Tag Archives: backcountry skiing

SkiMo Season Wrap Up

My SkiMo race season continued until early March.  After the Jackson and Targhee races, I competed in the North American SkiMo Championships in Crested Butte.  The was the second year of the race and was the first year being an ISMF (International Ski Mountaineering Federation) sanctioned race.  This was a 2 day race with day 1 being the sprint event (2 laps of ~250’ climbing with a booter on the second lap) and the second day was the full race which included a technical rock section where we were required to have an ascender and via ferrata kit as we climbed to Mt Crested Butte.  This race was a great learning lesson about the important of gear.  I had a great placement getting on the fixed line, had a gear failure and had to stop for 1 minute and ended up in a bottleneck on the rope that in the end cost me 35 minutes.  Here are some great photos from Kevin Krill of the race (I am in #13). 

This race confirmed that I was going to commit some time to this sport and I ordered a pair of Hagan X-Race skis.  These skis reduced my race setup weight from 1,442 g (ski and binding) to 862g (ski and binding).  This weight was noticeable on my first day on the gear. 

I was hoping to extend race season into April, but instead my last race was the Power of Four race.  In this race you climb and ski each of the 4 mountains at Aspen (Buttermilk, Snowmass, Highlands, and Aspen) for a total of just over 26 miles and 13,500’ of climbing.  I felt this would be much more my style of race instead of the normal ‘sprint’ races.  This was a partner race and my partner, Eric Bunce, and I had a great day.  We were able to finish the 8th men’s team and 10th overall in 6:43.  Our goal was 7:30 so we were thrilled with this time.  We learned a lot about long partner races including team work when Eric had to take care of my gear when my hands and face froze on the top of Highlands and towing each other to keep our pace strong late in the race.

Two days after returning from the Power of Four, it was time to start getting the Powder Keg setup.  We were excited for this year’s race.  It was the 10th anniversary race and we had a large and fast group of racers.  Unfortunately, due to poor snow, we had a lot of unsafe terrain and had to spend an entire day working out a re-route to the course.  The modified course turned out great, harder, longer, more climbing – everything and ultra runner turned skimo racer wanted.  Check out the Powder Keg website for details on the course, results, and lots of great photos and videos.

What’s next? Well, since spring arrived far too early in the Wasatch, it is time to become a runner once again and start preparing for Leadman.  There will still be more skiing including an attempt on Kings Peak on April 6 and hopefully some more powder days and of course corn season.

USSMA SkiMo National Champtionship and Targhee Mountain Classic

Since the first Wasatch Powder Keg 10 years ago I have dabbled in ski mountaineering races and come to be race director of one of the largest skimo races in the US.  Over the years, I had put together a quite light tele rig to race on and had enjoyed it.  After touring in Switzerland last spring, I started to get the bug for a light weight AT setup that would tour good and also race good.  This fall I started putting that setup together.  I got a pair of Dynafit TLT Performance boots, Ski Trab Free Rando Skis, and Dynafit Low Tech Light  Bindings.   Luck would have it that Andy and Jason Dorais finally took on the challenge of starting a Citizen SkiMo Race Series and our snow has been extremely low so I have had a lot of opportunity to race up and down Brighton to test out the setup.  I was hooked and thoroughly enjoying myself.  From several years of ultra running, I have found that I don’t have much of a top end (i.e. I’m slow) so this has been a great way to speed train during the winter.  Several of us decided that for our first major race of the year, we would go up to Jackson, WY for the USSMA (US Ski Mountaineering Association) and race in the National Championship race.  We realized we would be in well over our head, but new that it would be fun.  For an added challenge, Grand Targhee has a race the following day.

Beings it was our first race, we didn’t really know what to expect.  Evan, Matt, and I packed all our gear, plus everything else we thought we might need, into Matt’s van and off we went.  Walking around Jackson waiting for packet pickup we ran in to many familiar faces from ultra running, adventure racing, and the Powder Keg.  We had nervous anticipation as we checked and picked up our race packets.  Of to Victor where we were staying with Evan’s friend Dahvi and Tom (thanks for the hospitality).  After dinner and a couple of beers, we started getting our gear ready for the race.  After numerous text messages and calls to Luke Nelson, we our packs were ready (with the only real contents being shovel, probe, tiny wind shell, and spare skins).

