How to become a ski instructor: Mountain safety equipment

Written by David Roberts from New Generation 

Beyond Level 2, the BASI syllabus starts to diversify into a variety of specialist modules.  You might want (or need) to replace the boots and skis that you’ve had for years, with stiffer, higher performance versions.  You might need to buy equipment for your second discipline.  You might be starting to train for the Eurotest and need to buy specialist race equipment.  On top of all of this is the requirement to have a transceiver, shovel and probes to take on the Technical modules, plus a rucksack to put them in, plus some skis that you can walk uphill on for the Mountain Safety courses.  

It’s an expensive business and buying the wrong thing can prove costly, especially if it’s not suitable for the BASI Level 4 European Mountain Safety assessment.  The purpose of this article is to point out some of the pitfalls and suggest some tips, which might save you money in the long run.

Before sitting you BASI level 3 Mountain safety it is  a good idea to do some practise ski tours

Skis

As ski instructors, we naturally focus on how well a ski performs sliding downhill: it’s what they’re meant for!  A wider ski gives more float in powder, a tighter sidecut makes the ski easier to turn, a heavier ski usually has more torsional strength & edge grip, and so on…  You’ll actually spend a lot more time going uphill than downhill on your touring skis, so what is important for that?

“Travel light, travel far”, was a maxim of the mountaineer Eric Shipton and it holds especially true for ski-touring equipment.

The less weight you have to carry up the mountain, either on your back or on your feet, the easier things are.  But there is a balance to be struck here.  Ultra lightweight, ski touring racing or high altitude mountaineering skis are usually unpleasant to ski on.  Lightweight skis often lack the strength needed to sustain the aggressive style of skiing that ski instructors are encouraged to have.  I snapped one of my lightweight touring skis on the last descent of EMS assessment.  A lot of choices with ski touring kit are about compromise.  You’re trying to buy one piece of kit to do two different jobs.

For the BASI mountain safety it is a compromise super light weight ski are not always tough

Be gentle with your lightweight touring skis.

If you have a look at manufacturer’s websites, you’ll find that touring skis have the usual technical specifications, plus the weight per pair.  A lot of skis at the free-touring end of the spectrum strike a good balance between weight, strength, durability and downhill performance.  Lighter “all mountain” skis can also make good touring skis.

The sidecut and width of a ski have a big influence on its uphill performance, especially on hard-packed or icy snow.  A ski with wide shovels at the tip and tail, that is also narrow under foot, will have trouble climbing on hard snow.  It can’t get much climbing skin onto the snow, under your foot, which is where it grips best.

You need to demonstrate a good ability to skin on this BASI level 3 exam so make sure  you have skis that make it easy

Wider skis create greater leverage on hard snow.  It becomes harder to put pressure on the edge of the climbing skin and make it grip.  Eventually the ski will just roll off the snow, or put a lot of stress on your knee.

On your BASI level 3 mountain safety the examiner may ask you to walk across steep sloped just to see if you can

A good width for a touring ski is 75 to 90mm.  Beyond that, you’ll find yourself needing to use ski-crampons more often, which makes going uphill harder work, and wider skis are heavier.  In terms of length: 175 to 180 cm tends to be about right for people of around 5’10” to 6′ height.  Longer skis make kick turns on steep slopes harder.  If you’ve got shorter legs, go for a shorter ski.

Buying second hand is a great way to get hold of your touring kit.  You don’t need the flawless edges and bases of a Eurotest ski.  As with any used off-piste ski, do check for dings and cracks in the edges and structure of the ski.  Has it got any big chips where water might have started to get in?  Eventually this will cause the ski to delaminate but you can dry it out and seal it up with nail varnish.  Something with glitter in usually works best.  Skis that have been re-drilled, to swap them from downhill to touring bindings, need checking carefully.

Bindings

The best bindings for going uphill have to be ones of the Dynafit pin or “Tech” type.  These are far stronger than they look, work better for kick turns and are a lot lighter than the other options.  Since Dynafit’s patent expired a few years ago, there is a wide variety of choice available on the market.  Obviously you’ll need to have a pair of boots which are compatible with this system if you want to follow this path.

