“The men struggle against the blowing snow in the extreme cold crossing an open muskeg, push through dense woods, and climb steep hills instead of simply bypassing them. Their bulky clothing, the heavy packs they carry, and the overloaded sleds they pull slow the unit. Rucksacks are loaded with double sleeping bags and many other “nice to have” items. The over-snow vehicles towing overloaded cargo sleds have bogged down in guIIies and creek beds into which deep snow has drifted, because the route the unit selects has not been reconnoitered previously by a trail-breaking party on skis.
The parka hoods cover the faces of the soldiers so they are unable to observe anything. Soon many members of this unit become overheated and dehydrated followed by exhaustion. These individuals do not have necessary endurance and stamina. Some men lag far behind and among them are many who suffered frostbite, most of them with frozen toes and fingers. Major difficulties are encountered. Slowness of movement, caused by lack of trail-breaking, and problems of navigation and security are the worst. Weapons are attached to the rucksack; hence when removing the pack during the halt, many men throw the pack into the snow thus filling the barrel and breech with snow.”
Lt. Col. Erkki Lahdenpera, on how NOT to do it
Skis or snowshoes? It’s like asking Ginger or Mary Ann (Mary Ann for me, thank you.) Everyone has a little different take on the choice. You definitely can’t learn either technique from a blog entry. However, the Marine Corps cold weather manual offers some advantages and disadvantages of each mode of travel to help you decide what’s best for you.
1. Little training is required to gain a high degree of proficienct.
2. Little maintenance is required.
3. Carrying and pulling heavy loads on gentle terrain is relatively easy.
4. Movement in confined areas and around equipment is easy.
1. The rate of movement for a unit is extremely slow and inefficient in terms of energy expended.
2. Movement on moderate to steep slopes is difficult.
3. Movement through thick or cut-off brush is difficult.
1. Rate of movement is fast and efficient in terms of energy expended.
2. Carrying and pulling heavy loads on moderate to steep terrain is relatively easy (compared to snow shoeing).
3. Each skier expends less energy if done properly.
4. Movement of a ski-borne unit can be expedited.
1. To become proficient and efficient scout skier requires a lot of training.
2. Regular maintenance is required.
3. Movement in confined areas and around equipment is difficult.
Mode of travel
On foot (less than one foot of snow)
1.5 to 3 kph
2 to 3 kph
On foot (more than one foot of snow)
0.5 to 1 kph
2 to 3 kph
1.5 to 3 kph
3 to 4 kph
1.5 to 5 kph
5 to 6 kph
NOTE: Expected rates of march for troops carrying rucksacks over gently rolling terrain.
No matter the method--foot, ski, or snowshoe—the goal is mobility. With the latter two, in the depths of winter, you can pass over swamps, muskeg, bogs, streams, lakes and, at higher altitudes, blow-downs that would all be major obstacles in the summer.
This increased mobility in turn depends heavily on the soldier’s load, which needs to be as light as possible, even though harsh winter conditions can turn some snivel gear into survival gear. While this has been studied to death and the lessons learned over and over again, the U.S. military still has to figure it out every generation.
Despite quite a few initial problems, I went with skis for winter mobility. Although I do of course have snowshoes, my thinking is that skiing is a sport, while snowshoeing is merely an ordeal. Trapping marten in the backcountry, I ski but also have small lightweight aluminum snowshoes strapped to my pack. You don’t realize just how much flotation skis give you until you step off them and sink into the snow to mid-thigh.
I’m still using my big old klunky Swiss Army surplus skis. I used to have a pair of American military skis with cable bindings which seemed to be developed to work only with the infamous Mickey Mouse boots. These boots are indeed warm, but warm for stationary work, observing or sitting around an ice fishing hole or in a tree stand. I can’t think of poorer foot gear to wear when engaged in strenuous physical activity. Your feet are soon sweating, there is no way for the moisture to escape, and your footsies are soon wet. Wet feet are the quickest way to frostbite.
Reminds me of a guy we had in Germany during a month-long field problem in what was, at the time, the coldest winter they’d had in 30 years. One of our newbies tracked down the field kitchen and filled his Mickey Mouse boots with hot water, apparently on the theory the boots worked like Thermoses. I don’t think I need to tell you how well that worked out for him.
Last year, my wonderful little wifie bought me a pair of sleek new modern lightweight supposed “telemark” skis and new boots. I have yet to be impressed. As near as I can tell, they were made pretty much for just cruising up and down groomed trails; they are nowhere near durable enough for anything else, especially backcountry bush-whacking in the mountains.
They required special boots, whereas the SAS (Swiss Army Skis) can be adapted to fit most boots—I’m using mine with German Lowas. The commercial stuff has, IMHO, a rotten toe binding system useless for anything but ready-made trails. To release the binding requires pushing forward on a little plastic cap on the toe of the binding. I’ve been through three of these little plastic caps; they seem to pop off all the time. The first time I suffered this fate was on my maiden voyage recreational test drive. I was in about a foot and a half of fresh deep fluffy powder, and I needed to cross an unfrozen stream. Well, the little plastic dealie was gone. In that much powder, it was nigh impossible to see the binding, let alone figure out how to work the thing with the release knob missing. I got a little pissed and while attempting to escape, jabbing blindly at the binding with the metal tip of a ski pole while prying on the ski between two small fallen lodgepole, I managed to break the ski.