We were on the road early Saturday for the drive over the pass.  The morning atmosphere can be described as light and agro.  People were having fun, but you could tell there was a lot of stress in the air over a big race and when people started warming up, the differences from an Ultra were readily apparent by the seriousness of the competitors.  Being my first race and having been fighting a cold all week, my goals were to simply finish the 8,200’ climbing and 11.5 mile race in under 4 hours.  When the gun went off, the pace out of the gate was nothing less than extraordinary (check out the video below showing the start and other highlights).  I set a hard pace (for me) and settled in for a long climb to the top of Jackson.  Although being well out of my comfort zone from an exertion level, I was having lots of fun.  The race had 6 climbs and 2 booter’s.  The skinning and skiing were both tough with ice, moguls, rocks, and breakable crust.  I learned why Luke had told us to make sure to have spare skins as I had a skin failure after the third descent and had to use my spare skins which were much narrower than my skis and caused me to have to side step a lot of the icy sections.  This probably cost me 10 minutes.  My water bottle froze 90 minutes into the race so I was without water for the majority of the time.  The second to last descent was from the top of the mountain to the bottom (over 3,500’).  At this point in the race, it was all you could do to hang on as my quads felt like they were going to explode.  With only 1 climb and descent left, there was nothing to do but put my head down and push as hard as I could.  My skiing ability paid off the entire race where I could catch and pass numerous people on the descents, then just try to hold them off (or keep up with them) on the ascents.  Have skies/bindings that were not true race gear (~2-3 lbs heavier) was definitely a disadvantage climbing.  I crossed the finish line in 3:35.  That was just an hour under Luke’s winning time which I thought was pretty good.


The fast guys of Team Wasatch SkiMo


Men’s Race Division – Luke Nelson Winner

We enjoyed the rest of Saturday talking with racers/friends, drinking beer, and eating as much as possible to refuel for Sunday.  Sunday morning came and we all felt good.  Some tiredness in the legs, but not stiff or sore so that was good.  The Targhee race had a relaxing 10:30 AM start.  We were at the mountain early and took out time getting ready.  Luke was kind enough to spend 15 minutes before warm up giving us a transition clinic, then it all started over like on Saturday.  The Targhee race was shorter, 5,700’ climbing and 8.5 miles, but the climbs were quite steep and long.  To keep this from getting too long, the weather was cloudy with even some mist so it was difficult to see on the descents.  I was happy to finish in 2:09, just under 30 minutes behind the winner.  Saturday was a Wasatch sweep of the race division with Jason Dorais, Gemma Arro Ribot, and Evan Calplis all bringing home the gold.


Men’s Heavy Metal Division – Evan Caplis Winner



Men’s Race Division – Jason Dorais Winner

Additional Race Photos

Jackson National Championship

 Targhee Classic

What’s next, I am hooked on the sport.  It is time to get a lighter set of skis and get my total boot, ski, and binding combo below 9 lbs.  I am also planning several more races this year.

Race Date Location Notes
US Ski Mountaineering National Championship 1/7/2012 Jackson Hole, WY Done
Grand Targhee Ski Mountaineering Classic 1/8/2012 Grand Targhee, WY Done
2012 ISMF North American Championships 01/27/2012 – 01/29/2012 Crested Butte, CO  
Alta Tele Rando Race 02/25/2012 – 02/26-2012 Alta, UT  
The Power of Four Ski Mountaineering Race 3/3/2012 Aspen/Snowmass, CO  
Wasatch Powder Keg 3/10/2012 Brighton Ski Resort, UT Race Director
Cody’s Challenge 3/17/2012 Steamboat Springs, CO Tentative
The Five Peaks presented by CAMP 4/7/2012 Breckenridge, CO If I can find a partner

Our Approach to Backcountry Safety

Below is the backcountry safety blog I wrote for Coaching Endurance.


