Ski Touring - "a winning combination"
As a mountaineer, I graduated from British rock and Scottish winter, through alpine climbing to Himalayan expeditions, and along the way went on a couple of ski holidays where we went off piste a bit without knowing very much, doing some things that in retrospect were pretty daft. Does that sound familiar?
A morning skin in the Silvretta, an ideal venue for your first hut to hut tour.
I'd used skis to get to the base of routes in alpine winter and the Karakoram, but it was only when I started on the training scheme to become an IFMGA Guide that I discovered the delights of ski touring. And now, ten years after qualifying, it's the work that I do the most during the year. Why? Because it's a way of moving through the mountains that continually opens up new vistas in terms of both scenery and interactions with the environment. I missed out on it for so long being preoccupied with climbing, and now I'm making up for lost time. The mix of the uphill effort with the reward of skiing fresh tracks on the downhill is a winning combination.
Starting Ski Touring - "ski almost any snow in an efficient way"
A side country skin in the Valais
Given a choice on a ski tour between a super-fit alpinist who has crap technique (which is what I was when I started!) and an unfit but competent skier, I'll take the skiing competence every time. This is because the fittest person in the world, after multiple face plants with a ski touring pack on, will get tired and become a danger to him/herself and the rest of the group. To start ski touring, you really want to be capable of skiing almost any snow in an efficient way, preferably using parallel technique. Almost no one looks pretty in breakable crust after a 3 hour skin up to a col, but if you have the essential techniques and the coping strategies for difficult conditions, that's a start.
This terrain in Verbier is accessible with just 1 hour of skinning, and I've had 1st tracks there twice.
This is not to say that fitness isn't important. Almost any ski tour worth the name is going to have a minimum of 300m of ascent, and some of the big days on the classic ski tours have up to 1500m, spread over 8 to 10 hours. A good target in terms of pace is 300m of ascent per hour. So if you can walk up Ben Nevis from sea level in 4 to 5 hours, then you're on the money. In essence, the fitter you are the more you'll enjoy it.
Ski touring - "enjoy the uphill"
Trekking on skis: the sublime beauty of the Otztaler Alps.
You can look at ski touring in various different ways:
Whatever way you look at it, there's one factor here that's absent in normal off piste, and that's the fact that we go uphill. Ski tourers sometimes talk about "earning your turns", but the reality is that, if you view it that way, you'll never get enough payback from the down to balance the up. You have to enjoy the effort of the uphill in itself.
In practical terms, we go uphill by using touring bindings that release at the heel to walk uphill, but clip back down for the downhill. (I hear the telemarkers in the background, but let's keep it simple for now, eh?). These bindings will also have some heel raisers at the back to ease strain on the calves when going steeply uphill (see my comments on heel raisers later).
Artistry in the Silvretta after 2 hours of skinning.
In addition to the bindings, we're going to need some skins. These clever bits of fabric were originally made from animal skins, but nowadays are either of mohair or nylon or a mix of the two. Mohair has better grip on the snow but nylon has better wear resistance. On the unhairy side, the skins have glue that sticks to the skin and the ski, but remains on the skin when removed. Added to this is the choice between rear fix with a front strap, front fix and no tail strap or front fix with a tail strap. I prefer the latter because the skin is held front and back, and there's no chance of flipping the front strap off while skinning in a narrow track. The skins need to be cut exactly to the shape of the ski, leaving just the edges exposed.
Finally, for spring touring conditions, we are very likely to need some couteaux (French for knives) or harscheisen (German for couteaux) which are essential on hard snow or ice. I avoid the term "ski crampons" after one memorable tour where a client brought boot crampons but no couteaux after a misunderstanding.
Extending the season in May: spring crocuses at the end of the skiing in the Val d'Arpette.
With all this kit, the opportunity to faff is immense. If you're unfamiliar with ‘faffing', go here[AP1] >>> (The word is derived from the Italian "farfalle". You may know this as a type of pasta that resembles a butterfly. A butterfly is an insect that flaps around looking pretty but achieving absolutely nothing.) So our technique has to be efficient.
Let's start with putting skins on: Form a tripod with your poles and ski tips.
Attention to detail when skinning up. Photo Alastair Lee - Posing Productions.
The skins come out of the bag one at a time, folded in two around the cheat sheet. Loop the front fix over the tip and pull the skin down, making sure the skin is in the middle of the ski. Then the rear half, easing the tail strap on at the end making sure it's snugly tight. Be as meticulous as a brain surgeon. It's worth it in the long run.
Skinning - "it's a Zen thing"
When you skin, the walking action is a bit bizarre. It's not like normal walking where you pick your feet up and strike with the heel first. What we need to do is slide the ski along the ground, pushing the knee forward and dropping the crutch to lengthen the stride. It's quite surprising how steeply you can go uphill without raising the heels of the bindings at all. I tend to put up my heel raisers by just one step as a last resort. Doing this shortens the stride you can make, which you only want to do as it gets steep. I never use the top heel raiser on a Fritschi binding as it feels very unbalanced, a bit like wearing stilettos and I only do that on Friday nights.
Trekking on skis: wild scenery in the High Tirol of Austria.
As things get even steeper, the trick is push more weight through the heel (the only time in skiing when we deliberately put weight through the heel) with the hips forward and shoulders back, and hinging the leg at the hip rather than the knee, a bit like a restricted goose step. To avoid slipping back, place your poles behind you to support and prevent any backwards sliding.
Above all, skinning is about rhythm. Moving uphill with an easy steady pace, breathing, arms and legs all in coordination allows your mind to wander around. It's a Zen thing, people.
