Backcountry Skiing with IFMGA Guide Ben Markhart: What to Pack and Wear for Spring Conditions

By Colorado Mountain School guide Ben Markhart

Interested in skiing big, steep lines in spring?  What gear should you bring?  There is a lot to think about.

Big picture;  there are some important themes that will drive our understanding of how our kits will change come spring.  While the gear choices are important, our understanding of why we select our gear is what will make us successful.  Unfortunately,  simply reading a blog post about what I might bring won’t cut it.

So before we talk about common gear for couloir season we need to talk a bit about why couloir season is couloir season.

CMS Guide Nate Goodman on Capitol Peak, CO

An Ode to Spring Skiing in Colorado

Most people will look at you like you’re crazy when you talk about how good the skiing is in the Front Range of Colorado.  We’re known for high winds and patchy, poor snow cover; sad lifeless facets and core shots.

No one pays attention to how much rad, above treeline, terrain stays in good condition for months after lower elevation ranges melt out.  The key to an amazing ski season is to recognize when the season is really getting started, and when it is too early to get out.

Every April I ask myself the same thing, why did I even start skiing before January? I really should just wait until the end of February every year to start the ski season.  

It’s just too easy to get suckered into the early season stoke and head up I-70 to ski some sad, lifeless facets in December.  But all the early season, facet slaying usually does is burn the stoke you want to keep in the bank for spring, when Colorado’s ski season really gets started.

The underappreciated excellence of Colorado’s spring season all comes back to some important nuances of snow climates.  We can learn a lot from looking more closely at how the ebb and flow of seasonal snow affects the ski season.

The more maritime and intermountain zones— like the Cascades or the Wasatch,— tend to get a lot more snow quickly, and reward the impatient skier early on.  In December while Coloradans are getting core shots skiing 20 inches of facets, there is a meter of settled snow on the ground at Mt. Baker.

But the thing about the Maritime is that it’s warm, and as fast as the snow falls, it melts. Come April, the snow line of now melted out junk is getting higher and higher, and our maritime friends are battling the jungle just to get to some isothermic mush.

The Wasatch is another great place in the winter because its snow line tends to be a lot lower.  This allows the backcountry skier to ride all the way down into the 7,000-foot elevation bands, where the alpine conifers don’t grow as dense, and the glades are open and beautiful.  

Skiing in open aspen groves and scrub forests is great when temps are cold, mid-winter, but come spring the lower elevations quickly become garbage.  As the warm temps chase skiers higher and higher, very quickly, they run out of colder elevations and good snow.  This happens everywhere—but Colorado.  

Mid-winter in Colorado we’re chasing good snow in elevations around 9,500-11,500 feet.  Come spring we can flee thousands of feet higher—and Colorado has a TON of higher mountains.

Let’s just take a minute to appreciate how many mountains there really are in Colorado—ENDLESS.  You can go to the hotspots to tour the mogul fields … or if you know how to get off the beaten path you can explore unfamiliar, solitary mountains your whole life.  

Colorado has 54 14,000-foot peaks, and hundreds of 13,000-foot peaks, just to get started.

CMS Guide Nate Goodman skinning on early morning firm snow approaching Capitol Peak, CO.

Where does spring come from?  Why does our kit change?

Ultimately, it all comes back to the sun.

After all, the earth making its way around the sun drives the change in the seasons.  That jaunty tilt of terra firma drives the sun higher and higher as it comes to point the northern hemisphere more directly into the light.

As the sun gets higher each day, it does a few things.  It gets a lot more intense as it has fewer atmospheres to pass through, it hits more aspects, and the days generally get warmer.  These changes result in a very different set of snow conditions we need to contend with.  

Just as the sun melts and softens the snow during the day, it sets it up to freeze into ice during the cold nights.  Come spring there will be considerably more firm, icy snow to deal with.   

Some variety of spikes become important to deal with the firm conditions.  But let’s remember, it’s not getting firmer everywhere, only where the sun is creating those strong crusts.  There is still a lot of powder to be skied on the high, northerly aspects, hiding in cooler temps and shade.  These conditions are awesome— good cramponing snow on the southerlies, and powder to ski on the north.

With firm conditions you might begin considering narrower, lighter skis as well.  Perhaps some lighter boots because it’s a great time of year to push high into the alpine and weight starts to matter even more.

It’s also HOT and the sun BURNS like none other, this time of year.  With the sun high and the snow still wintery white I’ve seen people burn the roofs of their mouth even.  

My skis, clothes, gloves, and sun protection change, and even my rescue gear changes to work with the changing conditions.  

Making sure your skis can strap firmly to your bag is essential for sections of technical climbing.

The Gear

I’ll start with the feet and work upward.

