Tuesday, June 4, 2013

The Ski Belay: A Necessary Evil

It sucks to ski on belay. It just does. But, it is sometimes "impossible" to ski a big peak in the Tetons that does not require a bit of "jiggery-pokery." A full arsenal of ropes, carabiners, ice screws, and pitons are required to descend many of Wyoming's big one's--even for the best ski-mountaineers out there. While continuous descents do exist--like the East Face of the Middle Teton or the Amora Vida on the South Teton--no one has ever been able to get the Grand Teton clean.
Every ski descent of the GT thus far has required the aid of a rope. So, whether guiding a skier down the classic Ford Coulior or attempting to ski the "unskiable" with a friend, I rely heavily on the ski belay.

There is nothing fun about going to make a turn in steep, consequential terrain and having your partner--or worse, your guide--"gank" you from above ("sorry Jim!") Too little slack in the system and your partner or client is on their ass, all because you were trying to be "safe." I have experimented with many techniques to provide a good ski belay in steep terrain. Often times the terrain, the anchor, and the skier's ability dictate the techniques used.

Here are a couple tips I have learned along the way.

Rules of the Ski Belay

Rule #1: Don't need it. If you are not sure that you can ski it, you probably should not be there. Use the belay as insurance for your life, but have confidence that you can ski the steep and icy section above the cliff before you even start playing the game. If there is a question then simply start rappelling. Then go home, sharpen your edges a la Chris Davenport, and practice skiing the gnar in less consequential terrain.

Rule #2: Know your anchors. If you really might fall, then you better have a good anchor. Otherwise you are simply slowing the descent and not really adding a margin of safety. Good anchors can be built in just about any snow conditions, which gives you a lot of freedom while negotiating your way down big peaks. You should know how to build effective T-Trenches with pickets, axes, and skis. You should have experience driving pitons into incipient cracks. And you should not hesitate to leave expensive gear behind if it makes or breaks a good anchor--it is just "stuff." As they say, you can't take it with you.

Rule #3: Put your money where your mouth is: Try to belay directly off the anchor as it is easier to keep the rope moving quickly. But, if there is any question about the strength of the anchor, or speed is essential in building the anchor, then BE the anchor. Find a stance, stab the tail of a ski in the snow (while leaving it on your foot). Take the other ski off and stab in in the snow in between your legs. Belay off your harness. Now, you are the anchor.

Rule #4: Give her some slack. See rule #1. If you are pulling the skier off their stance--or "short-roping" them--then you are creating hazard, not mitigating it. If you have a good anchor, and the skier is competent, you should be able to throw three or four loops of slack in anticipation of each turn. Yes, if they do slip, there is slack in the system. But that is better than pulling them off their stance unexpectedly.

Rule #5: Practice. It takes just as much time to figure out how ski on belay as it does to dish out the rope fast enough. Below is a video of a practice run in the Tetons in preparation for the Grand Teton. I had a solid rock anchor that I was able to belay directly off of. I chose to hold three or four loops of slack in the system in anticipation of each turn. Also demonstrated in the video, belaying off the anchor also has the added benefit of transitioning into a lowering system seamlessly (which is possible off of your body as well, but is generally less comfortable.)

Skiing in the Tetons is going off right now. Hope your getting out wherever you are.

--Doug Workman, Mammut Snow and Avalanche Tech Rep

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