If you’re buying second hand skis with this type of binding, check that your boots are the right length, as there’s often just 10mm of movement available for the heel piece. Ski instructors are generally quite aggressive skiers and do need to be aware that the lighter Tech bindings have DIN ranges which stop at 10.  Some of the new models have DIN ranges which go up to 16.  People worry about how strong pin bindings are for skiing steeps and similar terrain.  This video is worth watching, to see the sort of abuse that pin bindings can take.  If you do go for Tech bindings, it’s worth learning how to use them properly, especially putting them on in downhill mode.  This video is a good place to start.

Setting out on a practise tour. One person on each majo brand of binding

Setting out on a tour with Fritschi, Marker and Dynafit bindings.

Conventional ski touring bindings have the toe and heel piece linked by a bar.  You can unlock the bar and it hinges at the front to walk uphill.  The advantage of this sort of binding is that you can put any type of ski boot into it.

If you’re wanting a lighter, more touring focused binding, then the Fritschi range is probably best, especially as its ski crampon fits under the toe, where it is more useful.  If you’re after a stronger, more downhill oriented binding, then something from the Marker range is a good choice.  These have a stronger toe-piece and a stronger bar that connects the two parts of binding.  Some models also have a DIN range up to 16.  The downside is their extra weight and a ski crampon which fits under your heel, which is less effective than under your toe.

If you’re buying second hand then always check the bindings for signs of wear and abuse.  Check things like that the heel lifts (climbing aids) stay up, the toe pivots aren’t worn or loose and that the connecting bar isn’t damaged.  Using alpine touring bindings like telemark ones is a really bad idea, as it can put a lot of force into the screws that hold the toe piece onto the ski.  Check this area for signs of damage too, before you buy.

One good way to get hold of cheap ski-touring bindings is buy ex-rental ski-touring skis and move the bindings over to a ski of your choice.  Sometimes shops have excellent deals on complete ex-rental ski-touring set ups, including skins and ski crampons.

Ski Crampons

These are called couteau, harscheisen or ski-crampons, depending on which shop you’re in.  They’re are probably the most over-priced bit of bent aluminium that you’ll ever buy in your whole life but there are times when they’re absolutely essential.  The fatter your skis are, the more likely you are to use them, especially if you have skis over 100mm wide underfoot.

ski crampons are required for the BASI level 3 mountain safety

Ski crampons: they’re expensive but you’ll need them.

Skins

Modern skins tend to be a mixture of mohair and nylon.  Mohair gives good grip but nylon is harder wearing, glides better (or sticks less!) and soaks up less water.  They need to be cut to the shape of your skis, which is best left to a shop if you don’t know what you’re doing.  Once you’ve cut bits off, you can’t glue them back on again and skins are expensive.

It’s worth treating your skins with something like Nikwax’s skin wax to stop them from soaking up water on warm, spring days.  Once you’re skins are wet, snow will stick to them and 5cm of snow along both skis is very heavy and stops you from gliding along.  Keep a bit of hard ski wax in your skin bag that you can rub on your skis if they start to ball up.

Skin was can make the walk up way easier.

Some different types of skin wax.

Before cheat sheets were invented, skins used to be stored folded glue to glue.  Racers still do this, as it’s quicker than getting cheat sheets out.  However, if you do this, chunks of glue will eventually start to rip off and your skins will need re-gluing, which is a messy business.  Use your cheat-sheets!

Skin technology has moved on a bit since the days of Sir Arnold Lunn and his cotemporaries perfecting the system of straps on seal skins.  This coming season, Fischer are launching skins that are totally plastic, with scales like the underneath of some XC skis.  There are also glueless skins available.  These stick using surface tension and can have problems on cold, snowy days.

If you’re buying second hand skins check that they’re long enough and wide enough for your skis.  How worn are they, especially along the edges?  Do they have any rips or tears?  Again check the edges for this.  Are the fittings in good shape?  Some skins have rubber fittings at the tip, which can perish.  They’re cheap to replace but it’s annoying if one snaps on a ski tour.

