Most backcountry skiers admire a beautiful set of downhill tracks snaking down a slope. In the words of Sir Arnold Lunn, one of the very first mountaineers to explore the Alps on skis in the early 1900s, “An intersecting pattern of tempo turns on a canvas undefiled by beginners is among the loveliest of man's contributions to natural beauty."
Interestingly, few skiers actually apply this reasoning in reverse to appreciate how a beautifully laid uptrack enhances the blank canvas of snow like the pen strokes of calligraphy enhance the eye appeal of a blank page of paper.
Carving a masterful uptrack, however, is actually more than just artistry; it’s also a skill that connects to safety, efficiency, snow analysis, scenic enjoyment, and more. So let’s explore the Zen of the uptrack and discuss the many goals (which are sometimes conflicting) pursued by the masters of the uphill.
1) The prime directive for the uptrack is safety first. You can lay an ugly track that’s inefficient and erratic but, if it’s safe (avoids avalanche, cornice, crevasse, and falling rock hazards) it’s still a superior track than a beautifully sculpted line that exposes you to harm. Following ridges, traversing above or below slide-prone slopes, finding protection in trees, avoiding slopes receiving dangerous solar radiation, staying off aspects that have built-up dangerous wind slab … these are a few of the many variables pertaining to the safety of where you decide to ascend.
Photo above: Using safe terrain between slide zones for an ascent. Photo below: climbing steeply but not so steeply that skis backslide.
2) After safety, a good uptrack strives to be efficient by preserving the strength of both the trail breakers and the followers. Quite a few variables (some of which conflict with each other) are at work here. The first variable is the steepness of the line you cut. Too flat a line means unnecessary distance and, more importantly, unnecessary packing of fresh snow. Too steep a line causes you to backslide or to rely heavily upon your arms. Overly steep lines also cause you to lean so far forward that you’re fighting the resistance applied by the front of your ski boots. An efficient angle will have you leaning forward and may have you using your poles to help propel you upward, but the angle will not be so steep that arms are needed to prevent backsliding. Efficient tracks also minimize the number of uphill kick turns needed to ascend because such turns are tiring (especially for less experienced skiers). Instead, a good track uses the terrain (ridges, little benches, micro flat spots) to let you easily paddle or walk your skis through a turn. Naturally there are times you simply can’t avoid uphill kick turns but the masters of the uptrack use surprisingly few of them. Also related to efficiency is using terrain features (ribs, natural benches, etc) that make better trail beds than the bed stamped down by your skis. This is especially important when traversing steep slopes in firm conditions—a situation that has your ski tips ripping free and has you struggling to move onward and upward. The creative uptrack will finds a natural seam creating a wider bed that supports the skis without slippage…or it finds an alternate way up the steep slope via a ridge or rib that avoids a steep traverse.
Photo: Using the uptrack to analyze the snow on different aspects...and to find the best powder for the descent. Oh yeah, this looks nice!
3) Next in the hierarchy is using your uptrack for snow analysis. The master collects considerable information about the snow on the way up. This is important to assess the avalanche hazard on different aspects. It also helps you determine where you’ll find the best skiing for the descent. Even if your route goes straight up, say, an east-facing ridge of moderate angle you can collect loads of snow information. Rather than heading straight up the ridge on its crest, wrap your uptrack around the edges of the ridge so you’re sometimes at the top of south-facing slopes flowing off the ridge and sometimes at the top of north-facing slopes. This gives you a lot of information about the snow and its consistency, depth, layers, and stability. If your route isn’t strictly confined to a ridge, lay an uptrack that wanders up many different aspects so you get a broad sense of the snow conditions.
Photo: Snaking up and wrapping around ridge crests -- a trick for enjoying the views in many directions.
4) Another sophisticated use of the uptrack is to let it highlight the day’s scenery. Let’s go back to that east-facing ridge mentioned above: If the pitch of the ridge allowed it, most skiers would cut a straight line directly up the ridge. That might be efficient but such a line always has you facing west straight into your destination and wastes the airy, scenic variety a ridge affords. A snaking line up the ridge will have you looking south, west, north, and even east back down from whence you came. This is a far more enjoyable spectacle than bee-lining straight up. Furthermore if you’re enjoying the scenery, you’re more likely to feel invigorated rather fatigued, so there’s a mind-body connection that would argue that the snaking line is more efficient, even if it is slightly longer.
5) Now onto the artistry to which Sir Arnold Lunn referred when he talked about turns enhancing the canvas of the natural landscape. A well laid uptrack can have that same affect – it can artistically carve big, open white space into more interesting shapes that please the eye; it can lead the eye in a clean sweep up the slopes; and it can even compel the viewer to think, “I wanna travel that line.” Like skillful penmanship, an artistic uptrack needs to be cleanly drawn. It should run straight when it’s supposed to run straight, rather than jog left and then right like a drunkard’s trail. Meanwhile, the aesthetic trail will have many clean arcing curves as it uses the natural features of the landscape to create an efficient trail upward.
Photo: On the summit studying the artistry of the uptrack. This one has a few jiggles that could be smoothed out. Give it B+.
6) Finally there are little matters of anticipation carved into an expert’s uptracks. If you’ll be returning the route you ascended, for example, and there happens to be flat terrain you’ll be negotiating, can you set the uptrack in such a way that you can completely avoid stalling out or shuffling across that flat area when you revisit this gravitational dead zone on the return?
Photo: Setting a straight, well-graded track across the flats to make the return through here on the descent easier.
Once you embrace the Zen of all this and realize how much thought and expertise can be applied to the perfect uptrack, ascents become an interesting challenge and an entertaining end in and of themselves. In fact, sometimes the uphill can be more fun and more rewarding than the downhill. At this point, backcountry skiing becomes the ultimate multi-course meal and a lift or a helicopter that robs you of the physical, mental, and artistic challenges of the ascent is like eating candy rather than real food – it’s nice but it’s way less satisfying than the full-meal deal.
Photo: Objectives in collision. Here on Big Slide Mountain, avalanche hazard to the left and right kept us confined to this slope. We could have climbed the slope with fewer uphill kick turns, but we wanted to save a portion of our safe zone as a track-free area for better powder turns on the descent.