Skis and Bindings

With firmer conditions, and steeper lines, the potential of carrying your skis on your back is real, so having sticks that carry well is pretty important.  I start to prioritize a lighter ski instead of a powder ski.

Of course it is all going to depend a lot on the particular objective, but usually I like to ski something like the Beast 98 from Dynafit.  I want something that is still robust and damp enough to be fun, but is light enough that it won’t work me when I end up carrying it on my back for several hours.   

I like a low profile binding as well, something like the Superlite 2.0 from Dynafit.  They’re lighter but also make it easier and more comfortable to throw the skis into a rando-sling.  If you don’t know this technique it’s a good one to learn.  You can quickly carry your skis and still have your hands free without needing to take your bag off.

But keep in mind, if you’re climbing the firm souths in crampons, but skiing the powdery norths, it’s up to you to decide if you want to prioritize weight on the up or shredablity on the down.

Booting up a long couloir having your skis rigged in an A-frame keeps them closer to your center of gravity and easier to carry. 

Skins

My Pomoca Climb Pro S-Glide skins don’t change in the spring, but I start bringing skin wax.  One thing that can really ruin your skin is the snow globbing that can happen on your skins because of the changing temperature of the snow. 

Hot sun warms the snow but it stays cold in the shade.  As we skin through warm snow our skins warm then as we move into the shade your skins freeze to the wintery snow just like your tongue does to a frozen light pole.

Rubbing on skin wax can really help keep your skins from getting damp and then globbing up.

Boots

The boots I bring are usually paired with my skis. If I’m bringing the light skis, I bring the light boots, and vise versa.  I find I only want to bring a boot that is just stiff enough to drive the ski.   As the skis get lighter the boots just add extra weight without extra performance.  

My two favorites are the SCARPA Maestrale RS and the SCARPA F1.

Pants

My go-to pants of all time, for almost everything, have been the RAB Ascender Pant.  It’s hard to find good soft-shell pants that not only fit around ski boots but also have vent zips.  

Because of the way hard shell layers transport moisture it really takes colder temperatures for them to breathe well.  In spring around Colorado, it’s just too warm, they essentially become garbage bags, not moisture wicking layers.

The added bonus is that RAB gear has a slimmer fit.  They don’t add the extra few inches around the belly for us americans, so as a 6’4” skinny guy, they actually fit right.  Many of their pants even come in a “long” size.

Jackets

I start with RAB’s Pulse Sun Hoody.  It’s a comfortable, light material and has a good fitting hood.  The Sun Hoody is definitely a go-to base layer for the spring when you’re going to be HOT and want something that is only going to keep the sun off and not insulate at all.

Over that, I usually use Rab’s Superflux Hoody.  This is just a little extra warmth to fight the chill off but is still as breathable as they come.  It’s got a nice high collar as well, so I can zip it up and keep the wind out of my neck, and it just has the perfect weight.

Next comes a lightweight wind shirt just to keep the breeze out on that high ridge, but still as breathable as it comes.  As you can tell I’m hooked on RAB gear; the Rab Borealis Jacket is a go-to option.

For most spring tours, this is all I need to be comfortable, but I still bring some insulating layers just in case.  They are valuable emergency tools and it’s nice if you do end up taking a break in the shade.  

A lot of the time I pair a slim fitting, mid-weight, down jacket, like the RAB Kaon Jacket with a slightly larger, synthetic insulation jacket to go over it.  This allows me to use them in conjunction without compressing the down, and creates a robust insulation system.   These would actually keep me happy if I got stuck out at night, but also provides the option for lighter insulation that could be used while moving if it gets chilly.

In spring, descending onto the cold side of a 14er it can go from way too hot to winter very quickly.  Having some warm gloves handy is essential.

Gloves

Gloves are not that different for me come spring.  I have a light pair that I can dry out easily once they get sweaty, and a warm pair that I always have dry for when I need it.  

A big difference come spring is you might be climbing steep snow so having an extra light pair, or two, to change into is worth the weight when your hands get wet from the warm spring snow.

My go-to combination, and all time favorite gloves for almost everything, has been the RAB Guide Glove for warmth, and the Rab Velocity Glove for when it gets sweaty.

I frequently pair these with the Rab Vapour-Rise Glove when it’s really warm and I need something to sweat into, on the skin track.  I like to save my Velocities until I really need them.

I also frequently use the Rab Guide Lite GTX as a slightly cooler option than the normal guide glove in spring.

Head

Doesn’t change too much here in the spring.  I still like to uphill in a baseball cap.  I usually find myself using a light buff in the spring too.  I find I can hardly put enough sunscreen on to keep from getting burned so a buff all the time does the trick.

