Tuesday, 30 March 2010

Guiding light?


I like to travel light in the backcountry. I like how it frees your mind and lightens your step. However, going light, or ultra-light, is full of compromise and margins become reduced in pursuit of lowering your pack weight. Skills must be learned to mitigate the less equipment carried but whilst working as a ski guide you are no longer responsible just for your own safety. Guiding day-after-day also puts a lot of pressure on ultra-light gear and I'm going to have to dial things back a notch or two when I'm working in the mountains in future. I still think I can apply lightweight principles to my guiding gear but, with my client's safety in mind, my own day-long comfort and safety must become my primary concern above counting grams.

Observations from the field:

  • Pump up the volume - I need a bigger backpack for guiding. I used my 45 litre-ish OMM Villain but when it was loaded with emergency bivy gear, big first aid kit, radios, clipboard, duct tape, cow-bells, lunch, snacks, avalanche probe, wax kit, shovel, snow saw, spare clothing, etc, etc it was bursting. My GoLite Pinnacle is big enough but it's ultra-light design is more suited to high-volume/low-weight loads (carrying lots of winter insulation)and it wouldn't be comfortable all day with the weight I'm expected to carry. Maybe an OMM Mountain Mover would be more appropriate. I love my other OMM pack's tool carrying capabilities, their waist belt pockets and tough fabric. I'd also like my new pack to weigh well under 2kg. Some of my colleagues were carrying 60 litre behemoths that weighed 5kg empty...
  • Waxing lyrical - I use waxless skis. 95% of the time they work perfectly. Clean and almost zero maintenance. I totally see the benefit of using kick and glide waxes if you're a racing whippet in search of gold and glory in an hour long race but there is no need for it on recreational skis. Full days in the backcountry can span many temperatures and changing snow conditions. Every few degrees requires a different wax. Before you know it the wax that you spent ages applying in the morning is useless and it's a sticky pain in the ass to change it. The wax gets all over your hands, gloves, clothes and backpack. That's fine if you posses the inclination, skill and equipment to do it yourself but when your responsible for 60 kids borrowing Mummy's/Daddy's/Uncle's/Auntie's waxed skis then it takes the piss! I have to carry a full wax kit to deal with every possible condition and get covered in the resulting goo. Go waxless, save a guide's sanity and a chunk of weight from their backpack to boot.
  • Heavy water - During the proper winter I wear true soft-shell clothing but in Spring skiing conditions it can rain all day and I prefer to wear waterproof/breathable fabrics, eVent if at all possible. On my last guiding trip I wore a 275g waterproof jacket, 300g over-trousers and ultra-light mini gaiters. They weren't quite up to the task. The jacket wasn't vent-able enough and possibly won't last a full seasons (ab)use by pack straps and lunchtime rock scrapes. I think a jacket weighing nearer 500/600g would be better for guiding and I'm liking the look of the Rab's Latok/Latok Alpine and Montane's Supfly XT. The pants need to have braces or possibly be salopette-style for all-day comfort and in addition to full side zips they should have tough in-steps and possibly built-in snow gaiters. My ultra-light Integral Designs mini gaiters got destroyed. Rab Latok Tour pants/salopettes look the best so far. Before anyone mentions the P-word, I'm still not convinced on the cut and won't consider it until I get to try it on back in Blighty but potentially it could be my all-weather winter-long answer.
  • No-cost extras - I have to carry extra gloves, hats and socks for clients. You'd be amazed at what some parents will send their precious kids into the mountains with. Not much I can do here to save weight and pack space but my Buffalo mitts are proving to be ultra-light digit savers for clients on an almost daily basis. They even ask me where they can buy a pair at the end of the day. If only they made a tougher pair for guide use. Montane may be to the rescue on that front next year...
  • Perfection is impossible - I'm not sure which is the lightest but there doesn't seem to be a 'best' binding system. The classic 3-pin telemark binding has a lot going for it. Simple, supportive and easy to repair but I saw plenty of torn boot soles. The NNN-style bindings are very popular and the boots appear tougher (until they do finally fail and then it's usually catastrophic) but the bindings are horrendously prone to icing up and breaking and are very difficult to repair in the field. The last couple of years I ran NNN-BC Manual Magnum bindings. Next year I'll run 3-pins on fatter, shorter skis.
  • Duct Tape is a guide's best friend - I always carry few feet of it carefully wrapped around the upper section of my ski and trekking poles for emergency use. When you're guiding 60 kids on skis this supply is exhausted in the blink of an eye as you are required to repair boots, bindings, skis, poles, backpacks, blisters, cuts, gaiters, sunglasses, goggles, thermos flasks,etc, etc... You need to carry a full roll of the stuff.

