Why Have Flat Tails?

Thursday, January 20, 2011
Why Have Flat Tails?

By: La Sportiva Athlete and Senior Guide at the Colorado Mountain School  Mike Alkaitis

It is a question I have heard for some time. Why have straight tails on your skis? The usual answer involves creating snow anchors while ski guiding. Well, I have a new answer because of an adventure I had last Thursday (January 20th) in the Wasatch range near Salt Lake City Utah with a good friend Matt. The new answer is the ski tails can be used as ice/snow axes to penetrate a layer of ice and enable you to climb out of a dangerous situation. For the real life story read below.

The Plan was simple. Ski a nice south facing shot off of Cardiff and get to my ten o’clock meeting at the Outdoor Retailer show. Matt and I skinned up to the top of Cardiff and could not decide on what line to ski. Do we ski Little Superior, Two Trees, the southwest line off the summit of Cardiff (I had never skied this line) that goes by the Hells Gate cliffs, or Cardiff bowl? We worried about avy danger down low on the Hells Gate line as there are cliffs and funnels through them we were not psyched to get flushed through. After a discussion we were both comfortable with the avy danger and decided to ski the Hells Gate line. I would like to mention that on the prior Tuesday there had been a rain event and then freeze creating a “new ground level” according to the avy forcast. It had snowed after the rain event and created a relatively good bond with the rain crust.

Off we went with Matt going first and leading us through great powder and interesting terrain. The first 1,500 feet flew by and my hopes soared as no snow seemed to be moving and the chutes/funnels were close by and looked decent. We stopped on a small ridge in between a large gulley and a smaller one. The surface underfoot seemed firm, but not terrible. Matt slid into the chute and instantly went about 40 feet leaving a trail of water ice in his wake. I could not believe it. This was the Wasatch and I never considered water ice, bringing a whippet, or skiing anything but powder. I asked Matt if he was now back in snow (trying to also figure out how I was going to negotiate the 45 degree water ice) and was given the answer of no, followed by the sound of him slamming his edges into ice. I will say I dislike that sound and it made me feel ill. Could he go down? That choice seemed crazy as if he blew an edge he would slide for quite a ways. Probably ending in injury, but not death.

Luckily Matt was able to reverse a bit and get close to the rocks. He smashed the ski pole handles through the layer of ice (luckily it was not solid to the ground, but a few inches thick) and then get a ski off and slam the tail of the ski through the ice as an anchor. He then kicked a platform, removed the other ski, and slammed the tail through the ice. I breathed a sigh of relief as I had been envisioning Matt going for the slide for life while trying to take his skis off. Matt put his ski poles on his pack and climbed the now 50 feet back up to the ridge. He used the tails of his skis to penetrate the ice so he could kick steps.

I removed my skis, put my poles underneath my shoulder strap, and started climbing back up using my skis as ice/snow axes to protect me. After about 200 vertical feet Matt caught up to me and we were out of the steepest area. We put the skis on our packs and boot packed back to the summit of Cardiff and skied the bowl out.

I wish I had taken pictures, but I was too freaked out to try and take off my pack to get at the camera. What would we have done if we had twin tips, or even the curved tails of many of today’s modern shapes? We would have been stuck, or forced into a bad decision of trying to go down. A tail that is not flat would not penetrate the ice. With the pair of flat tailed skis we both carried a good adventure was shared with no injuries. By the way, I did miss my first OR appointment, but they understood once I shared the story.

Thanks for reading and hope to see you in the snow.

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