Once seen as the domain of only the hardiest ski purists and fitness fanatics, ski touring is now enjoying a surge in mainstream popularity, for so many reasons…
The first has to be the addictive rush of getting out into the rolling backcountry – away from the queues and the lift noise. And now the kit is becoming easier to use, more affordable and accessible for everyone as brands jump on the touring bandwagon.
THE SKI TOURING KIT
In the context of ski touring ‘skinning up’ does not refer to rolling a smoke – instead it refers to the skins you stick onto the bottom of your skis, giving you grip and allowing you to walk up a snowy slope. These start from about €100 and you’ll need to have them specially fitted to the shape of your skis. Tignes-based adventurer Squash Falconer recommends the black diamond glidelite, which at €150 “are an excellent mid-range choice that will suit most people”.
Other than the skins, a touring starter kit only involves buying touring bindings. Put the specialist ‘frame’ bindings on your off piste or all mountain skis and they allow you to use your own ski boots too. Unclip the heel when you’re climbing, allowing you to ‘step’ and glide your ski up the slope. Remove your skins and click back in to ski back down.
At the next level up are ‘tech’ or ‘pin’ bindings. They’re designed for lightweight skis, so you’ll need to invest in some touring skis. Plus the special ‘pin’ binding also requires attaching to specialist touring boots. This is the full monty of kit, but there are huge advantages. Touring boots are incredibly comfortable to hike up in. They are softer and more flexible in walk mode and allow you to skin up for hours. Ultimately the whole set up is much lighter so far less energy is expended, allowing you to go for longer and also move faster.
Your poles will also need larger baskets on to stop them sinking into all that fresh powder you’ll be skinning up. Apart from the different kit, you’ll obviously need an avalanche pack consisting of a shovel, probe and transceiver. All these items can be easily and affordably rented so you can test out a few variations to find what’s best for you before making a purchase. Tignes Spirit in Tignes, or Mountain Pro Shop in Val d’Isere have a great variety.
Ski touring specialist instructor Flossie Cockle, who runs Freeflo backcountry courses in Tignes, Val d’Isere and La Grave, advises wearing thin breathable layers and a windproof shell jacket – you’ll need to layer up because you’ll get so hot as you skin up, then cold again at the top and on the descent. She adds: “Carry a comfortable back pack of 25-40 litres. I always carry a first aid kit, bivy bag, spare layers, gloves and penknife.”
Look out for equipment that has TUV certification – the safety standard.
The 3 Types of Tourer
One indicator of the rise in popularity of ski touring is that Salomon entered further into the market this winter, investing in new models. From their research into touring they found there are now 3 different groups of skiers getting involved in the sport:
Adventure Seekers: “Those on a continuous quest for fresh turns in untracked powder, but primarily spend time within or near the resort, hoping for quick opportunities to hike a ridge or do a short tour for a stash”.
Endurance Tourers: “A burgeoning group of athletes who are concerned with the aerobic aspects of ski touring, and use the lightest and tightest gear they can find, with the primary focus being speed”.
And now in-between these two groups are those simply referred to as Tourers: “These people strike a balance between touring up and skiing down. They seek natural experiences away from the madding crowds, but also enjoy steep, challenging descents, adrenaline, and most of all, fresh turns”.
Salomon says its latest MTN Explore ski caters for this group – it’s super lightweight for skinning up (30% lighter than alpine skis) but also delivers on the downhill with stability and floatation in powder and mixed conditions.
WHY SKI TOUR?
Isn’t that what ski lifts are for – so you don’t have to work at getting up there and can just enjoy the descent? Well, lifts won’t take you everywhere and to find fresh lines you need to go further afield. Freeflo‘s Floss says: “With newer technology skiing off piste has become more and more popular – fresh, untracked snow is harder to find so with ski touring you can go further and access more off piste and backcountry. It’s about just being in the beautiful backcountry in the peace and quiet with no hustle and bustle of a busy ski resort where you can gather your thoughts. You earn your turns and get exercise for going up hill. You make great friends and build true relationships.”
FALLING IN LOVE WITH SKI TOURING
by adventurer Squash Falconer
Squash is a professional adventurer who, among many other achievements, was the first British woman to fly off Mont Blanc, became the world’s highest bum boarder and is also the European Elliptigo champion. Moving to Tignes this winter means she’s had plenty of opportunity to get stuck into the sport, and here she tells us how she fell in love with it…
“A love of skiing plus a love of mountaineering equals ski touring. Why I wasn’t taught this in Maths at school I’ll never know! I was introduced to touring a few years ago; it was awkward at first, kick turns were a bit of an issue, my technique left a lot to be desired and I didn’t have the right kit. I was set up for skiing, not touring. However, I knew I liked it and I was in love with the idea of exploring the mountains and having the freedom to reach untouched places, more specifically untouched powder!