We learn something new every day. The guiding I've done this year put me face-to-face with long-term gear use in an accelerated time frame. I have a while now to consider my guide gear for next season. Hopefully I can be comfortable, safe and not be weighed down so much that I can't enjoy the fantastically rewarding days in the mountains that this job offers.


Dave Hanlon said...

"fatter, shorter skis"

Ooo. A ski purchase. Do keep us informed. I did a lot of virtual ski shopping on return from Norway this winter. I'd like to have my own and this winter would've got to use them locally but in truth I can't justify the expense. Had I have made a purchase it probbaly would've been these: http://www.rossignol.com/NL/bc-70-positrack_RH8WF34_product_nordic-men-skis-classic.html

Short and fat but will still just fit in the tracks. I'm sure they're overkill but I was impressed by the solidity of the Rotefella Chilli bindings.

As for packs n-stuff I've never bought the argument that longevity is a primary consideration for most people. When you get out once or twice a year then it will take years to expose your kit to significant wear and tear. I do however understand that it would become a concern for professional use.

Joe said...

Dave - I'll do some homework over the coming months. I'm kind of leaning towards the 'shorter, fatter' skis for proper backcountry stuff where you have to plough through deep powder and navigate through lots of trees. I know there is a move towards ultra-light racing skis for backcountry travel (check out Tim Kelley's website at http://crust.outlookalaska.com/Intro/ but it seems to be aimed more at crust/prepared trail skiing) that would be much a much lighter option.

My current skis are Madshus Glittertind (which with a 68mm tip are pretty much the same as the Rossignols), just about as fat as you can fit into nordic tracks but I find myself skiing less and less on these. Speed and lightweight are not as important to me as robustness (when dozens of kids crash into and ski over your skis) and control (whizzing downhill trying to stay upright balancing a heavy backpack on your back). As for bindings, I may go for a cable tele binding next season, I guess it depends how much proper 'telemark' skiing I will end up doing.

I totally agree with your last statement. Most packs, even lightweight ones, will happily cope with most peoples adventures. That's why I'm totally convinced that I don't need a 5kg pack! I do however need one that I can use every day for weeks at a time, carries comfortably and will cope with all the odd tools I have to take with me.

Anonymous said...

Liked the Heavy Water reference, a fine bit of Norwegian history :)

Sounds like you're learning as much as the kids. I must admit to being quite jealous, sounds like a great way to make a living [apart from the kids bit ;-)]

Joe said...

Fraser - The Heroes of Telemark is a great movie!

It's good that we're able to keep learning, the danger comes when we think we know it all! Guiding would be a great way to make a living if I could make a living from it. Unfortunately the season is short.

Nielsen Brown said...

Thanks Joe for your report, your story clearly indicates why many leaders of trips end up carrying a lot more gear than they themselves would normally carry.


YES The Heroes of Telemark is a great movie !!

Joe said...

Roger - it's been eye-opening how much stuff you have to carry when others are dependent on you but some lightweight theory is applicable, even in this scenario. My rolling of several feet of gaffer tape around my ski poles was one trick that was instantly picked up and copied by some of the other guides. You still need to carry a back-up roll between you but having the wonder tape at close hand is a god-send.