Winter ski touring and spring ski touring are completely different beasts (at least to me, and at least in the Pacific Northwest). There are only seven and a half hours of daylight around winter solstice. You only have to stay warm and dry for a few hours before it’s time for apres. Spring skiing is a whole other animal. You’re moving for up to 12 hours. You’re covering thousands of feet of elevation in both daylight and dark, moving from sheltered trailheads below treeline to exposed upper slopes. You’ll be the hottest and coldest you’ve ever been in your life in the span of a few hours. And you’ve got to pack for all of that in a bag the size of a Spirit Airlines personal item. There’s a lot of strategy involved to keep yourself comfortable and moving efficiently for hours on end, and here are a few tips I’ve learned over the years.
- Stick sunscreen is elite. I tried my first sunscreen stick for ski mountaineering. I hate getting my hands wet during a cold and dark alpine start. I hate the greasy residue it leaves. I get super paranoid about that greasy residue on my hands transferring onto my hardshells, where it eats away at membrane materials. But the benefits extended beyond glove-friendly application. Stick sunscreens use thicker bases, usually emollients and humectants that seal in moisture and better protect your skin. Most have a balm-like feel that stands up better to the high winds, cold temps, and dry air that correlate with higher elevation. Some formulas leave my skin softer and smoother after a tour than when I started. Those thicker bases also mean that won’t run as easily if you work up a sweat. Liquid sunscreens include a lot of water (usually the first ingredient), which means there’s a much higher chance it leaks in your bag. That water also means liquid gets fewer applications out of the same amount of volume. In other words, a stick the size of a travel deodorant can last you all season, but a travel tube of liquid sunscreen only lasts for a few applications.
- Sun hoodies make things easy. Again, early morning alpine starts aren’t great for sunscreen application. You’ve got so many things on your to-do list and it’s rare that you have time to apply sunscreen to your hair part or all the nooks and crannies around your ears. Instead, I just pull on a sun hoody and pop the hood up once the sun comes out. As a bonus, there’s no reapplication needed – just a few stick swipes on my face throughout the day and I’m good to go – so it cuts down on the number of breaks I need during the tour. They breathe well, they wick well, and most are formulated to feel cool to the touch. I’ve been primarily wearing the Stio Hylas (runs small, size up) and the Orvis Sun Defense (runs large, size down). I’m also really stoked on the new Crater Lake Active Hoody from Mountain Hardwear since it’s a little cheaper. My partner has the men’s version and the OG, non-active version for women showed a lot more skin and had some strange features.
- Always bring approach shoes. The snowline can change rapidly in the spring, and a lot of walking on dry trail can do a number on your touring boot soles (not to mention your feet or your morale). No one wants to start the morning doing a surprise mile-long carry in your Crocs or flip flops, so bring a pair of runners just in case. Bonus points if they’re waterproof. Approach trails usually cross a lot of slushy patches and runoff streams before the snow gets consistent. Getting your feet and socks wet on the hike in increases the risk of blisters.
- Compressions socks can counter swelling from altitude and heat. This one’s mainly for folks with aggressively sized touring boots. Your performance fit may be comfortable for shorter, colder winter tours, but heat and altitude both cause swelling. Most people will be fine without them, but if your comfortable boots suddenly start crushing your feet in the spring, try some compression socks to keep swelling in check.
- Caltopo has a layer for sun exposure. Timing “corn:30” correctly is an imprecise science. You want sun to hit the slope for a while – anywhere from 1 to 5 hours, depending on overnight temps, daytime temps, windspeed, elevation, cloud cover, etc. Getting that anchor time is such a great starting point to back into a ballpark drop time and I carry a heavy puffy with a wind-resistant Pertex face fabric in case I need to hang out for an hour or so to let things soften.
- Ski crampons can hang on your waist strap. If I know that I’m going to need ski crampons on a tour, I clip them into my pack’s waist belt and set the toggle’s tension so that they don’t really swing or fall off when I unclip my pack. It makes that transition quick compared to taking off my pack and rummaging for a small-ish item. I hang the pouch empty while I’m using them so I’m ready if I need to stash them during a carry or if things soften up.
- Hydrating and nutrition starts the day before. I’ve struggled with staying hydrated on long, hot tours like Baker and Adams. Pack space is limited. Running water is scarce. Melting snow is a production. I’d ration 3-4 liters and still be parched at the end. But I wasn’t preparing well. I’m a Coke Zero girlie, which is hydrating, but barely. I’d sip a Red Bull while getting my gear together for an alpine start, which is dehydrating. I started being really mindful about stocking my body with liters of water that I didn’t have to carry in my pack. I’m intentional about drinking more water, Crystal Lite, or hydration products (Liquid IV, Pedialyte) the day before. I let myself get a caffeine kick from a mini Diet Coke to start the morning, but alternate with more water. I also stash hydrating drinks in the car for after. I also take tour day and the day before off my acne medication since it’s a diuretic and there aren’t any major risks with missing my prescribed dose.
- Summit beers are not exciting when you’re dehydrated or nauseous from altitude. I carried a number of alcoholic beverages up and down volcanoes before I realized that a little “cheers” at the top was only fun in theory. I’d much rather have a mini Gatorade, ski down to the car, slam a Liquid IV, wait 30-45 minutes while my body rehydrates, and then wonder if I want to hang out with a White Claw or just get on the road.
- Always pack a wag bag. Glacier poop is gross. It never goes anywhere, unless you count “into climbers’ drinking water” or “under someone’s 4-figure Hilleberg tent.” Some people are regular and have a perfected system to minimize smells and leaks. My digestive system takes a rain check when I exercise. My blue bag count could fit on one hand. But you never want to risk it, and you never know when your partner will have a multi blue bag emergency or find a hole in the one they packed. A few dog poop or compost bags, a freezer Ziploc, and a handful of swiped napkins from dinner on the drive down will get the job done. It’s far from the pinnacle of wag-bag engineering, but you’ll have done your part.
- Bring simple carbs with simple flavors for high elevations. High elevation in the continental US is easy to manage for some people. Others need to keep things real easy for our digestive system. Saltine crackers, plain potato chips (light on the oil), turkey on white bread. Still pack your go-to goodies, but unless you know that elevation doesn’t phase you, a few hundred calories of palatable snacks can make the difference as to whether you’re fueled well for your summit push.
- Shorts for the car ride home. If I’m able to make the drive from home in the morning, it’s so common that I layer correctly for the tour and that I’m comfortable for the morning commute, but that I’m roasting on the car ride home. Do I melt in my softshells or do I go into the gas station with just my kind-of-see-through base layers on? If it’s warm enough, I just swap the full baselayer out in favor of a spandex shorts in order to get the bests of both worlds.
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