Dr. Telemark's Treks
The Do's and Don'ts of XC Touring in the Back Country
Dr. C. ("The C stands for Cross Country" he said) and S. ("and the S for Skier") Telemark had a rough trip last weekend. This enthusiastic, though novice, cross country skier made the same mistake that many beginners blunder into: He let his sense of adventure lead him deep into the woods, well beyond the point where his exhausted legs and numb mind could cope. Having navigated a half-dozen prepared trails at ski touring centers throughout the Mount Washington Valley, Telemark supposed he was prepared to set out into the National Forest on his own. He supposed wrong.
In an exclusive interview with the Mountain Ear, Telemark confessed that his zeal to ski "on the best snow I've seen in seven winters" clouded his better judgement. "I think," he said, reflecting on his epic journey, "that I went too far, too fast, allowing too little time to complete the route." Happily, Telemark managed to reach safety, wet and tired but none-the-worse for his misguided six-hour debacle, yet his personal experience convinced him of the need to forewarn others. To learn what he should have done, Telemark consulted with several local experts who offered sound advice to the novice skier heading to the wilderness.
Each of the experts Telemark polled agreed that common sense, thoughtful planning and proper equipment reduce the chances of trouble while touring through the forest. Above all, common sense was most important.
"First, people should never ski alone," Thom Perkins, director of the Jackson Ski touring Foundation told Telemark. "Let someone know where you're going and always let them know after you've returned." As a rule of thumb, Perkins advised skiers to be cautious rather than daring. "If you get into a situation where you're in doubt, turn around and follow your tracks out," he noted. "Blowing winds and snows can quickly cover your tracks."
Alec Behr, the man who runs the Eastern Mountain Sports Climbing School's ski program, pointed out that skiing with another was a "prerequisite" to backcountry skiing. "Then, if something does go wrong," Behr explained, "the other person is able to go for help." For additional insurance, Behr recommended that skiers carry lightweight first aid kits, including gauze bandages, safety pins, adhesive tape and a couple triangular bandages. "You never know what the weather's going to do, so it's best to go prepared," Behr added.
According to Behr, part of going prepared entails careful selection of the day's trail. "You should plan your trip so that you have one or two escape routes," Behr advised, "so that if you encounter trouble, you're able to take the quick way out. Trips should also be well within the distance you think you can manage--on your first time out, choose a trail that is only half as long as you estimate you can go."
Though underestimating a day's tour in the backcountry may seem like overly prudent advice, Telemark found that the experts concurred with Behr's council. "A lot of the good skiing in the backcountry follows hiking trails (maintained by the United States Forest Service, the Appalachian Mountain Club, and other outdoor organizations), David Stone of International Mountain Equipment pointed out, "but to ski here you have to be reasonably proficient. These paths are generally narrower than the trials at touring centers, with sharper turns and steeper grades up and down." Thus, Telemark observed, a small bite at the outset is better than the indigestion of too much skiing too soon.
When Dr. Telemark asked for advice on types of equipment to bring along, he again discovered that those wiser than him agreed on most items. Thom Perkins suggested that most day packs should be filled with a cork and scraper, a compass, a flashlight (or headlamp), spare parts for bindings, a whistle, dark glasses, a spare plastic ski tip, waxes, a Swiss Army knife, and tape, "which is very useful when repairing broken ski poles or bindings," and a first aid kit.
"Pack everything inside a large, triple-ply plastic garbage bag," Perkins said, "If the weather changes and rain comes, the bag can serve as a temporary raincoat, and if you're forced to spend the night out-of-doors, it provides emergency shelter. It's not a bad idea to pack matches and a few candles either."
Adding to Perkin's list, Alec Behr recommended a good pair of ski boots ("soles tend to rip away from cheap shoes"), with spare bales and screws for bindings. "A little bit of creativity is always helpful," Behr continued. "Aluminum flashing, wrapped in wire and covered with tape can repair splintered poles and make them stronger than new. These items are light-weight and easy to carry." Behr also packs a spare basket for his ski poles and hopes others will do the same.
As a final equipment suggestion, David Stone advised ski tourers to include a tin cup along with the rest of their gear. Attached to a ski pole with a rubber band or adhesive tape, the cup saves both time and effort when trying to dip into a semi-frozen stream for a sip of water. (Stone explained that this idea wasn't his but belonged to his friend Michael Hartrich.)
