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Backcountry Skiing - Book Review

I’ll come clean at the start: Martin Volken, Scott Schell, and Margaret Wheeler, the three authors of Backcountry Skiing: Skills for Ski Touring and Ski Mountaineering, are all friends or acquaintances of mine. That means my praise of their book, published as part of the Mountaineers Books Outdoor-Expert Series needs to be read with some suspicion. That being said, here’s my review in short: Great content, quality writing, excellent photos, attractive layout – it’s the best and most authoritative book on ski touring and ski mountaineering.

At least in English. Maybe in Europe, where ski touring and ski mountaineering is hugely more popular than in North America, you could find a book in German or French to rival this one. For those of us with only English at our disposal, however, this is the book for gaining both the basic and advanced beta on backcountry skiing.

The quality of this book’s content lies in the deep expertise of its three authors. All three are either fully certified mountain guides or ski guides with the American Mountain Guide Association (AMGA) and/or the International Federation of Mountain Guides (IFMGA). Martin Volken is also a ski-mountaineering instructor and examiner for the AMGA’s certification process, making him a guide’s guide. The combined knowledge of backcountry skiing--its techniques, equipment, and safety essentials—that these three bring to the table doesn’t run much deeper.

In the realm of backcountry skiing I’m well versed and reasonably well read, so I wasn’t prepared for what this book delivered. On every page, I found myself highlighting new knowledge, ideas, and techniques. It didn’t matter whether I was reading about gear, avalanche assessment, route selection, navigation, uphill or downhill techniques, transitions, rope techniques, safety, emergency preparedness, or rescue strategies…the book humbled an old Grasshoppa into recognizing he was no Master.

My few complaints with the book centered around wanting more…more examples when general rules were given and more specific recommendations in the equipment arena. Read in totality the specifics about general rules were well covered, but when a general comment like this one was made about traveling through avalanche terrain -- “A technique that works well in one situation may only make matters worse in another context,” -- I wanted an illustrative example there and then to make sure I understood what the authors were driving at.

In the equipment arena I understand why specific models and makes of equipment were not named to complement the author’s general recommendations – such recommendations might be outdated after several years, could madden manufacturers not mentioned, and might make readers wonder whether the authors had corporate ties. Yet putting these recommendations in a sidebar or appendix that could be updated should the book be reprinted and that listed several specific products the authors liked in each category of product discussed would benefit readers.

These are small beefs. The big story is that Backcountry Skiing is a meaty book that will provide education and inspiration for anyone, beginner or expert, wanting to venture on skis into the wild.


Backcountry Skiing: Skills for Ski Touring and Ski Mountaineering
Martin Volken, Scott Schell, Margaret Wheeler
344 pages, 175 b&w photos, 20 charts, paperback, 7" X 8.5”, $20
Mountaineers Books, 206-223-6303