What’s In My Pack: Ski Mountaineering Guide
A Colorado Mountain School guide on ski mountaineering, gear and the first steps to getting out and staying safe.
Name: Mike Lewis
Occupation: AMGA Certified Rock and Alpine Guide
Years as a Guide: 24
Springtime conditions mean those high alpine skiing objectives you’ve been eyeing all season are in reach. You’re ready to shimmy on up and down a couloir or ski that 13,000 ft. peak. But, regardless of how prepared you think you are, advice or lessons from a guide and instructor are priceless.
Mike Lewis, a guide with Colorado Mountain School (CMS), has been guiding for 24 years. He’s an IFMGA internationally certified Mountain Guide, which means he’s certified in rock, alpine, and ski disciplines through the American Mountain Guides Association. Lewis can make the learning environment fun, while taking the experience seriously. He’ll joke with you about which Ben and Jerry’s ice cream flavor is superior while also offering quick tips on laying a good skin track on steep terrain or how to keep your boot’s tongues as loose as possible while hiking. And, above all else, he’s not afraid to call you out mid-course if he catches you doing something he’s already taught you not to do. Such as putting gear like your skins or probe on the outside of your pack after he’s explained how gear can be lost this way. He keeps it real, and he’s meticulous. Which is exactly what you want when taking a ski mountaineering course, or really any course in the backcountry, because the mountains don’t play around.
“Take a course,” says Lewis. “There are some things you can learn on your own or from a friend, but the most efficient and safest way to learn about how and when to use these tools is from a trained professional. Friends usually have either outdated or incomplete information.”
A proponent for packing light in ski mountaineering, Lewis explains that having a lightweight pack in the backcountry isn’t just to make it easy for you on the way up. “The weight of a pack is a risk management concern. If it’s too heavy, a skier risks knee injuries from skiing poorly and being thrown off balance. A heavy pack influences fatigue, which can lead to skiing poorly and loss of balance as well." But, he reminds us that a pack that is too light means a skier is missing essential items needed to assess the snowpack or when an injury or emergency occurs.
When Lewis isn’t guiding or hunting personal objectives in the outdoors, he can be found meditating. Which may speak to his ability to keep calm and make decisions when faced with variable conditions. “Meditation is my most or next most important hobby - if you can call it that,” he says. “I lived in Zen monasteries for seven years and have been practicing with my current Zen Teacher for 11 years. You could say that I like to get my Zen on.”
What are essential some pieces of gear that are crucial for ski mountaineering?
I carry the obvious, essential technical items including an ice axe, harness, ice screw (for glaciers), locking carabiners, a prusik cord, runners, rope and crampons. Ski crampons will be specific to your ski width and binding. In the past, aluminum boot crampons were the standard. Now, the Petzl Irvis Hybrids (1) with steel front points are even lighter than aluminum crampons. All items are lightweight and specific to ski-mountaineering. A light pack is so important that having lighter crampons is a must.
Other than mountaineering gear, when you’re heading into a day of ski mountaineering, what are some things that can always be found in your day pack?
Even though I only carry the BCA Stash (2), a 30 Liter pack, I carry a lot in there. Each item is important. Here are the components that are essential for risk management, safety, self-care, and rescue: beacon (on my body), probe, shovel, repair kit, first aid kit, rescue sled/emergency shelter, communication device like the DeLorme InReach (3), spot, satellite phone or a cell phone. I also carry a headlamp, multi-tool, navigation tools (compass, map, GPS system on my smartphone), snow saw and snowpack evaluation tools, field notebook, extra clothing layers, buff, extra gloves, beanie, food, water, goggles (sunglasses are usually on my face or hat), extra ski-straps, sunscreen, lip balm, toilet kit (toilet paper, wet wipes, Ziploc).
Because weather conditions are unpredictable, especially in the high alpine, can you tell us a little bit about what you do to layer up for long days in the backcountry?
Easy. First, I love to wear a hooded baselayer top. When the temps are warm, I can skin uphill in just this upper layer, yet protect my neck and ears from the sun and wind with the hood. My go-to hooded baselayer is the Rab Merino Plus 160 Hoody (4). The hood also fits over my sun hat, so I get both warmth and sun protection at the same time. Over the base layer top goes a light or medium-weight softshell-type layer to provide warmth and wind protection, as well as protection in snowfall. In my pack, I keep an extra synthetic mid-weight puffy and a hard-shell jacket. For my legs, I wear a baselayer under a hard or soft-shell touring pant. The Dyanfit Yotei GTX Pant (5) is an awesome hard shell pant. The Dynafit Chugach Windstopper Pant is a top-of-the-line softshell touring pant. The thickness of my gloves depends on the season, as does whether I will bring a beanie and a Buff, or just one.
Do you have any favorite for accessories (hats, gloves, helmet, buff, goggles, etc)?
The Julbo Aerospace goggles (6) are great for ski touring. Normally, I skin uphill with sunglasses on, but on days with blowing snow and cold temps, or when I am doing quick laps on a slope, I’ll tour uphill with these goggles. The lenses on these goggles extend out, which allows air and moisture to move in and out freely – this keeps the inside of the goggles from fogging up. Helmets are tricky. You’ll see some folks wearing resort-style helmets, which are heavy and reduce hearing ability, while others are wearing climbing helmets, which are lighter but are not rated for skiing impacts. CAMP makes the Speed 2.0 (7), which is rated for skiing, is lightweight, and is made to fit with goggles. This look has not caught on in the mainstream ski touring culture, though the ski-mo racing world has embraced this helmet without reserve. Salomon has recently put out some helmets that look like resort helmets but are lighter. Until these came out, Smith helmets seemed to be the lightest, resort-styled backcountry friendly helmets on the market. And of course, there are many who still ski without helmets at all.
What ski setup are you grabbing for most often these days when heading out on a ski mountaineering mission?
For deep powder, hot powder, and variable conditions involving crusts, the DPS Alchemist Wailer 112s (8) are my go to. There’s a reason why these skis cost so much – they’re worth it. For spring corn and harder packed skiing, I reach for the Dynafit Meteorite 97s or the Kastle FX 94s (9).
What snacks and fuel do you always have in your bag?
My fuel changes over time as I get tired of certain items. As far as traditional energy bars, gummies, and gels, I really dig Pro Bars because they tend to stay softer longer than other common bars. Honey Stinger (10) and Clif gummies are my go to, non-caffeinated. Gels—I like them all—Gu, Glif, Honey Stinger, etc. Generally, these items are my end of the day items when I am just trying to get up that last hill and down that last run. For most of the day, I’m munching leftover pizza, a Tupperware of pasta, a PB&J sandwich, or a Rice Krispy Treat. If I had my choice, I would eat Life Savers Berry Gummies all day, but then I’d feel horrible by the time I got home.
Do you have any luxury items that you like to bring out with you that maybe you don’t totally “need”?
Well, I recently took a luchador mask (11) to the top of Iztachiuattl in Mexico for the summit photos (non-skiing peak climb), but since then, I’ve kept my pack light and kept only what was essential.
Colorado Mountain School (CMS) is one of Colorado’s largest guiding services and one of the best resources when discussing and learning about ski mountaineering in the Colorado Rockies and beyond. Headquartered in Estes Park and Boulder, Colorado, CMS’s main training ground is Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP), where guides will take students to learn skills and then put them into practice. It’s in RMNP that students can apply their new knowledge in real life situations, which are instrumental when trying to become proficient in backcountry skiing and ski mountaineering.