Buying gear feels indulgent. It feels like I read about gear too much, which seems consumerist and shallow. My cynical view is that I buy whatever accoutrements needed to live out the little fantasy I have of myself, like Barbie doll accessories. Which at the very least was once true, I went through the adolescent search for an identity with a costly and varied path; rugby, karate, football, fishing etc. All hobbies dabbled with for an intense moment, and then left behind, piles of flash gear growing dusty in the wardrobe. I kind of feel that’s why the Irish economy has fallen apart, I’ve moved out and nobody’s buying shit anymore. Now that I’m a little older, I’m kind of allowing myself to not be so cynical about buying gear. I’ve picked up a few hobbies that resonate enough with me to stick. BJJ and climbing both feel like long-term partners that have much to offer over the next couple of decades. And all BJJ needs is a cup, which is optional depending on how delicate your balls are. On the other hand climbing can be a gear-addicts wet dream.
Skiing is something that has really challenged this gear cynicism, because without the gear, there is no skiing. Ever since I moved to Sweden I started to pick up XC skiing, because without it Sweden in Winter is a morass, and people that can’t ski are looked upon by the locals as being a bit shit. Ski touring was a related skill that seemed a little more complex to get into, but I enjoyed the idea of it so much that I spent a lot of effort investigating every aspect of touring. Books on touring and free-heel skiing were bought, and a whole stack of data about gear assimilated. And I felt guilty, because here I was, thirty years old now, still wanking over shiny new toys I would never have the tenacity or patience to master. I still had a dream though, mental pictures of myself skinning up a mountain, pathfinding in a white-out, sleeping through a blizzard, skiing down terrifying slopes…
In the end I got annoyed at my day-dreams ending with “Maybe some day in the future”. So in a fit of mental haphazardness I spent way too much money on a ton of incredibly expensive, incredibly beautifully engineered touring gear.
Then I pushed myself into picking up this shit, putting it on and learning how to use it. And within a few months I had toured up and down a mountain or two, navigated across the mountainous Swedish-Norwegian border in a dizzying, nauseating white-out, slept through a few blizzards and skied down some extremely terrifying slopes. This whole transformation in my skill set/experiences happened over just a few trips. So I thought it would be cool to scribe out my journey into free-heel skiing, because if you, my dear reader, want to take that journey, I want to encourage you very much to do it. All you have to do is spend loads of fucking money.
The first three times I downhill skied, was in 2010, January 2012 and February 2012, at a very gentle Swedish resort called Romme Alpin. It is not very alpine. I rented some gear, and an incredibly patient German coworker took me from being unable to stand on the skis, to being able to get down a red slope in one piece, despite the occasional ass slide.
At this point I realised that if I wanted to progress to touring, I would have to choose between Telemark or Randonnée. Telemark skis have a free heel all the time, and you have to be very skilful to ski downhill with free heels. Randonnée makes the gear skilful instead, you have free heels when touring, and press a button to fix the heels for conventional downhill skiing. Telemark takes a long time to master, whereas I thought I could now handle the fixed heel downhill, alpine part of the Randonnée tour. The equipment was way cooler too. So on the fourth round, at Kungsberget, a more jump orientated ski resort, I had my own Dynafit skis and boots. Words cannot describe how beautiful the Dynafit gear is.
I was just about starting to get the hang of the skis that day, when one of our party took a bad fall, got a savage concussion and I had to take him to the ER. And on the way, I couldn’t help but notice how warm and sunny it was. And how little snow was on the ground. The season was over for 2012. Boo!
However in Sweden we are lucky enough to have time machine trains, that can transport you back to Winter for around 150 euro. So the fifth ski-time took place 200 km North of the Arctic circle, at Riksgränsen, a sprawling complex of lifts that cling like cobwebs over the massive shoulder of a raw, boulder strew mountain straddling the northern reaches of the Swedish-Norwegian border. I spent a lot of time skiing downhill off-piste, and did my first real Randonnée tour (and saw my first avalanche!).