Although Telemark had believed that designer jeans were the preferred fashion for skiing, the experts cautioned him against this choice of clothing for the backcountry. "I remember that I looked groovy," Telemark recalled, "but my legs were wet and cold."
Those who know better opt for wool or the synthetic pile clothing which - unlike thin cotton material - retains its ability to insulate even after it becomes wet. David Stone puts on wool knickers or pants, along with a wool sweater, and carries an extra wool hat, wool gloves and socks in his day pack. "Polypropylene underwear, which wicks out sweat and moisture from the skin, is also very handy," Stone said. "It keeps your skin nice and dry." Others included a down parka with their equipment not only for the extra warmth it provides, but for the insurance as well. "If you are forced to bivouac overnight," Behr noted, "this gear could save your life."
Telemark also discovered he had misjudged when he chose to carry a bottle of champagne and a tin of caviar on his first journey into the wilderness. "While the champagne was tasty, I suspect it may have dulled my thoughts," he said, "and the caviar froze in its can".
To avoid these pitfalls, Paula Colangelo - Director of the NEI Cross Country Learning Center in Intervale - suggested that skitourers pack a variety of high-energy snacks. "Foods that don't freeze such as raisins, nuts, hard candies and fruit cakes, are good sources of energy," she said, "and unlike sandwiches, you can eat them after the temperature drops." Others well-versed in backcountry touring included crackers and chocolate bars in this list, though Alec Behr noted that people tend to "overdo it" with M&M's and Snickers.
The experts were also unanimous in urging novice tourers to keep a good supply of liquids at hand. "People don't realize it," Thom Perkins pointed out, "but the body can burn up an incredible amount of fluid in a day's skiing. The loss of as little as one percent of the body fluid can mean the loss of as much as 40 percent of the body's energy." Since alcoholic beverages like champagne act to dehydrate the body, they can be particularly dangerous in the wilderness. "When I heard this," Telemark recalled, "I began to understand why I was so exhausted last week."
Carrying a thermos, though it weighs a bit more than a water bottle, may prove well worth the effort. As David Stone noted, a warm cup of tea or cocoa after a grueling mile or two through the woods, can be a pause that truly refreshes.
Just as he had erred in selecting what to wear and carry, Telemark found that his choice of waxes proved dead wrong. "The temperature was hovering in the teens, and the snow was fresh," Telemark said, "but a friend from Arizona recommended purple klister and I took his advice. I must admit that while I like that color, it didn't help my trip."
Ski tourers will have better luck if they first call one of the local touring centers or tune in to WBNC or WMWV for the latest word on the proper wax. However, conditions vary from one end of the mountains to the other, and a rapid change in the weather can turn a special green into a red wax day. "If you're not sure about what wax to apply," Stone said, "put on a slightly harder wax at the start. For example, if the ski report calls for blue, use a special blue (a harder wax) first. You can always apply blue or an even softer wax if you slip on the trail." For added insurance, Stone advised tourers to bring one or two waxes above and below the reported wax of the day. Thus, if the day is rated as blue, carry blue, green, special green, red and purple. In addition, applying an extra layer of the recommended wax before changing colors could save a lot of headaches.
"If you're slipping and sliding, you have a choice," Stone explained. "You can simply add another coating of the recommended wax or use the nest softest wax as needed. You don't have to get too sophisticated as long as you carry a good selection of basic colors."
Deciding where to go also requires a bit of forethought. Paula Colangelo advised would-be backcountry skiers to survey hiking maps of the area, keeping an eye pealed for the contour lines which indicate elevation changes. "By plotting a trip that follows gentle hiking trails or logging roads, novice skiers won't go beyond their limits," she said. "You should always carry a map." Local trails behind Cathedral Ledge, near the Covered Bridge Campground, and along the Kancamagus Highway offer good examples of such moderate routes. Thom Perkins also recommended the trail to No Ketchum Pond, though he warned skiers not to park their cars at the trailhead (at the end of Carter Notch Road) since they would be towed.
For further edification into the ways and wiles of cross country skiing in the backcountry, Dr. Telemark was told to read such books as Lito Tejada-Flores' Backcountry Skiing or The Cross Country Ski Book by John Caldwell. However, all local cross country experts expressed a willingness to offer first-hand advice to any tourers setting out on their initial wilderness ski trip. "Talking to them before I went would have been the smart thing to do, Telemark confessed. "If I have known then what I know now, I would have been a much happier skier last weekend."