By Matt McDonald
Randy French gets skiing. At least that’s what I’m thinking as he kick-turns past me up New York’s Lyon Mountain, his skinny Karhu skis slicing through a foot of fluffy powder. French has been a skiing and paddling guide and AllAmerican Nordic ski racer. Now 58, he bounds up the 2,100-vertical-foot climb enjoying another day on snow. French skis close to 100 days a year and never heads into the backcountry on boards wider than 62mm at the waist. Not when he skied the Chic Chocs, Alps, or Andes. He avoids avalanches by avoiding avalanche terrain.
Too many backcountry skiers think of this style of poke-and-go, Nordic bushwhacking as they do flip phones. Hip once, fine for mom, for me? Never. But here’s another bonus to skiing on fish scales out West or back East: They keep you not-dead.
Whether the result of adrenaline-stoked social media one-upmanship, or a product of how we each came to love skiing in the first place, our desire to push the limits in order to have fun can put us on avalanche-prone slopes with unstable snowpacks. One obvious antidote is avalanche education. But during an avalanche awareness course I attended, the instructor finished the session by telling the class that all he’d done by giving them some knowledge was make them more dangerous. Everyone laughed. The instructor didn’t.
A more effective way to stay out of a slide path: Give Nordic backcountry a shot when avalanche conditions are dicey. You can demo metal edged, fish-scaled, free-heel Nordic gear at many local mountain shops. But today, you don’t have to go as slim as French does. The new generation waxless skis (many feature short sections of mohair underfoot) come in a wide variety of sidecut and rocker profiles. The setups are generally lighter than full AT gear, letting you haul across the flats. As for the downhill, executing a turn on bushwhacking skis is all about relative pleasure. Skinny skis can feel pretty squirrelly. But they do make four inches of fresh feel like a foot.
The upshot? On those days when the wind-loaded alpine bowls or pinchy 40-degree chutes are just too sketchy to bother with, you’re still out in winter having fun on skis. Take a cue from French, who drops a knee, smearing his skinny skis around a spruce with dusty snow flying around him, and shouts “Woohoo!”