CHANGING DIRECTIONS - "the (in)famous uphill kick turn"
There's a limit to how steeply we can skin directly uphill. Much beyond 20 degrees and we are going to be going diagonally, so we're going to need to change direction as we zigzag up the slope. On easy terrain, we can shuffle the skis gradually around while moving forward, known as a 1000 step turn. As it gets steeper, moving through the fall line is going to prove harder, so we can shuffle round on the spot, supporting behind with the poles, which is a star turn. Finally, even that becomes too much and so we come to the (in)famous uphill kick turn.
The kick turn is something that takes some getting used to, but it's an essential skill that it's well worth practising as you'll be using it hundreds if not thousands of times once you start touring.
Finally, things may get so steep that skinning up becomes more trouble than it's worth, so we're going to need to strap skis on the side of the pack[AP3] .
When the skinning stops the walking starts. Diana and Susie in Verbier.
This can also be necessary at the end of a tour, especially in the spring when the snow low down is running out but we're still accessing lovely powder and/or spring snow, often within minutes of each other!
Types of touring - "accomplishing a journey"
Ask many skiers to name a ski tour, and they'll probably come up first with the Haute Route from Chamonix to Zermatt. In reality, this multi day hut-to-hut tour in a glacial environment is at the top of the pyramid, and there are many easier ways in which to enjoy touring. There are a few that are harder too, but I'm going to cover the Haute Route and those hardcore activities in the next article in this series.
For a competent off piste skier, the ideal way to start touring is with a bit of side-country, skinning for perhaps an hour or two. In this way, we're within our comfort zone and if any kit issues need sorting (quite likely at first) then we can easily get back to resort without compromise.
Once we're happy with that, then there are two options to step up to the next level. We can start to do longer tours involving a full day out in the mountains, perhaps with 3 to 4 hours or 1000m of skinning. This opens up a myriad of possibilities, especially if we combine the tour with returning to our start point by public transport or taxi. You can really start to feel like your accomplishing a journey, which is the whole idea as far as I'm concerned.
Bootpacking away from the crowds above the Rhone valley in December 2010
Which brings me to the other option: the ski safari. Safari is Swahili for journey, and a ski safari is a journey on skis, usually over a few days. Safaris tend to differ from tours in that in addition to skinning (which I try to limit to a couple of hours on a couple of occasions through a 6 day safari), you can use uplift, public and private transport, both of the four-wheeled and the twin-rotored variety. Accommodation tends to be hotels rather than huts, and for all these reasons I call it "touring without tears".
Ski safaris often use comfortable hotels rather than mountain huts.
You can tour any time during the ski season. In fact, touring tends to extend the winter as we can skin up before resorts are fully open in December[AP4] , and when the lifts are closing at the end of the season, we can go higher into the hills to get the best snow. May often gives the best and most stable powder conditions of the entire season.
Extending the season in December: a short skin above the Bochard lift of the Grands Montets to get fresh tracks on the Argentiere glacier.
Ski touring kit - "a paradise for gear freaks"
Ski touring is a paradise for gear freaks. On the one hand there are all sorts of special little bits of kit, tweaks and modifications we can do, and at the same time the trend towards low weight should become an overriding obsession. So with that in mind, here are some thoughts on what is a vast area. Some areas have already been covered in the previous article on off piste technique, so I'm just talking about the items specific to touring here.
Boots: you could try out touring in downhill boots but it's usually a recipe for blisters. Touring boots have a walk mode and are slightly more flexible to make walking a normal process rather than some kind of restricted torture. There is a small compromise in ski performance so you're going to need to flex forward more, angulate more and steer more to get the same result at the ski/snow interface. Touring boots have a Vibram sole so they must not be used in a downhill binding. Not sure why? Click here[AP5] .
Skis: It used to be said that a touring ski had to be light and narrow, but that's really old-school these days. You can tour in any all-terrain ski, but weight is going to be more of an issue since you're sliding the planks uphill at every step. That makes the Scott Crus'Air an ideal choice, and several of my clients used them last season with rave results.
The author shreds the crust in the Silvretta. Photo - Tim Blakemore/AP collection.
Bindings: Fritschi have ruled the roost in touring bindings for many years. while they aren't the lightest around, they are certainly the most widely used and the most reliable on the market. If you're just setting out on the touring journey, then the Eagle is definitely a good starting point. Don't forget you'll need compatible couteaux too.
Skins: As I mentioned earlier, a front fix and rear strap system is the only choice for me. In really cold conditions, the glue on any skin will be less effective so having both ends fixed is useful. The BD STS system is very widely used and is very reliable. Don't forget to carry some gaffer tape in case (remember - it holds the fabric of the universe together).
Pack: you're going to need a bit more volume as you may end up skinning uphill in the sun with most of your clothing in the pack. 30 litres is a good size for touring, and with care can even be used for hut-to-hut stuff too.
Clothing: I don't want to get into this minefield too much as we could devote a whole article to ski touring clothing, but I'll just say that soft shell jackets could have been made for ski touring. Get one - you won't regret it.
Learning more - "with an IFMGA mountain guide"
Ski touring isn't always sedate. Andy Perkins loving the air and the trees after 90 minutes of skinning and bootpacking. Photo Si Abrahams/AP collection.
Remarkably, there are very few books around on touring technique. Most guidebooks tend to cover the multi day hut-to-hut tours I'll be discussing in the next article. The best way to learn more is with an IFMGA mountain guide. There are lots of guidebooks around, and many Brits use the Cicerone guides by Bill O'Connor or Paul Henderson, plus the touring guide for the Chamonix area published by Vamos.
The author - "Andy Perkins"
Andy Perkins is a British Mountain Guide based in the Chamonix valley at one end of the Haute Route. He spends over 70 days a year working on skis - off piste, ski safaris and ski mountaineering. You can find out more at at http://www.andypmountainguide.com/
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