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Vail Backcountry Turns: Avoid backcountry gear that doesn’t perform

Don Shefchik
Backcountry Turns
Vail, CO Colorado

VAIL, Colorado – “The wrong gear in the right place can make for a bad day.” I don’t recall if these words of wisdom came from Confucius (ancient Chinese philosopher and skier, maybe) or from Buck Elliott, owner of Paragon Guides (definitely a skier).

But the words hold just as true today as when I first heard them.

In our last Backcountry Turns article, head guide Will Elliott had some great ideas on getting ready for the ski season. He assumed your gear was as ready as you are. However, for the purposes of today’s article, I’ll assume your gear is not ready. C’mon, do you really remember the condition your gear was in when you put it away last spring?

Today I will focus on a backcountry skier’s main tools: skis, bindings, boots and climbing skins. A skilled craftsman knows the value of not only good tools, but also keeping those tools clean, sharp and well-oiled. It’s an unsure carpenter or skier who blames his tools for a day of poor performance. Applying this adage to your gear will make for many a happy day in the backcountry.

When you pulled your favorite skis out of summer storage did you have to scrape off the storage wax? If not, check the bases for oxidation (dry looking?) and the edges for signs of rust. An early season tune may be necessary. Tuned skis not only glide better but also help with turn initiation. I find that “ripping” climbing skins is a smoother operation with a waxed ski.

Whether you ski telemark or alpine touring bindings, check them before you hit the trail. It never hurts to test for loose screws, so get out your screwdriver. Also, with so much plastic used on bindings these days, check for cracks. Being a “tele-er,” I check cables for wear and base plates for stress fractures.

If you’re old school (are there really any left?) at least put some polish on those leather boots, check the sole by the “3-pin” holes for cracking, and check the welt for “dry rot.” I know most of you use plastic boots. At least give them the attention of a quick inspection. Mechanical parts can bend, liners can rip or tear. If nothing else you might dump out a valuable summer collection from an industrious mouse. Feet do change, so check the fit and hope that sock thickness is all that needs to be changed.

Of all the backcountry tools, climbing skins may need the most attention. Sometimes they stick so well it’s a struggle to get them off, other times you can’t keep them on.

There are many variables and too many brands for me to cover all the nuances of here, but a few basics are universal. Check for excess glue, or areas where there is no glue. There are products available to rejuvenate or replace skin glue, but none works as well or lasts as long as the factory job, so do all you can to keep your skins in good condition.

Local shops may be able to recondition skins with good results and I would recommend that approach rather than doing nothing and facing the consequences of bad skins on a long tour. The plastic mesh that is available for climbing skin storage seems to keep the glue in better condition but is often difficult to work with in the field. Lastly, check the tip loops for wear, and if you use a tail connector, check it for proper function.

Maybe Confucius wasn’t a skier but I’m quite sure he did say, “earn your turns.” So get out there (with your recently inspected and properly functioning gear) and enjoy.

Donny Shefchik is a senior guide and field director for Paragon Guides. He has spent nearly 30 years earning his turns in the Vail backcountry and Tenth Mountain Hut System.


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