Eugene Buchanan: Surviving the year’s first skin
November 19, 2015
Whether it's trudging up Mount Werner before the resort opens or breaking trail in the backcountry, donning skins and earning your turns is ascending in popularity, just as its minions are doing on local mountains.
But it involves a set of skills and equipment far removed from summer's bikes, paddleboards and pogo sticks. And assuming you have the requisite boots, bindings and skis, either tele or AT, it means rounding it all up again before your first step.
First comes finding where you stashed it all summer, especially your skins, whose molasses-like glue hopefully didn't collect safety pins, thumbtacks, hairballs and other pesky attractants during storage. Then comes re-enlisting your skis — which are easier to find, most likely in the garage rack — and taking your poles and boots out of hibernation.
And it's all exactly how you left it, last spring's "I'll fix it" vow as empty as your pocketbook after making your season pass payment. You hold up your pants to find the same hole and broken zipper. Your ski bottoms are still caked with mud and leaves from June's 14er, and your pole basket is duct-taped together with a wicket.
And there are new issues to deal with also, such as sliding your foot into your boot to find mice have squirreled cat food in its toe.
Gear set — which can also include a backpack, avi gear and more, requiring even more maintenance misgivings — it's time to head out, where the real fun begins.
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Chore number one: applying the skins, a skill often lost during the summer. First comes the Herculean task of pulling them apart after they've spent all summer bonding without dislocating your shoulder before the season even begins. Next comes putting them on. Different skins require different techniques, some starting at the tail and others, the tip. All require an even base-pressing to eliminate wrinkles and precision placement — like coloring between the lines — so you don't cover one edge while exposing the other.
Above all, don't put them on backwards so they stick going forward and slide back downhill. That happened to a hurried friend once, though he blamed it on the asymmetrical nature of his twin-tip Pocket Rockets.
Next up: Wrestling your boots into your bindings. While never an issue with tele or AT frame bindings, it is with today's tech bindings. You have to free your boot holes of coagulants, line them up just right and then utter some magic juju for the tell-tale click.
Now's when you turn on your tunes, if you have them — hopefully something more uplifting than He Ain’t Heavy's "It's a long, long road … " — and start trudging, beginning the one-step-after-another mantra, proving biking shape doesn't equal hiking shape.
If you're on teles, here is where another task surfaces: You have to remember to put your bindings into "tour" mode, another modern convenience complicating your to-do list. But the free-swinging heel is worth it, so you reach forward to pry the gizmo open.
Only nine steps in, you next realize you have to take off a layer, something you should have done from the start. So you take off your pole straps, gloves and pack and strip down, realizing heat management skinning is just as important as it is in the hot springs.
After another 30 steps, the incline steepens, and another piece of the puzzle comes into play: Remembering how to flick up your darn heel lifts again. While you might've had the pry-and-twist or basket-flip move dialed last spring, those Sunpies Slurricanes have long since made that muscle memory disappear.
It takes a yoga move to lean back and twist the little thingy with your pole tip, only to see it spin too far into lock mode or get stuck in no man's land. Regardless, the energy it saves is worth the brief spasticness, even if you eschew aesthetics and stoop over to lift it with your hand.
Wearing high heels to the ball, now the real trudging begins. The first few strides aren't so bad; you actually feel pretty good. But by step 100, monotony kicks in. That's when you make the mistake of looking up and seeing how far away the top still is. You might as well pop a demoralizing pill. So you daydream. You let your mind wander. If you have a partner and the cardio-ability, you talk, or at least listen. Or you groove to your tunes, wondering when that Geico ad will interrupt Pandora. Whatever you do, you don't focus on that hot spot forming on your ankle.
If you've been on the route before, say, to Thunderhead or Mt. Werner, you'll anticipate every flat spot that requires you to awkwardly mess with your lifts again and every steep pitch where you're forced to play trust-fall, delicately balancing and weighting your poles each step to prevent the dreaded, energy and ego-draining back slippage.
But persevere, and you'll make it, just before pulmonary edema settles in. Now, all you have to do is quickly throw a layer back on so your sweat doesn't freeze and take your skins off. This can be done the cool way, with your skis still on — employing either the tip or tail up trick, or the stoop and grovel — but in the end, why bother? Someone in your group will take their pack and skis off, requiring you to wait, anyway.
But at least this gives you more time to fold your skins up perfectly glue-to-glue again, which will likely take you seven tries, the last of which will be barely better than your first. Then, you stuff them in your jacket or pack — the jacket keeps the glue warmer, but that only matters if you're sadistic enough to take lap two — and shove off to reap your hard-earned reward: those turns, hopefully powder, that you'll cherish more than any chair-accessed arcs you'll make all season — as long, of course, as you remembered to put your heel lifts back down before skiing away.
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