Avalanches are a very real threat in the Sierra. Any slope steep enough to offer good powder skiing is a potential slide area. During the '08-'09 season, one third of all US skier/boarder avalanche fatalities occurred inside ski area boundaries. On April 17, 2006 Climax avalanched about an hour after opening. The crown where the avalanche fractured was 3-6 feet high and 400 feet across. Three skiers were partially buried but only slightly injured. Many of us wear our beacons while powder skiing on Mammoth Mountain. Any trip up the Sherwin's, or off the backside should include avalanche gear (beacon/shovel/probe) and the ability to use it. At Kittredge we carry the Tracker and Tracker2 avalanche beacons from Backcountry Access (BCA). The Tracker is still the most simple and easy to use beacon around, while the Tracker2 combines user friendliness with 3-antenna accuracy. We carry also shovels and probes from BCA and Lifelink and K2. The new K2 Rescue Plus shovel has a great emergency sled kit that mate best with K2 Backside and Factory team skis.
The most exciting new piece of avalanche safety gear is the airbag backpack; used for years in Europe, they are relatively new to the US market. An airbag pack is essentially a backpack with a fast inflating air chamber that allows the user to float on top of avalanches and not get buried. Last year the Stevens Pass Avalanche brought airbags into mainstream awareness. We won't go into details here but a BCA airbag pack most likely saved a skiers' life where others perished. More than any other piece of Avy gear except your brain, an airbag can save your life. We carry the Float 22 and 32 from Backcountry Access.
For many of us the highlight of the ski season happens outside the lift served area. Mammoth is a backcountry skiers dream. During the winter Mammoth Crest and the Sherwin's offer endless freshies just outside the backdoor, but this is just the tip of the iceberg. The next trip up the 395 be sure to check out Mt. McGee, Laurel Mountain, the split chute of Bloody Couloir and countless other lines that scream "Ski Me!" The backcountry season really gets going around April or May, with the plowing of Virginia Lakes and Tioga Pass Roads. Then it's time to get up early and climb the frozen spring snow. By noon the sun has probably baked the top couple inches of snow to perfection, and it's time to enjoy some of the best skiing on the planet: Sierra corn snow.Click on a list item below to get more info:
• Alpine Touring Bindings
• Climbing Skins
• Crossover Alpine Touring Boots
• Advice & Guides
Alpine Touring Bindings
Bindings are the crucial piece of backcountry skiing gear; they allow you to free the heel and climb with skins up the mountain, and then lock the heel down for the descent. These bindings are referred to as randonee or alpine touring (AT) bindings. The best of these will allow you to use your alpine boots and have uncompromising downhill performance while still getting you up the mountain efficiently.
Marker has dominated the Randonee/Alpine crossover binding market for many seasons with their high DIN Duke and Baron bindings. Two years ago Marker released even better (lighter) AT bindings in the new Tour F10 and Tour F12. Like the Duke/Baron, the Tour bindings evolved from true alpine bindings and ski very well. This season all Markers get upgraded. The Duke/Barron also get a new wider mounting hole pattern and wider frame for even more edging power. The Tours get even more touring friendly; the toe pivot was beefed up and the frame has been re-engineered to reduce icing. We think Marker make the best skiing AT bindings ever.
A Duke weighs 6lb 2oz in size small and has a DIN range of 6-16
A Baron weighs 5lb 6oz in size small and has a DIN range of 4-12
A Tour 12 weighs 4lb 6oz in size small and has a DIN range of 4-12
A Tour 10 weighs 4lb 3oz in size small and has a DIN range of 3-10
Tyrolia introduces their new Adrenaline binding this year, with a DIN of 5-16 and a weight of 5lbs 12 oz. It has the advantage of not having to click out of the binding to change from tour to ski mode and vise versa. We have not gotten a chance to ski it yet, but have plenty of confidence in Tyrolia bindings. The Adrenaline is also available from Head, Fischer, and Elan.