The sixth and most recent ski trip took place at Katterjokk, near Riksgränsen. This was definitely a break-through for me. I took a half-day of private tuition, learnt how to really make the skis work while saving my energy, and after that I didn’t feel exhausted after a long off-piste bash, I felt in-control and capable. This was also total exhilaration, from a dizzying height with what felt like ridiculously steep drops, to travel with tight jump turns down a pinched couloir at breath-taking speed. An instant heroin hook.
These long trips in Norrland were done with a guy I climb with, Nisse. And this dude is the same in skiing as he is in climbing. Last year I would go to a crag and find routes I could do, and then do them. After I started climbing with Nisse, we would go to a crag, and find routes we wished we could do, and then do them. It took a hell more blood/sweat/tears but I saw my skillset grow in leaps and bounds. It was the same with skiing, instead of practising on pisted slopes over and over, I tagged along with the bad boys and terrified myself down, what seemed to me to be, vertical drops. After a day of ‘ardcore, heading along a pisted route back to my tent in the evenings seemed horribly tame. It felt like going XC-skiing in prepared ski-tracks, mindless and predictable.
The most recent trip was also notable for having constant storms, almost from start to finish, four days later. Almost non-stop near-gale winds, with non-stop wind drift and heavy snow. I was prewarned though, the last trip had been pretty terrible at times. Then I had had a tidy snow-cave to retreat to, but this time I had Michi’s Staikka. It was my first time in a Hilleberg, but by Pluto’s beard it won’t be my last. Fucking incredible from erecting to packing away. OK, 3.6 kg is ridiculous for one person, but it was very much a base camp tent so the weight was less of an issue. I set it up on day one and took it down when heading home.
The Staikka has three crossing poles, is self standing, and was tied down with a load of MSR blizzard stakes, which I stamped almost a metre down into the snow. I dug a hole in the vestibule to have my boots in, and at night would string a few extra guylines out to my skis. Plenty of room for digging a little kitchen into the second vestibule, and loads of room to lounge around reading, while the wind went apeshit outside.
Rock solid, unshakeable in non-stop screaming wind. Day one I had built a wall of snow around one half of the tent to shelter it, but in the middle of the second night the wind shifted and the bowed walls woke me up. I was too exhausted to care, and in the morning the storm had built its own wall of snow on the exposed side. I never really got Hillebergs before, but now I do. It’s a storm shelter you can put up solo, in two minutes, and it’s bombproof. Funnily enough one of the rare Hilleberg staff was with my gang of skiers, but he stayed in a hostel. For SHAME!
I can’t justify 3.6 kg, but as I’m heading to the states in June I plan to pick up a bargain USD priced Unna or Soulo for these kind of horrible winter conditions. There are lighter options out there that might possibly handle this kind of weather, but 1.5/1.6 kg for a ‘fire and forget’ gale-proof tent is well within my guidelines for reasonable. Probably useful to have something self-standing for kayak trips too.
More fucking gear though. Gear-guilt is an annoying feeling, it seems so unjustified! I just wrote about the ColdAvenger recently, without it I would have had a much less fun time out in this rough weather (during one particularly harsh moment a huge crowd of skiers were hunkered down behind a huge boulder on the summit, trying to protect their faces from the horizontally blown, diamond sharp hail, while inside the ColdAvenger my baby-soft skin was as safe as a bank Volvo). All this pricey touring gear made me feel guilty, but without it I would never have had these amazing trips. Six months ago I had a little more savings, but if six months ago me had seen what I was doing on these skis, he would have shit himself out of jealousy (that’s my go-to reaction for jealousy). The price of all the gear and all the travel and food was hefty, but still a bargain in exchange for the experiences I’ve had. So surely it’s silly to always feel guilty over buying gear, when it allows us to partake in these fantastic adventures? Fellow hiking blogger Martin Rye puts it nicely here, when he says “Get trip focused and not gear focused. Gear is a means to an end.” Wise words, and for me, the Staika and Dynafit gear made a hell of a means to a hell of an end.
Feel free to reply in the comments and tell me that I’m not a consumer whore for buying all this shit.