Ski Mountaineering

Firn Gliding on Thunderbolt Glacier

Jun 1-4, 2001

Reiner Stenzel

When I showed up with "Firngleiter" skis on a ski mountaineering trip to Winchell and Thunderbolt I got a lot of questions about these specialty skis. So it may be of interest to describe the skis and their use. They are short (60 cm), wide (15 cm) all-metal skis which are excellent gliders ("gleiter") on corn snow ("Firn" in German), especially on the steeps. The bindings consist of a split leather shell with bootlaces which one can tie over almost any hiking boot of any size. Heels are tied down like on alpine skis, bindings are near the end of the ski, so the best way to ski them is to face downhill and make short parallel turns ("wedeln"). They are useless for ascending or skiing in flat terrain but they work like miracles in steep chutes. There one makes parallel jump turns, landing equally weighted in soft snow parallel to the slope which controls the speed. Since the skis are short and relatively light (< 4lbs), a series of jump turns is not utterly exhausting. Due to the short length one can make very tight turns and get easily through narrow passages (< 3').

On gentler slopes one can carve nice turns although the skis have no side cut. Skiing them requires good balance since the short length provides no for-aft stability. I should also mention the limitations of these skis: They do not edge well on icy snow, they do not cut well through breakable crust, and skiing in deep suncups or glacier rundles is no fun. Otherwise they are great on Sierra spring snow. They are also practical on travel since they fit into a suit case together with collapsable poles, no ski boots needed. I brought mine from a trip to Austria and also skied with them on Mauna Kea, Hawaii.

And what about this trip? It was conceived as an SMS trip but turned into a CMC trip due to SC restrictions for cl 5 peak climbs. R.J. Secor organized the trip, consisting of 6 climbers and one skier. On Fri we hiked to Sam Mac Mdws, set up base camp and climbed/skied the short, steep chute leading to the glacier.

On Sat we climbed Winchell (13,775') via the East Arete. In the afternoon some of us traversed the Thunderbolt Glacier and climbed into the North Couloir to investigate the traversing of the bergschrund. I practiced my turns from below the bergschrund back to basecamp.

On Sun we climbed Thunderbolt. With crampons and ice axe we ascended the North Couloir to the 13,800' crest, traversed west into a snow-filled chute, climbed to the saddle between the Lightning Rod and T-bolt, roped up for a short cl 4 section, and finally ascended to the summit block of Thunderbolt (14,003'), my last of the 13 California Fourteeners.

The belayed 5.9 climb of the exposed summit block was one of the highlights of the day. The other one was to ski down the 35-40 deg, 1000' North Couloir. Breakable crust in the shaded top section required a few kick turns before reaching the sunny part of the gully. Then it was jumping time with no falls allowed above the bergschrund. Quite a few breaks were needed to keep the pulse rate under 120. After skiing across a narrow snow bridge on the side of the bergschrund it was safe cruising down Thunderbolt Glacier to basecamp.

On Mon we hiked out. Great mountaineering and best spring skiing. Thanks to R.J. for organizing and leading this fine outing.

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