Ski crampons are a must for Sierra snow, especially on spring mornings. These are aluminum spikes that attach to your AT binding, and help grip on hard snow and ice. They are binding specific and cost around $80. Make sure you get them wide enough for your skis; just like brakes.Climbing Skins
Climbing skins are sticky backed fabric strips with a nap that allows the ski to slide forward but not backwards. They often have a loop to attach to a skis tip, while the sticky backing keeps the skin attached to the base of the ski. A tail strap usually helps keep the rear of the skin attached. Some companies use a ski/skin system that works even better, but only on their skis. We really like the way K2 skins attach to their Backside and Factory Team skis, and love the way they don't ice up while skinning. Back Country Access redesigned their skins last season, and now they climb as well as ever, but are much less prone to icing than the BCA skins of old.Crossover Alpine Touring Boots
Once you get truly addicted to backcountry skiing, you may want to get a dedicated pair of lightweight alpine touring boots, but there are some great crossover boots out there this season. These boots offer the alpine performance you expect combined with the ability to tour comfortably. They feature alpine overlap design with rubber soles for walking and a walk mode to free the upper cuff for the ascent. These boots also offer a modern stance which we think will benefit the vast majority of skiers. Most AT boots from non alpine companies still have old school stances with big ramp angles. Why not have your AT gear perform as well as your alpine gear? Or better yet, get gear that can do both. If you want a lighter boot consider upgrading to a heat molded Intuition liner. Intuitions fit great and are super light and warm. Expect to drop over a pound a pair when you ditch a stock alpine liner for intuition.
The long anticipated Lange XT alpine touring crossover boot is perhaps the strongest skiing AT boot ever. It has the same geometry and performance found in their awesome RX freeride boots, but the walk mode, and lightweight lace-up liner make them the ultimate sidecountry shoes.
Tecnica's Cochise boots ditch the fourth buckle for a monster power strap, and come with swappable soles so that you can even use them with tech (Dynafit) bindings if you choose.Poles
Adjustable poles with big baskets are great in the BC. We carry two and three-piece poles from K2 and Leki. This year K2 puts a simple inclinometer on their touring poles; a convenient feature to help take some of the guesswork out of terrain selection. If you already own a pair of Lekis for summer trekking, come in for some bigger baskets, and use them in the winter too.Backpacks
If you enjoy backpacking or hiking you may already have a suitable pack for backcountry skiing. A good winter backpack will fit comfortably and carry gear and skis well. This means a good hipbelt, sternum strap and, and stable fit are a must. Look for a pack that has appropriate straps that are easy to use, and enough volume for your avy gear, lunch, skins, spare gloves, and extra warmth layers. A helmet carry system is also handy, as is a fleece lined goggle pocket. Hydration systems are great on warm days and in the spring but can freeze; bottles are better on cold days.
K2's Pilchuck pack is slender enough for riding lifts but carries enough gear for sidecountry and spring adventures. It can carry skis vertically, diagonally or A-framed, or a snowboard. Inside it has good organization for avy gear, a fleece goggle pocket, and a hydration bladder sleeve. You can also buy it as a complete BC kit with a K2 Shovel and Probe.
Rossignol's Wasatch Super Tour is a sweet 25 liter ski specific pack. It has options for A-frame or diagonal ski carry, waterproof zippers, plenty of organization including internal goggle and hydrations pockets, and an external hip-belt pocket. The Wasatch is a panel loader, so access is a snap even with skis on.Advice and Knowledge
For avalanche training and guiding, we turn to either Neil Satterfield at Sierra Mountain Guides NEIL@SIERRAMTNGUIDES.COM, or Tim Villanueva at the Bardindi Foundation TIM@BARDINI.ORG. Either one can help you go safely into the backcountry.
For high end ski instruction and expert skills Mammoth Mountain Ski School has plenty of great instructors with loads of BC experience. Call (760) 934 2571 X 3218 to speak with a supervisor.