Sunday, January 31, 2016

Road to Denali, part 4: Skiing

This weekend our plans were to try out our mountaineering boots on some skis. I had a couple of pairs of old alpine skis with some ancient Randonee bindings (Ramer and Fritschi). I hadn't used them in at least a decade. I'd dabbled a touch with alpine touring but the boots were a problem for me and I basically settled on backcountry NNN gear for skiing. While we aren't set on using skis on Denali, that is my hope. I've been skiing since I was nine years old and am very comfortable on them, but Derek is a relative newbie.

We headed up to Ski Road in Allen's Park, as my buddies Charlie and Tom use it to train for the Grand Traverse ski race. It's a single-lane road closed to traffic this time of year and provides a gentle climbing angle and shelter from the wind. I was hoping this would be a good place for Derek to hone his skills. Turns out it wasn't ideal.

The first thing I realized is that I'm going to need at least one more pair of skis. My alpine skins were so old and bone dry. I'll try re-gluing them, but getting a new pair is probably a good investment. Derek's skins fell off immediately and we had to go to my backup, plastic skins with straps that go around the skis. Except that the skis are too wide for the back strap and can't be buckled. They worked well enough though, being purely attached with tension. This means they don't stick to the bottom of the ski and this isn't ideal. In fact, the toughest part about this outing was copious amounts of snow sticking to the bottoms of our skis and my skins. I have some glide for this problem, but I didn't bring it today.

I also noticed a problem with my Ramer bindings when I turned to come down. The end piece of the platform was missing and therefore I couldn't lock down the heel. This wasn't a problem for me, as the angle is slight and easy enough for me to descend with a free heel. The only issue is that these bindings are not really designed to ski downhill like that and I took things as gentle as possible. I'll have to find those heels...

We skinned up 2.5 miles and Derek decided to turn around. I had it in my head to do three miles, so I dropped my pack and tried to go quickly up another half mile, which got to the end of the road exactly. I stripped off my skins and sped down, hoping to catch Derek. I needn't have worried, as he hadn't gotten very far. He was standing across the road, extremely discouraged with very cold hands. He had fallen a number of times and only had on a pair of liner gloves. I was the only one carrying a pack today and his down mitts were in the pack. I quickly got them out and onto his hands and in a few minutes his hands were toasty. It took a lot longer to get his confidence back.

He just felt so uncomfortable on these skis and especially trying to control them with his soft mountaineering boots. I tried to coach him on doing a snowplow, but just couldn't do it. He'd get mostly  in the position, but wasn't able to control his speed to his satisfaction. Not being able to control your speed is a very uncomfortable and dangerous situation and he didn't like it one bit. Extreme frustration set upon him and we had a few rough minutes. I went in front of him to show him the snowplow and told him to just plow into me if he couldn't stop. He did that once and hit me pretty hard, but was was braced in a snowplow and weathered it fine. I was worried a bit about him hitting my pack so hard, but the only thing in the pack was down - my giant jacket and, now, just my down mitts, so it was a soft impact.

I went a bit further down and then stopped and turned to coach him a bit and once again, he couldn't stop. This time when he plowed into me I was across the slope and we went down in a tangled heap. If anyone had happened across us at this point, seeing us all tangled up and neither one able to move, they would have worried for our lives on Denali. At least they would have thought that after they stopped laughing. Indeed it was comical. I was able to reach down and release one of Derek's bindings and we were able to get untangled with too much damage to my important parts.

Now Derek had reached the depths of despair. He shutdown communication with me for a bit, but I pressed him to work the problem with me. We had to keep communicating. We're liable to run into problems on Denali as well and we'll have to be able to communicate there too. I offered him a choice of trying some more, putting the skins back on to slow down his descent, or taking off the skis and walking down. He chose the skins and that made all the difference. He could now control his speed. Soon a smile emerged on his face.

Derek was just coming to grips with how difficult it is to ski in mountaineering boots. Downhill skiers who think they are hot stuff and quickly humbled when put in mountaineering boots with a heavy pack in breakable crust. Derek only had the boots to contend with here, but one thing at a time. It was my mistake to try and learn this on such a narrow road. We should have gone to a ski area and learned on a wide, open slope and that is our new plan.

It took us as long to descend as it did to climb, but it was a good learning experience and one will build on. I have to get some new equipment and we need more practice, but we'll get it. Still, we got in 6 miles of travel and 1700 vertical feet or so. Next weekend we plan our first overnight and that will be another adventure entirely.


Charlie said...

Yeah, skiing in mountaineering boots is less than ideal... I will probably bring my lightweight AT rando gear for lower down on the mountain. Mountaineering boots don't have the same support as ski boots but good job nevertheless!

Gayla Wright said...

Sounds like you are just jumping into this full blast. Bill has been doing this for years. Derek can not learn it all overnight. With new skins and other equipment he will do great. It is all terribly exciting, but then I get to just be an observer and a nervous one at that. Just want you all safe. So happy Charlie and Tom are on board. Love you, NaƱa