"RANDONNÉE: French for 'can't telemark.'" That's the latestbumper sticker to escalate the lighthearted ribbing war that's raging among backcountry skiers. The likely randonnée rebuttal? "Telemark: Norwegian for 'slow hippie.'" Snowboarders, of course, get it from both sides because skiers of all stripes view them as barn doors for disparaging barbs. Strapped sideways to their decks and terrified of having to actually traverse a slope (for good reason: They can't) many boarders behave like slide monkeys, post-holing up avalanche chutes and smokin' butts on overhanging cornices.
Beneath it all, though, the verbal barrage is really just so much wisecracking. We're all after the same thing and we know it. Big mountains overwhelm small differences, and our choice of gear, in the end, is inconsequential to the joy of carving untracked corn. To know a mountain you must climb it, each step another layer of snowpack and route-finding data. But to feel a mountain, to sense its rhythm, you must ski it...or ride it, or rip sweet tele turns down it. Choose whatever method you like, the experience is just as pure.
Fortunately, the last decade has produced a revolution in glisse-mountaineering equipment. Randonnée gear (called alpine touring, or AT, for Francophobes) that was once heavy and prone to mechanical failure is now incredibly lightweight and dependable. Telemark gear, on the other hand, has added weight—with excellent results: Gone are the days of risking your life in ankle-biting leather boots on skinny skis. Some of the most dramatic changes, however, are in backcountry snowboarding, specifically the refinement of split boards that enable you to ski up and ride down, and step-in-binding-compatible ascent skis that you strap to your pack at the summit. For fairly tame routes up snowfields, in fact, it's almost inexcusable not to bring ski or snowboard gear. Ascending with climbing skins is easier than kicking steps, and skis let you make a fast exit when bad weather rolls in. For our Ring of Fire trip (see preceding pages), we rounded up the finest ski-and snowboard-mountaineering gear available. Here's how it worked.