Become a Better Skier Through Rock Climbing This Summer

rock climbing
Photo: mRGB/Shutterstock

When I finally moved west after going to school in a midwestern burb, I did it to ski. This won’t surprise the readers of POWDER, but it surprised most of my friends. Back in college, I wasn’t known as a skier at all. I had meager funds and I wanted to get outside as much as I could. So I picked a cheaper sport.

I took up rock climbing in high school but took it beyond indoor gyms in college. Once I made friends with the three people at school who wanted to climb outside but lived in Chicago, we spent every weekend we could sojourning eight hours in a cramped Jeep Liberty down to Kentucky’s Red River Gorge. I wrote more papers in the back of that Liberty than I did in the library.

Placing gear and taking falls on those minute sandstone cliffs built skills and confidence, and we soon spent our winter breaks driving to the desert, climbing bigger routes on bigger walls in Vegas’ Red Rock Canyon and southern Utah’s Zion National Park.

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We learned how to move quickly and efficiently through massive approaches and descents, over oceans of sandstone, and solve problems when things went terribly wrong.

When I arrived in Utah, moving straight from school to the Alta Lodge to make up for all the lost skiing time, I was surprised to figure out how few of my skier friends climbed. Mountain biking is way more like skiing; fishing is significantly more relaxing than climbing; everyone loves a good river trip. Sure. But I missed my friends who would bushwhack through acres of cactus with me, who would laugh with me—later—about a 10-mile rattlesnake-and-dehydration addled descent in the desert.

So, if nothing else than to convince more skiers to hang out with me for some type-two fun, I’ll enumerate why skiers should learn to climb. Oh, and if you don’t want to take my word for it, take IFMGA guide Mark Smiley’s.

Climbing Builds Bonds of Trust With Your Partner

You may have realized by now that we don’t subscribe to the adage “No friends on a powder day.” For me, much of that stems from all of my meaningful memories moving through the mountains with a partner.

Climbing lets you develop these bonds through a healthy combination of eustress and distress—getting your rope stuck in the dark 1,300 feet above the desert floor isn’t always fun, but it makes you work through frustration and cooperate.

Trusting your partner’s judgment can be the difference between life and death, particularly when it comes to decision-making on snow.

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Build a Relationship With Exposure

Does booting up a couloir give you vertigo? Sidestepping past loose rocks give you the heebie-jeebies? Sounds like you need some exposure therapy. Sport climbing—clipping closely spaced bolts for protection as you climb—can give you a healthy dose of exposure in a very safe environment. Easier traditional climbs—a style where you place removable protection as you go—can get you far off the valley floor without too much effort.

Smiley put it this way, “If you’re engaged in an extreme sport for only three or four months a year, the mental strength you gain will fall out of practice. The more you’re on the sharp end, the more you’ll stay on your game.”

Improve Your Planning and Movement Efficiency

In the winter, poor planning can have fatal consequences. Planning for huge days can be tricky—pacing, conditions, and more can all affect outcomes for a big tour or ski mountaineering objective. Call climbing long routes a dry run. In the desert in the spring, all you need is a down jacket to keep you alive after the sun goes down. You can gauge your speed and efficiency for large goals in a markedly safer environment (which, make no mistake, is not without inherent risk).

Smiley noted that climbing in the same mountains where you ski, be they in Little Cottonwood Canyon, the Sierra, the Cascades and the Tetons, gives you the ability to scope lines for skiability. This is another great way to stay motivated for ski season. “I’m a big proponent of things that get you stoked.”

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Become a Better-Rounded Athlete

Most skiers are type-one fun hogs. But I think everyone needs a good slog now and then. It keeps you humble, and it makes the good times sweeter. More importantly, climbing teaches you the skills to be creative when you get caught with your pants down. “I’ve skied slopes that are totally condition-dependent,” Smiley says. “If it’s boot top pow, I’m psyched and it’s easy. But if it’s icy you better know those rope skills. The climbing will teach those things, and the skills will lower your stress levels.”

Knowing how to properly evaluate an anchor is the difference between loading it and rappelling without hesitation and being wracked with anxiety.

Honestly? It’s a Far Cheaper Sport

Back when we would go to the Red River Gorge, most of my friends would drive two towns over to get cheaper groceries. Cost of gear is not as much of a barrier to entry for skiers—the price of a new rope and rack of gear is less than a new pair of skis sold flat. And most climbers buy used. Slow your roll though. Before you go on an REI shopping spree, find a friend or two to teach you some skills: learn to follow routes before you lead. But give climbing a shot. It’ll make you a better skier.

This article originally appeared on and was republished permission.

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