The dark art of the sub-alpine | The Sam Smoothy blog

two skiers, skis on backpacks, walk through a grassy valley, snowy mountains ahead and above

Words Sam Smoothy
Photos Chris Dunn

Fall Line columnist Sam Smoothy on critical ski mountaineering techniques for below the alpine

You’ve wisely decided your bones have had enough of high-impact airs and overcrowded resorts. You closely follow the Fifty Project and can hear that earnestly purchased yet dusty ice axe calling to you from the depths of the garage. It’s time to become a ski mountaineer! Here are some vital techniques you won’t find on that expensive backcountry skills course you deemed unnecessary. 

The Suitcase 

Turns out carrying 190cm skis upright on your pack, through a rainforest, is a little dim. So, unless the thought of backcountry bondage with your fellow unwashed excites, utilise those nifty pole straps, a few well-placed ski straps and voila! You’ve got a $2,000 suitcase to drag and curse through the mud and trees. 

Subalpine Scrub 6 Step 

Penetrating truly dense bush is a full team effort guiding each extruding tip, limb and pack through the vertical maze of tightly woven branches and vines. And is best performed in a throuple to ensure maximum conflicting advice for the meat in this sandwich. Early acceptance of total ensnarement is crucial for your mental health. Small bonus: dangling from fully wedged skis can provide the most stable position for additional snacking.  

Hot tip! To further reduce drag, ski boots are best stored in the backpack or preferably back at home.  

The Grassy Prayer 

Found your slick skills on 50 degrees don’t apply below the snowline? In high exposure in the rain? Better grab some thick tussock grass handfuls and start hauling yourself heavenwards. Extra points if you can spot which of the several similar looking varieties are great for paper cuts.  

Hot Tip! Under duress larger grasses can be used as rap anchors, somewhat like a sketchier version of a snow bollard. Only for those whose confidence/bounce-ability far exceeds their mass. 

Asteroids 3D 

Ever played the computer game and thought, “this is good, but what if we tilted the whole thing 45 degrees”? Decreased stable footing, added imbalanced pack loads and randomised projectile trajectories? Welcome to the most underrated part of ski mountaineering: ascending collapsing moraine walls, nature’s firing squad. A can-can line formation is advised to increase group stability while decreasing friendly fire. Unless your partner has a proven track record of catching fridges.  

Skier Sam Smoothy walks, skis on back, wades through a river, trousers rolled up
Sam in The Baptism

Terra Ass-ade 

Similar to its snow-based colleague, the glissade, but with 68% higher likelihood of rectal lacerations. Often accidentally employed on moss slab descents of despair where friction has abandoned your feet.  

Mud Falcon 

Too exposed to discreetly void yourself a polite distance from the route when nature calls? Mud Falcon. Find a dinner plate of rock, garnish it liberally with last night’s lentils and throw soft but true. But be warned. This is no harem panted game of disc golf. A wrist flick induced rotation may result in a memorable yet unfortunate form of face painting.  

Channel your inner dolphin and kick towards a better horizon

The Baptism 

All that rain and melted snowpack has to go somewhere. Thankfully most of it has chosen to flow directly across your path and hemmed in by bluffs your choices are limited. Camp or cross that river at your peril. Barefoot you adroitly swagger straight over the line between walking and swimming. Now simply channel your inner dolphin and kick towards a better horizon. Racking your boots upside down on your pack will add extra buoyancy. As will empty goon sacks of wine lashed around your stomach. Sometimes necessary with extra pungent partners pre après.  

Skier walks, skis on back, across a river, hopping on small rocks

The JetPack 

Pausing atop a fluvial boulder, your exhausted brain begins to wander. Today’s river bed descent didn’t look this long on the map, but not to worry, your skis are intent on expediting your exit. At the exact moment you attempt to step down from your rocky perch, they engage both tail mounted thrusters against the rock surface. Immediately propelled into an unplanned warp speed jump, you have seven splits to decide which ankle you’re going to roll. It’s both. For here in the river bed of doom you have no power.  

The Ruse 

The ruse is the simplest manoeuvre to practise yet the most involved. Carry your skis for numerous days. Navigate through a remote wilderness with no outside support. Perform as many of the above techniques as possible. Do not under any circumstances make a single turn. Now skulk home and don’t check social media until the high-pressure system and associated social media grandstanding ends.  

The Breakdown 

Normally necessary after a successful completion of a three-day Ruse, The Breakdown is a creative retelling of said adventure with excessive amounts of creative license applied. Whereby all struggles are instantly transformed into ‘magical learning experiences’, the solemn beauty of the mountain that beat you down is amplified, and with all emotional and physical breakdowns removed completely. Best staged alone in front of a naïve, well-lubricated group to avoid any messy contradictions from your now ex-ski partners. 

Congratulations on mastering the subalpine and reaching the snowline. The entire range is wind-stripped, loaded and more volatile than your previous relationship. You actually thought you were going skiing? That’s cute. Don’t forget, you get to do this all again on the walk out!  


BORN New Zealand, July 1986 

HOME MOUNTAIN Wanaka (and Verbier when in Europe)

MOTTOExperience teaches only the teachable 

Describes his ski style as Fast and loose with a good deal of risk