My go to ski helmet has become the CAMP Storm Helmet.  Lightweight and providing side protection as well as top protection.

For shades, I have been obsessed with the Julbo Shield, with the 1-4 transition lenses.  They work in almost all conditions in Colorado in the spring and I usually don’t have to change eyewear the whole day.  Yep, wear them on the way down too and on the big glaciers.

I do usually bring some goggles as well, but I find myself only using them if the light gets really flat.  So for me, my goggles  only ever have low light lenses in them.  But when the light gets tricky, or the snow starts blowing, they are essential to seeing well.

Backpack

I use a number of backpacks for ski mountaineering and don’t think I have a favorite, although, there are a few key elements that I always want.

It’s better to get a big bag that you can cinch down into a smaller one.  I’m 6’4” so for me a 45L pack fits my torso easily.  If you’re shorter, you might consider a 35L but I would never go smaller than this.  It’s easy to make a big bag into a little one, but impossible to make a little one into a big one.

Having a good series of straps that allows the 45L to become a 25L, and still fit and move with you well, is key.  This is really important because if you can’t get your bag snugged down tight around its contents, it won’t have the structure to carry skis well. 

Other elements I like are the ability to do a diagonal and A-frame ski carry.   For a longer boot, having the skis in the A-frame keep them closer to your body and strain your shoulders less, but I also like having the option to do a diagonal because it’s a lot faster to rig for short sections of booting, or a rappel, for instance. 

Trim hip belts.  A lot of backpacking packs have large padded hip pads that really make using a harness with them challenging.   I want my gear loops accessible and don’t want to battle with bulky padding or hip pockets.  

A helmet carrying pouch.  This is SO nice.  We’re going to spend a lot of time skinning, and I don’t want to wear my helmet.  I also don’t want to put my helmet inside the bag because it can burn a lot of space I would rather use for other things.

Let’s take a closer look at what I carry inside my pack:

Spikes: Crampons, Ski Crampons, Ice Axes, Whippits

With firm spring conditions the spikes start to become important.  The most common place I see it start to fall apart in the spring is the low-angle firm skinning—those places it’s not steep enough to boot, but it’s steep and firm enough to make skinning really hard and potentially really dangerous.  

The sliding hazard on firm slopes is real, and when your skinning you don’t have your primary self arrest tool, your edges.  Get a pair of Ski Crampons that match your bindings. Dynafit’s combo works great and they are not expensive.   The key to ski crampons is they’re great if you’re going uphill, but really inefficient if you’re walking flat.

You might even consider a whippet for firm condition skinning to add a self arrest tool for the uphill.

For crampons and ice axes, I want to go as light as I can.  I’m not going to be spending that much of the day using this gear, it’s mostly just going to be weight in my pack while we’re skinning and skiing.

Go aluminum— I find that a lot of times I want to bring spikes just in case but don’t end up using them, but when I want them, I REALLY want them.  If they were as heavy as my ice climbing spikes I wouldn’t have brought them and been outta luck.  This way they actually come with because they don’t cost much in weight.

The CAMP Nanotech Crampon line is awesome, and it would be hard to go wrong with any pair.  I typically go for the fully-automatic option for ski boots. 

For ice axes it’s the same idea.  Light and trim. I like the CAMP Corsa ice axe.  I get my axe as short as it comes because it’s not only lighter, but it’s nice to be able to keep it in my avy pocket, and not on the outside of my pack.  I just don’t find having a longer axe to balance on advantages.  Typically, I use a ski pole at the same time and by the time it gets steep enough that the ski pole is getting in the way, the slope is steep enough I can reach it with my short ice axe.

Are you picking the right kit for the objective?  Only you can say because only you know the objective and the conditions you’re dealing with.

Emergency Response

This kit doesn’t change that much for me either.  In the bottom of my bag is, almost always, the RAB Photon Insulated Pants, their Ark Double Bivi, and a mini inflatable pad.  

At least this way I can put on my two jackets, my pants, and get off the snow in my bivi.  With these items I’ll at least be reasonably comfortable overnight.  This system is so light, I just can’t find a way to justify not bringing it if there is snow on the ground.

Go Forth and Slay Spring Pow

As with pretty much everything in the mountains, there is very rarely a right and a wrong way to do things.  There are a bunch of things that work better, and a bunch of things that work worse, for a given situation.  Your ability to weigh the pros and cons of the various options is what will make you successful.  The best kit to bring with you will be something you figure out for yourself as you gain experience.  

Get out and see what works and what doesn’t, and come up with your own style that works for you.  See what other people do and learn from them.  The mountains are too complicated to figure out a single, right way, to do anything.  Hopefully this serves as some good, food for thought, as you consider what gear to bring with you on your spring skiing adventures.