The wait is finally over and spring ski mountaineering season is in full swing all across the Northern Hemisphere. The time has come to start ticking off those lines, peaks and objectives that you’ve been planning for months, years, even lifetimes.
It should come as no surprise that the proper gear, knowledge and experience can be the difference between a safe and successful day in the mountains and one of the opposite, which we all try our best to avoid. I’ve spent the last couples months, and will continue until there’s no snow to be found, testing various gear all across the globe in places like Chamonix, France, the Ruby Mountains, Nevada, Great Basin National Park, Nevada and the Front Range of Colorado.
Below, you’ll find a fairly comprehensive list of gear—with the exception of obvious products like beacons, shovels, probes, first aid kits, skis, boots and bindings—that I trust to keep me safe in the mountains. For those of you seeking high-alpine adventures, consult this list first and gear up properly for your next summit push.
The Black Diamond Vapor helmet is the brand’s lightest and most breathable brain bucket to date weighing in at a measly 199 grams. The comfortable, secure and all-encompassing fit gives you peace of mind when you need it most. Aside from the removable headlamp clamps and stow-able fit-adjustment system, my favorite Vapor feature is how well it fits over a brimmed hat. I always rock a trucker under my lid to help shade my face when out for long, sunny days on snowfields or glaciers. My skin needs all the help it can get in that regard. This helmet is an ideal way to shave significant weight from your kit without sacrificing your brains longevity.
As long as the weather is fair, the Wind Jacket 2.0 sunglasses are all you need when you venture into the backcountry. Bonus: you can leave the extra bulk of backup goggles at home. They’re lightweight, fully protective in all but the stormiest conditions, have detachable sunglass retainers to prevent dropping them down icy couloirs and are just as appropriate at après as they are on the slopes. Utilizing Oakley’s PRIZM SNOW lenses, these shades are flat light’s worst nightmare and offer unrivaled control of light transmission, which brings those hidden snow sharks out of the shadows and into view. This is my go-to piece of eye protection for spring ski mountaineering missions.
We’re backing the Men’s Summit L5 Proprius Gore-Tex Active Jacket—a Summit Series offering from The North Face—100 percent. The ultra-light, windproof, Gore-Tex Active shell was the perfect piece for a recent outing summiting and skiing 13,065-foot Wheeler Peak in Nevada’s Great Basin National Park.
We faced strong winds while making our way up the summit ridge, making this 100-percent windproof shell 100-percent necessary. Additionally, due to the breathability of the three-layer Gore-Tex Active membrane I was protected from the elements without overheating and feeling clammy from the desert heat and excessive exercise. The fully adjustable hood was ideal for keeping the wind and sun off my face, whether I was sporting my brain bucket or just a hat. This is a must have for anyone that takes ski mountaineering seriously.
On spring ski mountaineering missions I’m generally more concerned about warmth of the snowpack than if I brought enough layers. Other than a shell and an emergency puffy, the Summit L2 Proprius Grid Fleece Hoodie is all you need. It’s breathable enough to keep you cool on those hard and fast dawn patrol skins, while offering enough insulation to do the trick on a windy ridge or brisk descent. This piece boasts Polartec Power Grid fleece that offers an industry-leading warmth-to-weight ratio, a head-hugging hood that fits snuggly under any helmet and thumb loops for a layer that moves with you, not against.
The Summit L5 Gore-Tex Pro Bib is a minimalist workhorse that excels in all conditions and lives up to the stout expectations of The North Face’s Summit Series collection. These bibs are 100-percent windproof and waterproof while still being breathable “AF.” The lack of vents had me worried at first, but after numerous days of big ascents in Europe and the U.S. without overheating, I’ve come to trust this technology. Plus, the lack of vents and unnecessary pockets—only two thigh and one simple one in the chest—keeps weight and excess bulk in check. Large zippers that run from the hip down the leg make doing your business in the ackcountry efficient while eliminating the need to strip down, take off the attached, adjustable suspenders and compromise your core temp. The form fitting, athletic cut and integrated gaiters work together to help you move swiftly in mixed terrain, whether sporting crampons or not.
The Summit G5 Proprius Glove is built for when dexterity is of the utmost priority. These fast and light ski mountaineering gloves feature “Radiametric Articulation” that allows your hands to rest in their natural position, strategic Kevlar threading throughout for reinforced durability and a hideaway over-mitt shell for extra wind and water protection. Also, the face fabric has a DWR coating for front line defense against moisture. My favorite part about these gloves is a carabiner loop on each to keep them organized, dry and clipped on my pack’s gear loop for easy access.
This sock had just the right combination of breathability and cushion for our 16-plus miles of walking and skiing in Great Basin National Park. The targeted padding in the shin and heel was perfect for when the descent labors the shin and the heel bears the load while skinning. The true seamless build gives you an invisible feel and my feet could breath when imprisoned under Gore-Tex ski pants and hiking boots. And just like my loyalty to Darn Tough, their socks are guaranteed for life.
The Petzl Altitude harness is a dream piece of a ski mountaineer’s accoutrements. It’s a fully capable harness that packs down to slightly larger than an iPhone and weighs a ghostly 150 grams. The streamlined design features four gear loops that resist snagging when wearing a backpack and allow you to store an ice screw on each leg loop. The best part is the simple buckling mechanism on each leg and the buckle waist closure that can be easily operated with gloves allowing you to seamlessly take the harness on and off whether you’re wearing skis, crampons, ski boots or tied into a rope team. This harness’ weightless feel will leave you waltzing into après ready to send.
