Ski mountaineering is form of ski touring that variously combines the sports of Telemark, alpine, and backcountry skiing with that of mountaineering. The spectrum of ski mountaineering spans from ascending a mountain in pursuit of virgin powder to achieving a mountain's summit using skis as a tool, with skiing down secondary.
Ski mountaineering may be distinguished from general ski touring by a willingness to travel over any part of a mountain, not just trails for ascending or sheltered powder snow fields for spirited descent. This may include significant rock, ice, or broken glacier sections, as well as high-altitude traverses as part of multi-peak ascents.
In addition to skins and ski crampons for traction, ski mountaineers may use a range of technical equipment - including crampons, ice axes, and ropes - to reach otherwise inaccessible or dangerous points on foot. When skiing is the primary goal, skis are carried on backpack as far as the mountaineers go; when not, they are removed and cached until the climbers return from their continued ascent.
The use of skis for over-snow travel and winter mountain access has a long history. The first group ski tour in the Alps took place near Davos when the Branger brothers teamed up with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle from Frauenkirch to Arosa in 1894. The iconic winter Haute Route between Chamonix and Zermatt is finally linked together in 1911.
The sport's pioneers include:
- John "Snowshoe" Thompson, perhaps the earliest modern ski mountaineer, a prolific traveler who used skis to deliver the mail at least twice a month up and over the steep eastern scarp of the Sierra Nevada to remote California mining camps and settlements. His deliveries began in 1855 and continued for at least 20 years. Thompson's route of 90 miles (140 km) took 3 days in and 48 hours back out with a pack that eventually exceeded 100 pounds of mail.
- Cecil Slingsby, one of the earliest European practitioners, who crossed the 1,550 m high (5,800 ft) Keiser Pass, Norway, on skis in 1880.
- Wilhelm von Arlt (1853–1944), regarded by many as the "father" of the sport, who made the first ski ascent over 3,000 m when he climbed the Rauris Sonnblick (3,103 m / 10,180 feet high) in 1894.
- Orland Bartholomew skied alone over 300 miles (480 km) of California's High Sierra from Cottonwood Creek to Yosemite National Park in 1929, roughly following the line of the summer route now known as the John Muir Trail. This included the first winter ascent of the highest peak in the contiguous United States, Mount Whitney. Bartholomew was self-supported using food caches placed over the summer.
Ski mountaineering as a sport is particularly popular in the European Alps, where people will commonly do a hut-to-hut tour through the mountains, often crossing difficult passes where mountaineering techniques are required. Day trips from valley bases to make ascents and descents of peaks are also popular.
Ski mountaineering is also popular in other European ranges, such as the Tatra, the Pyrenees, the Southern Carpathians the Troll Peninsula in northern Iceland, and ranges in Norway. The sport is popular to a lesser extent in New Zealand and the Andes of South America.
Numerous mountain ranges in the United States offer ski-mountaineering opportunities. Popular options include the Sierra Nevada, Wasatch, Tetons, and White Mountains of New England, the American birthplace of the sport at Mount Washington's Tuckerman Ravine.
North American Pacific Rim volcanoes such as Mount Rainier, Mount Shasta, and Lassen Peak also draw numbers, along with Mexican giants Pico de Orizaba, Popocatépetl and Iztaccíhuatl. Canada has numerous wild, remote mountains appropriate to ski mountaineering.
Ski mountaineering equipment normally includes skis fitted with a binding that allows the heel to lift for easy ascents. The equipment used is similar to cross country skiing but is generally much more robust, featuring metal-edged lightweight skis and a plastic boot similar to those used for downhill skiing.
In Alpine-style ski mountaineering bindings can be engaged to clamp down the heel for maximum downhill control. In Telemark-style equipment the heel remains free so telemark turns can be executed as well as parallel.