With the dangerous start to the Wasatch winter, our touring group has spent a lot of time talking about what has happened and what we think will happen over the next several weeks. As we discussed this, I thought it would be good to document some of our processes around decision making.
With the first snow each winter, our touring group starts to get excited for winter. We get out during the early snow so that we can get a feeling for what that snow is doing. At this point of the season, we are interested in things like how much there is, where it is, any faceting that may have started, slides that are already occurring existing snow structure, any week layers that are present of are forming, and other factors. This information becomes very useful as some of the basis for our snowpack evaluations later in the season. We also use these early season days to do a lot of beacon drills since it is harder to spend time doing drills once there is great powder. By the time winter is really here, we feel comfortable with our gear and understand what the snow against the ground is doing.
Our group considers ourselves fairly risk adverse. We all enjoy skiing big, steep lines, but we are also happy meadow skipping. We will ski tour on most all days, but make conservative choices of locations based on a variety of information including
Within our group, several of us are very interested in the snow science factor. Because of this, we spend a significant amount of time digging pits and talking about the snow and snow structure, what has been happening, what we think will happen, and dozens of other topics that have tendencies of driving people less ‘snow geeky’crazy. We feel that it is because of these continual discussions that we are able to make good decisions, stay out of trouble, and maintain good group dynamics (we are usually all on the same page since we spend so much time discussing these item).
For the past 3 years, the Utah Avalanche Center has put on the Utah Snow and Avalanche Workshop (USAW). As part of the UAC Observer Program, we are able to attend the morning professional session as well as the afternoon public session. The UAC does a great job of putting together a full day of workshops bringing together professional experience, new research, and presentations from accident survivors. This workshop is a great early season refresher for our group and is a chance for us to learn about some of the latest snow/avalanche research that is taking place.
Each year, Ian McCammon presents information from his research (which is based on his analysis of existing data). Ian typically focuses his research on looking at creating processes that the ‘average’ backcountry user can incorporate into their backcountry decision making. Ian has presented to key concepts
  1. Analysis of 5 structural parameters in the snowpack to determine a relationship between these parameters and human triggered avalanches.
  2. Introduction of ALPTRUTh and FACETS to analyze Situational Awareness and Psychological Distractions.
Our group uses both of these methods as part of our backcountry decision making. In this discussion, we will focus on how we use ALPTRUTh and FACETS methods as part of our decision making.
ALPTRUTh – Situational Awareness
Avalanches in last 48 hours
Loading from new snow, wind, etc
Known avalanche Path
Terrain Traps
Overall avalanche Rating
Unstable snow signs (cracking, whoomphing, etc)
Thawing (warm snow on top)
Our touring group has always informally used the ALPTRUTh scale. This winter, we have decided to start formalizing our use of the scale. We each have a laminated copy of the ALPTRUTh scale below in our cars and we use it as part of our discussion as we drive to the trailhead each morning and on our ski approach. To use the ALPTRUTh scale in your evaluation (either before you start skiing or during your approach), you assign 1 point to each of the factors that exist in the area you will be skiing. Ian’s research has found that ~98% of accidents had a rating of 3 or higher and ~92% of accidents had a 4 or higher. There was also a surprisingly high percentage of accidents that had a rating of 5 of higher. Our group considers any rating of 3 or higher to be a reason for careful analysis of the decisions we will be making. The use of ALPTRUTh is just 1 of your decision criteria you should use to make your decisions.
  • The ALPTRUTh scale incorporates what are considered the standard avalanche red flags: recent avalanches, heavy snowfall, wind loading, cracking, collapsing, and rapid warming.
  • Ian’s data used for his study was from 622 recreational avalanche accidents (fatalities and not) involving 1,180 individuals in the US between 1972 and 2001.


                                              Printable table we use for ALPTRUTh analysis

FACETS – Psychological Distractions
Familiarity (with terrain, location, etc.)
Acceptance (not wanting to stand out in group, etc.)
Commitment (we came here to ski this so we have to)
Expert Halo (not speaking up when feeling other people know more)
Tracks (fresh line syndrome)
Scarcity (we may never be able to ski this spot again)
To incorporate Psychological Distractions into your decision making, use the FACETS acronym. The psychological distractions are more subjective, but should be used as you are making your decisions to help ensure your decisions are not being adversely impacted by these distractions. Most people have been in a situation where they are talking themselves into skiing a particular line. This is a perfect example of a psychological distraction. There is something telling you that you should not ski the line and you are telling yourself why it is ok. You should pay attention to make sure that you are not getting impacted by these psychological distractions while you make decisions.
Self (or group) Analysis of Decision Making
You can use the ALPTRUTh and FACETS Scale together to help determine patterns that you (or your group) may have in their decision making. To perform this analysis, look at 5 or more days (the more the better) that you skied and felt things were not perfect (bad decisions, close calls, group dynamic issues, etc.). For each day, add up your ALPTRUTh score and plot that with a dot next to each of the FACETS components that existed. Do this for each of your days and you will create a scatter plot. Most people (groups) will start to see a pattern over time. This pattern makes you aware of which psychological distractions that you are most influenced by.