Yes, I caught hell for it, but can you imagine being in a tactical situation, taking fire, taking cover, and being unable to escape from your skis? You’re like a turtle on its back or, perhaps more appropriately, a sitting duck. Being attached to your skis in an avalanche means you’re even more screwed than usual, “usual” avalanche conditions being bad enough to begin with. To top it all off, even on pleasure cruises without gaiters the zipper on the front of the commercial boots have failed and wound up stuffed full of snow. I only use the civvy combo for light recreation trips on existing trails and don’t even go near the bush with them.
I don’t think I could break the Swiss skis if I tried. About three times thicker than my civilian wonder turds, wider, and steel-edged, I could probably build a bridge capable of supporting a deuce-and-a-half with the things. One of the primary requisites for military skis is the ability to get out of them quickly, in any position. With the Swiss skis, you can flip off the heel lever (1) in an instant either with a quick poke of the ski pole basket or with your hand. In a real emergency, there is an adjustable-poundage plate release (2) that allows you to just kick the things off.
My little accident with the civvy skis did, however, solve my greatest problem with the Swiss behemoths. They need to be waxed, which is a great big pain in the ass. I had four different waxes for four different temperature ranges, and I don’t think I ever got the wax exactly right. When the temperature changes or the sun comes out, snow conditions change and you need to switch to a different wax. In fact, even wax that’s working perfectly in the timber may be suddenly all wrong when you come out where the sun is hitting the snow. If you don’t have the wax right, you can get into the whole two steps forward and one step back mode of locomotion, repeated a few thousand times. Progress sucks and you arrive sweat-drenched and panting like a steer.
Having broken the civvy ski, I cannibalized that set, peeling off the bottom plastic fish-scale waxless layer, scraping and sanding down the wood it was still laminated to, and then attaching them to the smooth bottom of the Swiss skis with JB Weld. It didn’t work. In hind sight, I should have known it wouldn’t work due to the hard set of the stuff vs. the flex and camber of the skis. Live and learn.
Round two, I used screws. Wood screws work better than metal screws going into the Perspex and can be counter-sunk a bit to bring them level with the bottom of the ski to reduce drag and friction. This system of attachment seems to be working out just fine so far.
Voila, no more waxing and I am able to get a great deal more use out of the Swiss skis, ascend slopes much better, cover more ground more easily, and had more control. I’ve been happier than a gopher in soft dirt with them ever since.
The heavy old Swiss skis have some other excellent features that are made specifically for use and abuse in rough back country use. They feature Fritch plate-type bindings which allow you to cross-country-style “free heel”, the plate pivoting at the toe (3), or you can lock the plate down (4) like a downhill ski. It’s a compromise, as the free-heeling requires tipping your foot forward in a different manner than regular cross-country toe bindings, since the plate keeps your feet flat when they want to flex. I’ve had blisters on the balls of my feet from this during the learning curve; now I’ve learned to kind of lift the heels rather than push off the ball of the boot. I still think the plates are a good compromise all things considered.
As I said, there is an adjustable pressure-release so you can just kick out of the skis in an emergency(2). They also have heavy wire heel lifters (5: in the down position) to make it easier to go up steep heels. They come with a pair of climbing skins (6) so that you can ascend hills steep enough to need heel lifters. They have tethers (7: this is just the attachment point, tethers not pictured) you can attach to your boots so you don’t lose the skis if you wipe out, admittedly probably not quite as good as the brakes on downhill skis, but very functional. There are holes in the ski tips for attaching a cord to pull them behind you when moving tactically, or to help make them into a sled or stretcher. The weight, solidity, and steel edges enable me to bite into crusted snow of the type that the civvy skis leave me skating helplessly over the top of with little control.
So the Swiss skis are heavy; I'm willing to pay that price for bulletproof gear. Every infantryman hates weight, but shit doth happen. As long as the skis stay on your feet, the weight is less of an issue. I would still recommend these skis for tactical use for all of the above mentioned reasons, despite their weight.
One last trick most people don’t seem to know about is that the two outside pockets of the good ol’ ALICE pack have a hollow sleeve beneath the pockets made to insert skis through. When you run out of snow or into an area where skis cannot be used, you slide them into the ALICE side pocket sleeves and bind them once top and bottom, and you can carry them without worry, although it can be awkward in the dark timber with them sticking up and this is where you pay for the weight of klunky military skis.
As an aside, I never use anything bigger than a Medium ALICE. No matter how big the pack, you will always find the gear to fill it up to the top. The smaller the pack, the more you have to prioritize the gear, the less you can have, and the lighter the weight will be.
The last hurdle to surmount is how to carry a weapon while skiing. I don’t think the James Bond method of going without poles, using one ski, and firing a submachine gun in either hand would work very well for most of us.
Next go ‘round, we’ll examine the very real problem of mixing weapons and skis…safely and efficiently…which is easier said than done.