Both Alpine and Telemark ski mountaineers use skins attached to the base of the skis to make uphill progress. Originally made from animal pelts, these skins are now made from nylon, mohair or a combination of both. The skins clip over the upper end and are fixed to its base by a layer of permanent reusable adhesive. Skins allow the ski to slide forward yet grip against downhill resistance. They are generally taken off for descent, though difficult conditions may call for their partial use downhill.
Along with sometimes collapsable poles safety equipment is often carried, including avalanche rescue gear, transceivers, snow shovels, and probes. When called for, traditional mountaineering equipment such as alpine crampons, ice-axes, ropes, and harnesses will be carried.
A backpack is standard. For longer expeditions, ski mountaineers may tow a sled. On long expeditions kites may be used to tow skiers and sleds over extended smooth terrain like frozen sea ice.
A Ski Mountaineering race is a timed event that follows an established trail through challenging winter alpine terrain while passing through a series of checkpoints. Racers climb and descend under their own power using backcountry skiing equipment and techniques.
Competition ski mountaineering has military origins, the so-called military patrols, intended to test abilities of soldiers. The first civilian races took part in the 1920s. Better known were the Austrian "Mairennen" (May race) in Gosau or the "Geierlauf" (vulture run) in the Wattentaler Lizum. Combined ski mountaineering and shooting was an official event of the 1924 Winter Olympics, followed by demonstration events in 1928, 1936 and 1948.
Participants of military patrol teams consisting of an officer, NCO, and two runners, had to be on military duty during the games. Due to want of games observers' interest, it was declared to a demonstration event by the International Olympic Committee in 1926. These military patrol races are considered as predecessors of today's biathlon. It is planned by the Union Internationale des Associations d'Alpinisme (UIAA), to make ski mountaineering by itself part of the 2018 Olympic Games.
After World War II, some alpine countries organized ski mountaineering competitions, especially in the 1990s France, Italy, Slovakia,Andorra and Switzerland, that founded also the Comité International du Ski-Alpinisme de Compétition (CISAC). Besides the Italian Mezzalama Trophy and the Swiss Patrouille des Glaciers with roots in the 1930s and 1940s, a third race was created in the 1980s, that belongs to the "big three of ski mountaineering" of today, called the Pierra Menta, carried out in France. The first European Cup was carried out in 1992 as well as the first European Championship.
Organization of international competition ski mountaineering events was sanctioned by the International Council for Ski Mountaineering Competitions (ISMC) of the UIAA from 1999 to 2008, the follow-on institution of the CISAC, and since 2008 by the International Ski Mountaineering Federation (ISMF), which emerged from the ISMC. The first official World Championships of the ISMC was carried out in 2002, but prior the 1975 Trofeo Mezzalama was held as a "World Championship of Ski Mountaineering" with the classes "Civilians", "Soldiers" and "Mountain guides". The first South American Ski Mountaineering Championship and the first Asian Championship were held in 2007. In 2012, the first edition of a North American Championship was carried out at the Crested Butte in Colorado from January 27 to January 29.
Ascents have to be mastered with affixed ski fells, that have to be removed for the descents and refixed for the following ascents. If courses include climbing tours or sections, that could only be mastered on foot, the racers have to carry their skis in their rucksacks. In many cases, ski mountaineering competitions include individual, team and relay as well as vertical races, sometimes also long-distance or sprint races.
- cadets (16–18 years)
- juniors (19–20 years)
- espoirs (21–23 years)
- seniors (> 23 years)
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- The International Mountaineering and Climbing Federation (UIAA - Union Internationale des Associations d'Alpinisme)
- Skimountaineering.org: ski mountaineering competitions
- British Mountaineering Council - Ski Mountaineering
- United States Ski Mountaineering Association
- Ski Mountaineering Competition Canada
- Mountain Storm - Ski Mountaineering Race
- John "Snowshoe" Thompson
- Piste-Off Ski mountaineering website
- Ski Mountaineering Gear Comprehensive Gear List, Description and Information
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