                              Printable table we use for ALPTRUTh/FACETS graph


The Role of Training in Recreational Avalanche Accidents in the United States

Ian McCammon
Proceedings of the International Snow Science Workshop,
October 2–6, 2000, Big Sky, Montana, pp. 37 – 45.
Evidence of heuristic traps in recreational avalanche accidents
Ian McCammon
Presented at the International Snow Science Workshop,
Penticton, British Columbia, Sept. 30 – Oct 4, 2002.
Heuristic Traps in Recreational Avalanche Accidents: Evidence and Implications
Ian McCammon
Avalanche News, No. 68, Spring 2004
The Role of Training in Recreational Avalanche Accidents in the United States
Ian McCammon
Proceedings of the International Snow Science Workshop,
October 2–6, 2000, Big Sky, Montana, pp. 37 – 45.

Another Successful Powder Keg

We survived another Powder Keg.  March 12 marked the 9th Annual Wasatch Powder Keg and our third Powder Keg as race directors.  Each year certain aspects of being a race director get easier and new surprises arise.  We  are lucky to have a fantastic host resort (Brighton) as well as close to 50 dedicated volunteers who show up at Brighton at 5:30 AM and spend up to 5 hours out on the mountain.  This  year marked the largest race to date with 141 registered racers.  I believe this makes the Powder Keg the largest ski mountaineering race in the US as well as the second oldest race.   Even more exciting was the exceptional talent at this years race.  We had some extremely fast people from Wyoming, Idaho, Utah, California and Colorado race.  It was exciting to get the check point reports at the fast times racers were coming through.  We had a busy finish line area this year with multiple sponsors, 3 groups promoting avalanche education and safety equipment, and a avalanche beacon search park.  We were excited to have so much going on as it helps make the Powder Keg an event rather than just a race.  Also exciting was the number of spectators.  Previous years have seen only a few spectators, but this year the finish area was full of people.  We hope that the popularity of this will bring more people out next year.

Race results are posted on the Powder Keg website.  Here are our overall division winners:

Division Racer Time
Men’s AT Race Luke Nelson 2:06:45
Women’s AT Race Michela Adiran 2:56:02
Men’s Tele Race Christopher Pond 2:47:30
Women’s Tele Race Sarah Jackson 3:10:06
Men’s AT Rec Nicholas Francis 1:50:13
Women’s AT Rec Anne Perry 1:59:41
Men’s Tele Rec Daichi Ito 2:01:40
Women’s Tele Rec Anna Knudsen 2:43:20
Men’s Splitboard Rec Tom Bender 1:52:33
Women’s Splitboard Rec Melissa Axen 2:45:03

We have a couple of great videos from Jim Hopkins and PCTV as well as lots of photos on the Wasatch Powder Keg Facebook page and our home page.

Thanks to all of our volunteers and sponsors and congratulations to all of our racers.

Winter Gear Modifications

The bikes are hung up, most of the trail shoes are put away, and the Wasatch has already had over 300” of snow.  We are off to a great ski season and everyone is hoping the big snow continue.

I am a self proclaimed gear-head and I am constantly looking for new gear and modifying the gear that I have so that it works exactly like I want (and frequently to avoid buying another piece of gear that would do the same thing).  With winter in full swing, I thought it was a good time to share my favorite gear modifications for winter which are my ‘screw shoes’ and ‘semi-split skins’. 

You can buy all kinds of winter running traction devices from Yak Traks to Micro Spikes to Ice Bug shoes.  All of these are great, but I don’t run that much on the trail in the winter so why spend the money on shoes/devices.  I got the screw shoe idea from Matt Carpenter’s web site.  Since I go through 5 or more pair of trail runners each year, I used a retired pair of Montrail Hardrocks as base shoe.  Adding anywhere from 12-18 1/8” (or as short as you can find) sheet metal screws to each shoe and using an electric drill with a socket bit, in just a few minutes you have a great pair of winter running shoes.

Part of being a gear head is also always trying to shave a few ounces off my gear.  The old adage is that you shouldn’t spent a ton of money on lighter gear when most people can shave far more ounces from their bodies.  I don’t have too many ounces to spare so I look towards my gear.

When Black Diamond came out with the Split Skins, I thought they were a great item for my Voile Drifters.  My calculations determined they would save me 8 ounces over traditional skins.  The problem with these skins is that you now have a strip of slippery nylon under your foot.  When you get on a hard skin track, the nylon causes a lot of slippage.  To counter this, I sewed a small strip of skin under the mid section of the skin to provide a little additional traction.  I have not weighted the difference, but my estimate is that this only added 3 ounces to the skins so I still have a 5 ounce savings.  Thanks to Mark at Voile, I was able to stitch the skin strips on with their machine rather than hand sew them with a sewing awl.

As I mentioned, we are well underway to a great ski season.  Check out Matt Hart’s You Tube Video of one of our ski days and Andy’s show of perfect powder.