Alpine Multisport: Ski Mountaineering

Nirvana doesn’t just mean great rock music; it’s also a state of being. For me, transcendence forever came from long days in the mountains, where lung-busting aerobic approaches and technical climbing merged in a euphoric synergy.

When I shattered my leg four years ago, resulting in four surgeries, my long outings in the mountains were numbered. Sometimes I could suck it up and deal, but then I could barely get out of bed for weeks afterward. Now, I seek out the best crags with the shortest approaches.

In summer, it’s easy. Once the snow flies, things get more complicated. Sure, climbing gyms are fun. And skiing is OK, but I get fixated on climbing.

Ahhh, how I miss that flow, that self-powered movement over technical terrain, where all I hear is my heart pounding in the pristine, uncrowded alpine.

Ski mountaineering is nothing new, but it was new to me. It’s a combination of climbing and randonee skiing (a.k.a. alpine touring). For a long time the gear was problematic: Ski boots didn’t climb well, and soft climbing boots meant that for all but the best schussers, descending was pure survival skiing. It was like those childhood ski-school lessons, where you’re told to wedge your skis like a pizza slice to slow down, or point ’em like french fries to speed up. Only, I added a twist: pizza, french fries, crash.

In recent years, the niche of skimo gear (yup, skimo for short) has gotten phenomenally functional and lightweight. I’m a rookie, but here are two of my favorite local skimo outings in Rocky Mountain National Park—maybe they’ll spark some ideas:

After a half-hour of gentle uphill skinning from Bear Lake, I strap my skis to my pack and hike steep snow to the ice above frozen Emerald Lake. Pull out my tools, snap-on my crampons. Five hundred feet of easy snow, ice and rock brings me to the gentle slopes of Flattop Mountain. Skis back on, flick my boots into downhill mode, and carve GS turns back to the trailhead.

Another: On a calm spring day, when the ultra-mega South Face of the Petit Grepon basks in sunny solitude, a buddy and I skin to the base. In summer, the hike kills my leg. Now, all smiles, we swap boots for rock shoes and climb 800 feet of brilliant rock—nobody else in sight—then rap down, click in, and cruise out.

Personally—maybe it’s just me—the best part of skimo is the ear-to-ear grin I can’t wipe from my face on the way down. That, and the fact that the next day I can get out of bed and do it all over again. Pizza, french fries, nirvana.

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