What I hadn’t thought about was the other major bonus that ski touring brings – it is incredible for fitness and conditioning. Ski touring is wonderful endurance training and unlike running there is virtually no impact on your knees, hips and back. Skinning up a ski slope for 1-2 hrs before heading back down hadn’t initially been my idea of ski touring. To me it was all about going somewhere off the beaten track and ultimately about finding the best conditions. I still think that, but my ‘training ski touring’ has offered something a little different.
Moving to Tignes last December has meant in the past few months I’ve been able to do lots more of this brilliant sport. When I’m not away with work my aim is that I get out to do training tours 2-3 times a week. My favourite kinds of mornings begin like this…
The alarm goes off, it’s still dark outside, the bed is warm and cosy but the thought of what I’m about to do is more enticing than staying in it so I leap up and throw on my kit that I’ve laid out the night before. My partner when possible joins me. We clatter around getting our boots on and the dog starts barking. She can hear us inside getting ready and knows ‘ultimate walkies’ is on the cards. The dog, Isla, isn’t ours, she belongs to my best friend Kath who lives 200m away and who also loves touring. We all meet up outside and get moving before the cold sets in.
There’s something really special about being up and on the slopes early before the sun has risen and before the lifts are open. We set off at a steady pace but inevitably within minutes we’ve warmed up so much we need to stop to take a layer off. Usually it takes about twenty minutes before I’ve found my stride and rhythm. My boot lifts from the back of the binding, I slide my foot forward, allowing the skin and ski to glide along the soft snow. It’s almost silent; if I listen carefully I can just about hear the faint sound of the snow compacting as I move over it.
Often I have my head down and when I do glance up to take in the beautiful surroundings I’m amazed at how quickly such a steady pace has got us up the mountain. The sun rises and I love the moment when its warmth smoothers me. Preferring a steady constant pace, I avoid stopping if I can, I don’t know why but those first few strides getting going again are always difficult and always the hardest. We usually discuss where our turn around point will be and as soon as it’s within a few hundred metres, although we deny it, everyone’s head goes down and the pace kicks up a gear. After the unspoken sprint finish, it’s important to get the layers back on so as not to get cold.
I love this moment; the hard work is done and now comes the reward. A flask of tea and a snack instantly re energises us and as soon as the skins come off, we click into our bindings; Isla by now, squeaking and leaping around with excitement, the chase is on! Hours up generally equals minutes down, those minutes are always good; with fresh powder they are heavenly.
For anyone who can ski and wants to ski tour, you can! A great way to start is to rent (or borrow) lightweight touring skis with touring bindings and skins and go for it. Start slowly, maybe just go up the piste, get the technique right and build up your endurance. See how it feels and take it from there. Once you start to head off the beaten track and always when you go off piste it’s good to be safe; take advice, don’t go alone, wear an avalanche bleep and carry a shovel and probe.
You can contact Squash with any ski tour related questions (or just any questions!) via her website or social media.
WHERE TO SKI TOUR?
Get up early and skin up a freshly groomed piste before lifts open for guaranteed first tracks! You’ll have the mountain to yourself. Or try a night tour up the piste once the piste bashers have done their work – just add headlamps!
Some resorts now have marked touring paths. La Rosiere, for example, picked up on the surge in interest in touring by marking out three new trails close to the pistes this winter:
- Stoat’s Trail: Starting at Les Ecudets, take a walk up through the forest and you will reach the resort centre – a 754m ascent – in just a couple of hours. Open from 9am to 8pm.
- Roc Trail: Walk 470m uphill alongside the Tetras slope to the summit of the Roc Noir, where stunning views of the Grandes Jorasses await. Open from 9am to 5pm.
- Serge’s Trail: Starting in Les Eucherts this trail takes you through wild, high-altitude landscapes and across ski slopes to the summit of Roches Noires at an altitude of 2330m. You will be rewarded with breathtaking views of Mont Pourri. Open from 9am to 5pm.
- *The resort warns never to go touring alone and always to carry avalanche safety equipment.
Alternatively hire a guide or book onto a touring course with other likeminded people. Most ski hire shops will let you swap to touring equipment for a day of your holiday.
Freeflo have spaces available on a new ‘introduction to backcountry ski touring’ course running in Tignes, Espace Killy and Vanoise National Park from 23-30 April. It’s the perfect opportunity to get expert instruction in the equipment and how to use it, touring technique and mountain safety. Floss says: “You will spend a week taking in the beauty of the Vanoise National Park during the best period for alpine ski touring.” Freeflo is also running a Women’s Introduction to Ski Touring long weekend from April 21st to 24th in Tignes and the Vanoise National Park.
Snoworks have spaces available on their backcountry access and off piste courses in the Tarentaise at the end of March and through April. They say: “Backcountry Access uses ski touring equipment to access unbelievable off-piste where lifts cannot get you. The whole purpose is to use the lift system to gain as much height as possible then skin from there opening up a whole world of off-piste where those that rely only on the use of lifts cannot access.”
To finally convince you that you’ll love ski touring, take a look at this video filmed on Snoworks Backcountry Access course in Sainte Foy this week. The week kicked off with a skin up to the Fogliettaz and a ski down the North Face.