The Ortovox Peak 45 pack is my go-to gear hauler for anything from equipment intensive peak-bagging missions to multi-day ski tours. It’s dedicated safety tools pocket, multiple ski and ice axe attachments, mesh helmet carrier, and circumferential zipper help you keep your essentials organized and accessible quickly. It fits all but the bulkiest sleeping bags for hut trips but still sinches down for day trips. The most unique attribute of this pack is the Swisswool Full Contact back system, which is made from pressed Swiss wool and absorbs 29 times more sweat than a comparable foam system and breathes 7% more efficiently. My favorite features that really make this pack stand out are the rope attachment directly under the brain – perfect for trips with glacier travel – and the removable gear straps that you can customize based on your adventure, which are perfect for multiple ice axes or to affix your crampons when you need to access them quickly. This knapsack is a true alpine workhorse.
Each of us carried a BC Link radio in Great Basin National Park and they proved invaluable. The high winds on the approach to the summit made even basic communication in close proximity tough. And the meandering nature of the ski descent left us out of each others’ sight often and forced us to radio back directions and condition updates. I never head into the backcountry without my BC Link.
The Petzl Gully Ice Axe is a technical ski mountaineer’s best friend. It’s steel head and 3 mm tapered, banana-shaped pick allows for efficient piercing and effortless unhooking when steep mixed terrain gets in the way of your objective. The new handle allows on-the-fly adjustments without a tool to quickly dial in your hand and index finger placement during techy sections of ascent. When swinging this bad boy around, it’s immediately noticeable how light and compact it is. At 45 cm and 280 grams, this tool can stow almost anywhere on your pack without adding much at all to your load. Even a tool this stealthy can be fully trusted in the most dire alpine situations.
Whether you’re traveling across a glacier, rappelling into the line of your dreams or performing a crevasse rescue, Petzl’s ultra-light and compact RAD SYSTEM (Rescue and Descent) has you covered. It includes a 30 meter RAD line—a 6 mm cord designed specifically for the aforementioned ski mountaineering situations—three locking carabiners, one TIBLOC ascender, one MICRO TRAXION progress capture pulley and a 120 centimeter sling all efficiently stowed in a storage bag that can be attached to your harness or stowed at the bottom of your pack. The kit is meticulously thought-out with sewn in webbing loops on the inside to keep all components organized, an ice screw holder on the outside and comes with the cord pre-coiled and ready for instant deployment. I absolutely recommend this super straightforward and easy to use kit to anyone that plans to travel on terrain this kit is designed for, but there’s no substitute for hands-on practice. All you need is a steepish slope, a tree for an anchor and a friend to “catch” to get familiar with this system. This gear can only keep you safe if you know its ins and outs like the back of your hand. PSA aside, Petzl has seriously raised the bar with this kit.
Part of traveling in the mountains is expecting the unexpected. Whether a freak spring storm rolls in or your friend has less than optimal circulation in their extremities and you end up lending them out, I never leave the truck without my Summit G5 Gore-Tex Pro Belay Mitts. I call them my “Oh Sh*t Mitts” and they’re a permanent staple of my kit. These beasts are windproof, waterproof and stuffed with 100 grams of PrimaLoft Gold insulation to keep your hands toasty in even the gnarliest alpine conditions. The trigger-finger liner—lobster-claw design that provides the warmth of a mitten while allowing the index finger to move freely—maximizes dexterity when handling your equipment, which is key if you ever find yourself in a cruxy situation when the weather turns south. Thanks to these hand held ovens, you never have to sacrifice functionality to keep feeling in your digits.
The Summit L3 Proprius Down Hoodie is another permanent fixture in my ski mountaineering kit, even when the forecast is splitter. This ultra-light, 800-fill, Responsible Down Standard-certified jacket provides life-saving warmth while still being exceptionally packable. This minimalist puffy features a single chest pocket that acts as a vent when worn and a stuff sack when stowed, stretch knit cuffs that reduce bulk when layering and a single-pull cinch-cord at the base to keep the body-environment interface airtight. My favorite attribute is the collar, which has added material that cradles your lower jaw and eliminates the need to continually pull it up over your mouth when cold. Other than the obvious emergency cold situations, I use this puffy, rather than my pack, as a seat when snacking on the summit to keep my bum insulated from the snowpack, allowing me easy access to my gear. And at 380 grams, there’s no reason to leave this wearable cloud behind.
$12.00/box of 8
GU Energy Gels are the perfect quick shot of calories for any fast and light spring ski mountaineering mission. I like to keep a few in the pouch on my backpack’s hipbelt for easy snacking on the skin track. They’re packed full of carbohydrates, electrolytes and branched-chain amino acids to keep you fueled both mentally and physically. GU is celebrating their 25th anniversary this year and released a Birthday Cake flavored gel that is surprisingly yummy and festive at the same time. You can choose between caffeinated or not, but who doesn’t want that little extra buzz?
$8.99/box of 8
I’m sure that a lot of you agree, but a day without coffee, isn’t a day I want to be a part of. Thankfully, Alpine Start created an instant coffee that doesn’t suck. Their Original Blend Instant Coffee is ground from 100 percent Arabica beans from high altitude Colombian farms and at just over $1 per cup, this brew is equally at home in the office as it is in your favorite backcountry zone. The best part about this black nectar is that it dissolves just as easily in cold water as it does in hot, so you can scratch that caffeine itch even in the hot afternoon sun where the last thing you want to do is wait for your coffee to cool.