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What is Ski Mountaineering?

Ski mountaineering is part skiing, part rock climbing, and part making-it-up-as-you-go. It’s my favorite way of getting around in the mountains in part because it draws on everything I’ve learned as a mountaineer.

So, what is ski mountaineering and how can you give it a try this spring? In this guide, I’ll explain all the basics you need to know about summiting mountains on skis.

What is Ski Mountaineering?

Ski mountaineering is, at its most basic, mountaineering on skis. There are few rules around what ski mountaineering entails and every ski mountaineering trip is a little bit different.

The “typical” ski mountaineering trip involves skinning most of the way up a mountain, then transitioning to climbing up a steep pitch of snow, rock, or ice to reach the summit. From the summit, you can pop on your skis and descend.

Ski mountaineering objectives range from beginner-friendly to incredibly complex. You may be able to skin all the way to the summit of a mountain without ever taking off your skis. Or you may find yourself pulling out the climbing rope and leading 5th-class rock with your skis on your back. During technical descents, you may have to ski, downclimb, rappel, and ski again to get down the mountain.

Ski mountaineering requires a lot of different skills and a lot of backcountry gear. You have to be comfortable on skis in steep terrain, both on the way up and the way down. You also have to be ready to boot up steep snow slopes, to rock climb in ski boots, or even to ice climb with skis on your back. You also have to be aware of avalanche hazards, changing weather, and snow conditions.

It’s a demanding discipline, but one that can be extremely rewarding for mountaineers who want to put together everything they’ve learned about traveling in the mountains.

Ski Mountaineering vs. Skimo Racing

In this guide, I’ll focus on ski mountaineering in the sense of summiting peaks using skis as a tool. However, the term “ski mountaineering” is also a type of cross-country racing on skis, also known as skimo racing.

Skimo races involve racing across mountainous terrain on skis as quickly as possible. It’s a lot like ski touring, except fast and light. Skimo racers often travel with tiny packs, skinny skis, and  the lightest gear possible. There are tons of competitive skimo events across North America and Europe, and this type of racing is gaining popularity among ultra runners who also love skiing.

Ski mountaineering and skimo racing overlap in the sense that both involve backcountry travel on skis. However, ski mountaineering revolves around summiting mountains, while skimo racing is all about competing for who can be the fastest to travel from point A to point B.

Essential Skills for Ski Mountaineering

Ski mountaineering requires mountaineers to draw on a wide variety of skills. These are some of the key areas you should feel comfortable with in order to start ski mountaineering.

Skiing

It should come as no surprise that you need to be confident at downhill skiing in order to go ski mountaineering. You don’t need to be a pro at alpine skiing, but you should at least feel comfortable on black diamond terrain in any ski resort. Ideally, you should also have experience skiing steeper slopes in the backcountry so you’re comfortable dealing with less than ideal snow conditions and big terrain.

Backcountry Touring

The majority of any ski mountaineering day is spent skinning uphill. It helps to build up a strong base of fitness from ski touring throughout the winter so that you’re ready to climb when conditions are right for ski mountaineering in the spring.

You should also practice your kick turns. You’ll need to be proficient at skinning on steep slopes and know when the terrain is steep enough that you switch to booting.

Avalanche Safety

The best ski mountaineering conditions are in the spring, when avalanche danger has somewhat subsided in many areas. However, avalanches are a significant hazard when ski mountaineering and it’s essential that you know how to travel safely in avalanche terrain.

Glacier Travel

Many ski mountaineering routes, especially in the Pacific Northwest, involve glacier travel. After all, glaciers are a lot of fun to ski and usually make for fast uphill skiing compared to rocky ridges.

It’s important that you know how to rope up on a glacier and how to rescue a partner from a crevasse before you travel across glaciated terrain.

Planning and Forecasting

Ski mountaineering depends a lot on conditions. You need the right weather, the right snow, and safe avalanche conditions to make a successful summit push. Make sure you’re confident reading weather and avalanche forecasts and understand how snow conditions will change throughout the day.

Rock and Ice Climbing

There are plenty of ski mountaineering objectives that don’t require a rope or any rock climbing or ice climbing skills. If you’re new to ski mountaineering, I recommend starting out with these non-technical routes.

However, a lot of summits require you to be comfortable climbing technical rock or ice in ski boots. Some routes also require you to know how to protect steep snow slopes with a rope or to be able to rappel.

What Gear Do You Need for Ski Mountaineering?

For better or worse, ski mountaineering is a gear-intensive discipline. Here’s a brief list of the technical equipment you’ll need for a typical ski mountaineering trip:

Backcountry Ski Gear:

  • Skis with AT bindings for backcountry skiing
  • Ski touring boots
  • Climbing skins
  • Ski poles
  • Helmet
  • Avalanche safety gear

Mountaineering Gear:

 Glacier and Climbing Gear:

  • Climbing rope
  • Climbing harness
  • Belay device
  • Crevasse rescue kit
  • Picket

Popular Ski Mountaineering Routes for Beginners

There are plenty of classic ski mountaineering routes that feature moderate mountain terrain for beginners to test out their skills and learn how to climb and descend mountains on skis. Here are a few of my favorite beginner-friendly mountains in the US:

  • Mt. St. Helens, Washington
  • Mt. Hood, Oregon
  • Mt. Adams, Washington
  • Williams Peak, Colorado
  • Mount Superior, Utah
  • Mount Glory, Wyoming

Ski Mountaineering FAQs

When is the best time to go ski mountaineering?

In most places, the best time to go ski mountaineering is in the spring. This is when the snowpack begins to consolidate, reducing the risk of avalanches and offering better snow conditions in steep terrain.

Is ski mountaineering hard?

Ski mountaineering requires a high level of fitness and comfort with a lot of different skills, including backcountry skiing and climbing. However, there are many beginner-friendly ski mountaineering routes that you can practice your skills on.

Do I need to be a rock climber to go ski mountaineering?

Some ski mountaineering routes require rock climbing skills, but many do not. If you’re comfortable with backcountry skiing and mountaineering, you can find ski mountaineering routes that don’t require a rope.

What’s the difference between ski mountaineering and ski touring?

Ski mountaineering is a sub-discipline of ski touring. Both involve traveling in the backcountry on skis, but ski mountaineering is focused on summiting peaks. Ski touring rarely requires you to get out of your skis, but ski mountaineering may involve booting up steep snow or technical climbing.

Summary

Ski mountaineering is an exciting way to travel through the mountains, summit peaks, and ski some truly impressive lines in an incredible mountain setting. It brings together a lot of different skills including backcountry skiing, snow climbing, rock climbing, forecasting, and more. While ski mountaineering can seem daunting, there are plenty of beginner-friendly routes to get started this spring.

I live in Bellingham, Washington, at the base of the wild North Cascades. Over the last ten years, I've explored much of the region's steep terrain and endless layers of ridges and peaks, both on foot and on skis, often linking far-flung ridges together to push deeper into the range.

*The information on this site is based on research and first-hand experience but should not be treated as medical advice. Before beginning any new activity, we recommend consulting with a physician, nutritionist or other relevant professional healthcare provider.