What to look out for if buying a 2nd hand pair of skins for your BASI level 3 mountain safety

Old, well used skins, with light patches showing chunks of glue missing.

Poles

You don’t need telescopic ski poles to go ski-touring.  I’ve used normal poles for over 15 years, as they’re lighter, stronger and don’t suddenly collapse on that crucial turn in a couloir.  Tape on the shaft of your poles can give you different heights to grip it at, which can be handy on the uphill side of long traverses.  It’s definitely worth spending a few Euros or Francs on some big baskets, as these make skinning in deep snow a lot easier.

Transceivers

If you’re thinking of going all of the way through the BASI system to Level 4, you’ll need to pass the European Mountain Safety module.  One of the assessment criteria is the ability to find two transceivers in less than 8 minutes, starting with no signal.  Once you’ve found the first transceiver, you don’t turn it off as in a real life situation you’d get people in to dig where you’ve marked, whilst you move on to find the second victim.

It is possible to do this with an old transceiver, with just one antenna but it takes a lot of skill and practice.  Newer machines makes things easier by having two antennas, giving you a distance and a direction.  The best devices have three antennas, which gives them more accuracy, especially in the fine search stage.  They also have a function to mark or ignore the victim that you’ve just located and move on to the next person.

This type of transceiver is more expensive but it’s worth investing the extra cash in the long run.  One of the best independent tests of a wide range of transceivers is done by the German Alpine Club (the DAV).  The Mammut Pulse and Element have come top for a long time now, with some of Ortovox’s products running a close second.  You can read their results (in English) by clicking this link.

If you’re thinking of buying a second hand transceiver, check that it’s still in warranty (3 to 5 years depending on the manufacturer) or has an up to date testing/servicing sticker or certificate.

The service sticker on an old ortovox transceiver

The servicing sticker, inside the battery compartment of an old Ortovox transceiver.

Shovels

You’ll have dug a quite a few holes in the snow by the end of your BASI mountain safety modules, so buy a shovel with a metal blade.  Plastic ones bounce off certain types of snow and go blunt.  Telescopic shafts and “D” shaped handles make it easier to dig.

Probes

Like your shovel, you’ll actually use these a fair bit, so buy some metal ones.  Try to get probes with a simple system for locking them, that you can operate with your gloves on.

Rucksack

Make sure that you buy a rucksack that you can strap you skis on to carry them.  Most of the weight of a backpack is in the harness and back system, so buying a 30-40 litre bag isn’t much more expensive or heavier than buying a 20 litre one.  Skinning can be hot work and you might end up with most of your clothes in or on your bag in April.  You also need to be able to fit in a rope, group shelter, first aid kit, repair kit, water, food, spare clothes, ski crampons…  Roy Henderson’s (BASI’s Mountain Safety Advisor) classic BASI News article, “Empty Your Sack!” is well worth reading.

You won't need to carry quite as much kit as this for your BASI level 3 mountain safety

We’re going to need a bigger backpack.  Going camping on Monte San Lorenzo, Patagonia.

Summary

Getting to the top of the BASI system is an expensive business.  Hopefully this article will have given you some ideas about what sort of equipment you might want to buy for the  BASI level 3 Mountain Safety modules and what to check for if you’re buying it second hand.  Get as much information as you can, before you spend your hard-earned cash.  Talk to people who’ve already done the courses to get to know what they learned about equipment.  See if you can hire different types of touring gear from the shops in your area and try them out.

Being able to ski offpiste safely on a regular basis is the highlight of becoming a ski instructor for many people

Ski touring can be excellent fun and a great way to explore away from the confines of the pistes and short boot-packs.  Equipment that works well for you will add to the enjoyment of travelling through the wilder parts of the mountains.  It might be hard work walking up the mountain but the rewards can be great.

“I am sure that the skier who unhooks himself from a ski tow does not see the same view as the skier who has paid for beauty in the currency of toil.” Sir Arnold Lunn, “Mountain Jubilee”

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