Dealing with Transition Terrain

One of the places that people tend to waste the most time when Ski Mountaineering is in Transition Terrain.

Transition terrain is easily defined as terrain where you are neither skinning nor riding. It is often short sections that are too steep, exposed or rocky to allow for either other method of travel. In Australia and Colorado, I deal with this kind of terrain regularly.

As split-boarders, we can make up for other times when we may be slower (actual transitions) by being ready and able to handle this terrain efficiently.

This article describes a variety of tips i’ve learnt that help me deal with transition terrain as efficiently as I can. This post represents the tip of the ice berg! It is a great example of some of the content I provide when I teach Ski Mountaineering Intro courses for Main Range Backcountry.

The Author booting the Y Couloir  in Utah in very transitional conditions.

Tip 1: Keep a Ski Strap in Your Jacket Chest Pocket All the Time


When skiers take of their skis, they slide the brakes within each other and the skis roughly become one thing to carry. You can easily shoulder them then. Splitboarders, Telemarkers and some skiers on Tech Bindings with brakes don’t have this joy. The solution? A single ski strap (or preferably two) should live in your chest pocket. That way it’s fast to access and your back to moving at the same pace as rest of the party.

This also means that if your skins start sliding in the skin track, you have a strap ready to help, but that beyond the scope of this article.

Tip 2: Learn to Quickly Stash Your Poles

When you need your hands free for that mixed (rock) climbing move, to handle your split skis or for whatever else, just slide them between you back and your pack, handles first. Easy. For long term travel this isn’t necessarily the most comfortable or secure, but it works for quick sections.

Spring in the Australian backcountry is packed with ‘transition terrain’ (Note the stashed poles on our friend second from the back of the group)


Tip 3: Learn to Stash your Ice Axe quickly

cropped axe
(Freedom of the Hill, 7th Ed.)

A clever old  euro trick which applies well when skiing and riding, particularly as you exit a step run, and may wish to put your tool away quickly is to simply slide the piolet’s (Ice Axes)shaft under your shoulder strap.and parallel to your back so the pick sticks out away from your body. This trick is also really at home where you need your hands free for a single move, and don’t want to plunge the tool.





Tip 4: If you don’t have a tool to plunge, turn your poles upside down

On a lot of ski poles, the handles will plunge much better than the baskets (for obvious reasons). Flip them over and you have an impromptu piolet for dealing with steep snow. Obviously this wont work on true ice. You can briefly see what I mean one minute into this trailer.

Tip 5: Know and Understand the Limitations of Your Boots

This tip in particular applies to splitboarders. It’s often tempting, while your friends kick steps away in their solid plastic ski boots to assume that you don’t need to crampon up yet either. Recognizing when the terrain will get steep enough and icey enough ahead that you will need crampons later and put them on in a sheltered safe zone, before you need them.

On creek and log crossing, your boots will be easier to work with and you should try and lend the skiers a hand.

Plastic boots do have their disadvantages. Big Cottonwood Canyon, Utah.(Photo, Drew Herder)

Tip 7: Change over before you boot.

You’ve skinned for a while, and reached the bottom of your objective for the day, a steep, pow filled and most importantly stable Couloir. Your skier friends quickly throw their skis onto their pack and start up. Stop! Skier or Boarder, if you are booting to ride, it makes a lot more sense to stop there, rip skins and changeover before you stash your gear. It will save you having to worry about it on an exposed slope or ridge later on.

The author booting on a wind swept ridge. Note the board has been changed over already.

Tip 8: Establish a Proper Platform

When it does come time to change over for the ride down, taking the time to build an ample platform to step in or strap in correctly is worth the added time. It might be a little slower, but falling down your line with one foot strapped in or dropping a ski is defiantly much worse.

Tip 9: Practice Skiing the Split and with Skins On

This applies equally to skiers. A word of warning first, skiing with skins on is bad for your skins long term, and can be dangerous for your knees since your gear doesn’t release properly. That said, short mellow downhill sections will require you to ski in uphill mode. I’ve found in flat/slightly downhill pow, a change over to skis without skins can even be more efficient than boot packing and huffing.  We’ll talk more about the fine art of split/skin skiing in another blog post to follow.



If you liked these tips and want to learn more ways to tackle complex terrain safer and more efficiently, James will be back in Australia teaching  Ski Mountaineering courses of the 2nd, 3rd, 17th and 18th of September 2016. Book Now as they will fill up fast!


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