Chamonix and Geneva based journalist Katy Dartford gives us the lowdown on the highs of ski touring, including some suggestions for where to start getting involved. It’s been one of the fastest growing areas in the winter sports sector over the past few years, but is it all just an uphill struggle?
Formerly the domain of ‘old beardy’ mountaineer types, with the main aim being the climb to the summit – ski touring – off-piste skiing which involves both uphill and downhill travel – is now growing rapidly. But with lift tickets becoming increasingly expensive and more competition for first tracks on the mountain, it’s now also about the downhill – finding adventurous skiing lines whilst venturing out into remote, backcountry areas. Touring requires special kit, such a skins – attached to the underside of a ski, so that it has more traction when going uphill, rather than sliding back down the slope after each step. You will also need all the necessary avalanche safety equipment, including a shovel, probe and transceiver. Combining Nordic and Alpine ski techniques, the heel of the skier is free from the ski to walk on flat ground or uphill, with just the toe-piece attached at the binding. It’s then fixed into place for the downhill thanks to special touring bindings. Trips can be taken outside the boundaries of a ski resort, or over a period of days, featuring overnight stays in huts along pre-planned routes.
With the growth of ski touring there are lots of choices of courses and destinations for beginners wanting to get into the sport.
La Clusaz – France
Another great destination for those short on time is La Clusaz – barely an hour’s drive from Geneva. The resort has developed a wide range of services to help beginner ski tourers including marked routes, ski-mountaineering excursions, beginner lessons and equipment hire. For the 2017/18 season they opened two new ski mountaineering tracks for beginners and experts to learn and practice on. One reaches up to the summit of the Beauregard Plateau from the Hameau des Alpes and the other leaves from Les Joux on Etale to arrive at the Belvédère Massif. The aim is to provide a safe opportunity to explore a different type of skiing. More information can be found on the ‘Community Touring Club’ website which connects practitioners, brands, shops and guides in La Clusaz as well as the resorts of Les Arcs, La Plagne, La Rosiere, and Val d’Isère.
If you’re short on time then Icicle Mountaineering in Chamonix offer an Intro ski touring weekend in the early winter season featuring two days ski touring, with 2 nights in a B&B. The focus is on teaching ski touring skills to those planning a hut-to-hut trip later in the season. Chamonix has the benefit of a range of tours on its doorstep. Some start from the valley floor, such as the one up to Refuge de Loriaz, whereas others require an uplift such as the Col du Tour Noir from Grands Montets. On the first day you will be taught ski touring techniques, including how to kick turn, fitting and removing skins and ski crampons and the use of the avalanche safety and crevasse rescue kit. There is also usually the chance to take in a col (mountain pass) or a summit during the day.
Austria – Grossarl
It’s not all about schnapps in Austria. In less than an hour from Salzburg you can reach the resort of Grossarl. The Grossarl Valley is home to huge Alpine pastures and countless peaks, with elevations ranging from 2,000m to just under 3,000m. And in Grossarl ski touring, with state-approved mountain guides is on offer for free, five days a week, when staying at any of the 100 hotels or private accommodation in the resort that are part of the Berg-Gesund (Mountain Health) programme. Alongside the guided tours, you will be taught touring skills and avalanche awareness. The courses are adapted to suit the ability of the group and high-altitude ski touring is also on offer for the more experienced too.
Not sure if you want to go on a ski tour? Glenmore Lodge offers a two or five day Discover Ski Touring course to give you a taste of the amazing ski touring the Scottish Highlands has to offer. Ideal for an experienced piste or off-piste skier who is looking for the next challenge and those with a good level of hill fitness, the courses aim to give you as much skiing as possible whilst learning the essential skills on the move. The instructor will also offer individual coaching and advice on how to improve and where to go next. Teaching covers selecting the right equipment, planning a tour, avalanche awareness and avoidance, movement of skis in ascent and descent and navigation on skis, route choice and finding.
Norway could be considered the home of ski touring on so many levels – from the village in Norway’s Telemark region where almost a century and a half ago, a poor tenant farmer invented the world’s first “relatively” stable downhill ski binding – to the many variety of options to get off the beaten track- from sail and ski touring, fjord skiing, inland skiing and ski touring under the Northern lights. Lofoten ski lodge offers two or five day courses introducing you to the use of the equipment, techniques and skills as well as avalanche assessment, giving you both theoretical and practical knowledge allowing you to become an more independent ski tourer. Group sizes are small – just 1-4 and you are based in their renovated lodge designed to give you a taste of Northern Norwegian coastal culture.
This story was originally published in Snow Enthusiast magazine. Read the full issue free at http://magazine.snow-forecast.com/snow-enthusiast-sf-2018#!page1