's nothing quite like six inches of maritime, wind affected snow to put a ski or a touring binding through the paces.
Carbon fiber is the name of the game in skis for 2015. G3, Sportiva, Black Diamond and Volkl have embraced the light-is-right carbon fiber construction in their new touring skis. Basically, skis are lighter and more capable than ever. The bulk of the new boards in our test quiver fall into the 95-115 mm underfoot window and here a few highlights:
Preliminary top backcountry ski picks:
Voile V6 - think V8 fun with 100mm waist for more versatility
Black Diamond Carbon Convert - takes last year's standout Convert to new light weight
Volkl BMT 94 - high-tech german carbon fiber design delivers precision power
La Sportiva Vapor Nano - wicked light and remarkably fun and capable in pow and mixed conditions
G3 Synapse 101 - all new pow slaying tapered shape and carbon construction
K2 Coomback 114 - proven Coomback versatility meets wider dims and new tail shape
Climbing and Skiing Colorado's Mountains - 50 Select Descents
The Colorado Rockies have a long history of climbing and skiing and there are many lifetimes of descents to be earned within the state’s boundaries. Climbing and Skiing Colorado’s Mountains – 50 Select Ski Descents aims to help you select some of the best.
While well known for its fourteeners, Colorado is, of course, full of countless lower elevation peaks. And rather than simply focus on the well-travelled fourteeners, authors Ben Conners and Brian Miller offer a good variety of twelve- and thirteen-thousand-foot peaks plus a collection of classic fourteeners including Torreys, North Maroon and Sneffels.
Divided into seven ranges – the Front Range, Gore, Tenmile/Mosquito, Sawatch, Sangre de Cristo, Elk and the San Juans – Climbing and Skiing Colorado’s Mountains offers a quick overview and difficulty rating of the main objective of each route plus a detailed narrative for the approach and terrain. The narrative puts you on the route and it’s obvious these guys have been there too. Another nice touch is the color images and full-page maps that help bring each route to life. The vast majority of the routes are presented as spring ski adventures, and it’s the authors’ goal to highlight the spring season as the best time to pursue them.
Conners and Miller have done a great job of selecting aesthetic lines and striking couloirs. Perhaps one of the most striking lines in the book is the San Joaquin Couloir in the San Juan Mountains. Visible from the Telluride Ski Resort, The San Joaquin Couloir is a test-piece for skiers looking to prove their mettle. But the guidebook offers more than just bold, steep lines, there are plenty of routes that appeal to more intermediate level backcountry skiers including the classic East Face of Quandary Peak. It’s a gateway summit descent for sure and a fourteener to boot.
Climbing and Skiing Colorado’s Mountains – 50 Select Ski Descents captures a wide variety of skiing in Colorado. From bold couloirs to classic backcountry summits, the book has all the right ingredients to inspire adventure.