Ski mountaineering combines all the miserable aspects of cold-weather, alpine-style climbing with the adrenaline rush of big mountain skiing. It’s the ultimate punishment tour in the mountains — moving uphill with heavy gear through deep snow and ice — with a perfect payoff when it’s time to go down. If you’ve got the mettle to do it, ski mountaineering is the ticket to the kind of steep couloir and deep powder skiing that others only dream of. We spent this winter testing the best winter mountaineering and ski gear on some of the biggest peaks in Utah and Colorado as we trained for the Power of 4 Ski Mountaineering Race. If you’re looking to start going further in search of deep powder, look no further for the best extreme-condition gear for any winter climbing mission.
Cold Smoke Co. Tundra Panel Jacket
The first line of defense on a long alpine ascent is outerwear. Harnessing an eVent three-layer membrane, the Cold Smoke Co. Tundra Panel Jacket is all but impervious to Mother Nature’s worst. It’s the little design touches that really set this shell apart. Over-sized chest pockets accommodate climbing skins (to keep them from freezing), and the hood is nearly double the standard size — when not pulled tight, it makes the climbing shell look more like a Jedi robe. Still, after spending a couple days in blizzard conditions with it pulled securely over our helmet we were convinced. If you’re looking for one jacket for every winter sport, this is it.
Montane Sabretooth Pants
Breathable layers are key when moving fast and light above the treeline, and the mountaineering-specific pieces from UK brand Montane fit that description. The Sabretooth’s softshell material is windproof and sheds snow, but is breathable enough to keep you from overheating on long ascents on the skin track. Quarter zips along the calf and press stud ankle adjustments are a nice comfort touch, expanding the pants over ski boots or locking them down to avoid snags when you’re in your winter hiking boots.
Mountain Hardwear Thermostatic Jacket
Having a spare insulating layer is often the difference between being dry and happy and the summit and retreating when the temperatures drop and the snow starts falling. Mountain Hardwear’s Thermostatic has the highest warmth-to-weight ration of anything we’ve tried this season. It also compresses down smaller than a Nalgene bottle, so you don’t have an excuse for not bringing it along.
La Sportiva Spectre Boots
The Spectre is the lightest 4-buckle ski boot on the market. What does this mean for you? Less pain on the uphill and a stiffness that allows you to drive even heavy skis through all snow conditions. La Sportiva’s exclusive Pegasus buckles and easy walk and ski modes round out the Spectre as a flawless alpine touring boot.
GP x Wagner Custom Skis
Our collaboration with Wagner Skis produced easily the best lightweight powder boards we’ve ever ridden. Read the full review here.
Ortovox 3+ Avalanche Rescue Package
Of all your climbing gear, this is the only thing you cannot compromise on. Your beacon, shovel and probe are your lifeline when the unthinkable happens. The new 3+ Beacon from Ortovox is one of the best on the market because of its unique antenna layout and tracking algorithm. Using an on-board accelerometer, the 3+ can detect which antenna works best based on direction to the victim, ensuring your rescue and saving precious seconds.
Smith Optics Dover Chromapop
You can’t always wear your ski goggles, especially on the skin track where you need as much ventilation as possible. Smith Optics’s Chromapop sunglasses deal with harsh, flat light superbly and optimize clarity thanks to film-free polarization, anti-reflective coating and 100 percent UV protection; the Dover is stylish enough for the slopes and bumming around town.
SOL Escape Lite Bivvy
The Escape Lite Bivvy is basically a sleeping bag made out of emergency blanket material. We’ve used ours as everything from a heat reflector for a small campfire to an impromptu shelter while waiting out blizzard conditions. We like to add in a Ultralight medical kit for good measure when we’re heading in the backcountry.
Petzl Irvis Crampon
On the final push up a summit ridgeline, your ski boots may not be enough to punch through heavy snow and ice. For a little extra purchase we love the Petzl Irvis Crampons. With 10 spikes on each boot, they have more than enough surface area to keep feet firmly planted, and at 810 grams a pair, they are easily packable.
Black Diamond Vector Helmet
The Vector is our four-season multisport helmet, having protected our melons during everything from long multi-pitch sandstone climbs in Moab to serious alpine climbs in Colorado’s San Juan Range. It’s vented enough for summer climbing, but adjusts well to fit over a warm knit beanie for colder environments. The EPS molded foam will stand up to many seasons of use, provided you don’t crack it open on a gnarly fall.
Hestra Fall Line 3-Finger Glove
Hestra’s Fall Line gloves combine the warmth of mittens with the dexterity of a much lighter glove. The cowhide outer not only protects you from the elements, but gives the gloves some classic styling. Don’t forget to grab a tub or two of Hestra Leather balm to keep them supple and waterproof all season.
METHODOLOGY: We selected the best harsh weather gear we could find for winter testing as we trained for the Power of 4 Ski Mountaineering race, a 16-mile course across four Aspen resorts.