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Peak Adventure

Ski mountaineering offers high-altitude fun for those up for the challenge

By David Steele, Hammer Nutrition athlete

Most people think of skiing in its downhill version, with lifts, lodges, ski patrol, and hot chocolate just minutes away. Ski mountaineering (also known as "skimo") - a blend of skiing and mountaineering - is different. Instead of riding to the top, you walk, climb, skin, and thrash your way up through ice, dense forest, or waist-deep snow. Then you navigate those harsh conditions all the way down, skiing on tired legs.

You must choose a route that will maximize your safety from ever-present avalanches and other hazards of a volatile mountain environment. Pay close attention to the drop- offs below. And be prepared to set an anchor and rappel through icy crux . . .

Such difficulties require several well-developed skill sets, but that blend also brings benefit. Ski mountaineering allows me to play in the mountains, retreat quickly if necessary, and swoop (instead of slog) back down the mountain. When everything goes well, it's a whole pile of fun.

Cold mountain fueling

Fueling in frigid temperatures can pose unique challenges but Hammer Nutrition offers some great solutions. In the cold, thirst often doesn't kick in to remind you to hydrate. To stay hydrated and replenish electrolytes, I add Endurolytes Fizz to the snowmelt I'm drinking. It tastes good even in lukewarm to hot water. For energy, I like Hammer Bars, which have a much lower freezing point than any of the competitors' bars I've tested. They're a great touring snack. To meet my protein needs, I chew on Perpetuem Solids both in camp and while moving.

Along with backcountry skiing, ski mountaineering continues to draws converts from alpinists (who are already solid mountaineers but haven't developed their skiing skills) and skiers (who may be proficient in their turns but aren't sure how to set anchors or travel safely in glacial terrain). Either way, the challenges offer great opportunities for learning. I've developed climbing/skiing partnerships with friends who are older, faster, and more experienced in the mountains than I am. Building on their knowledge has saved me from making the same mistakes. This winter, I'm supplementing that with formal avalanche education and wilderness first aid training.

[bio] David Steele is a professional skier, mountaineer, and writer hailing from northwest Montana. When not pulling pine needles out of his skin glue, he enjoys vegetables, literature, and a good nap. Follow along at www.skinningwithbearspray.com or @davidpowdersteele on Instagram.