9/17/2013 Light is Right, for Most
People often associate lightweight ski mountaineering gear with superhuman athletes wearing skin suits. While indeed such equipment is required to ascend the podium at your local skimo race, it turns out that the same gear benefits normal humans even more. To prove it, let's take a look at the numbers.
It has been shown that 100 grams (3.5 ounces) of increased foot weight roughly translates into a 1% increase in V02, a measure of the oxygen volume your body consumes. To put this in practical terms, this means that you end up working approximately 14% harder if you ski with a Marker Baron (2450 grams) versus a Dynafit Radical ST (1062 grams) binding. The 1388 gram (3 lbs 1oz) difference in weight, divided by 100 grams, equates to a 13.88% increase in oxygen uptake. And remember, the V02 figure is measured with running shoes on flat ground; an even higher increase could be expected if the same weight were raised significantly in elevation.
Now, working harder doesn't sound so bad at first thought. Heck, getting exercise is a great reason to be in the mountains by itself. However, consider for a moment that people tend to travel in the mountains at a comfortable pace; usually one that puts their heart rate somewhere between 65% and 85% of maximum. In reality, we don't end up working harder per hour.
This means that something else must give. That something would be either distance or time. In other words, you either end up travelling a shorter distance than you otherwise could, or, it takes you longer to travel a fixed distance. Using our figures at hand, either you stop ~14% short of the peak (unlikely!) or you take 14% longer to get to the top.
Now let's go back to our thesis about who benefits from light gear. If Luke Nelson took 14% longer to win the 2012 US National Championship, he would have been suffering for an extra 22 minutes and 15 seconds. In contrast, the median racer that day (congrats Nate Brown!) would have needed an extra 28 minutes and 50 seconds to finish if he were 14% slower. And since the average skier is well below the athletic level of the median racer in Jackson Hole, he or she could expect an even bigger difference in time. In other words, the more human you are, the more time you save by using lightweight gear.
Of course, time savings is only one aspect of the equation. For all we know, you, the reader of this article, would just go and waste any newfound time by not-skiing. But maybe you don't have kids or a job and want to invest this bonus time back into your passion. In the latter case, you just might have enough time to bag another peak on the way home. A peak on which conditions may change for the worse if it were put off until tomorrow.
Speaking of conditions, any experienced mountain traveller will know that extra time in the mountains can almost certainly lead to extra danger. If you are chasing the spring corn cycle and are delayed by 14% of your planned time, you could be heading for trouble. You either risk skiing some sloppy avalanche-prone snow, or hopefully more likely, end up cutting your day short. Either is clearly suboptimal.
We think we've made our point. While the 14% number is just an example and will vary from skier to skier, the basic equation is fixed. Lighter gear equals faster travel which equals less time or more distance. To translate distance into skier-speak, you can take more runs. Do yourself a favor and shave a few ounces or pounds today. You will thank yourself during your bonus lap on a bluebird powder day.
Let's close with the exception that proves the rule. If you weigh 220lbs, then we don't recommend you huck 50 foot cliffs on the Plum Race 135 binding. Especially since Plum only recommends it for skiers under ~154lbs. There is a level of aggressive skiing that is more suited to burlier kit. However, we believe that level is much higher than people venturing out from the resorts tend to believe. One thing we've noticed is that very few people end up regretting their decision to lighten up. More often skiers are left to wonder why they used to explore the mountains with such a handicap.
See you on the peaks!