How to Start Ski Touring
As I sat in my little home in Chamonix resting my now permanently fatigued limbs, my phone rings. My mum was asking about my recent extra-curricular activities in the mountains, and I think ski touring perplexed her the most… “You ski uphill?”
For me, learning to resort ski was simply a stepping stone to being able to explore and appreciate the beauty, isolation and wildness of the mountains in winter. A season bringing harshness and beauty in equal measure. Resort skiing has its place. and I still enjoy it; however, ski touring offers endless opportunities to ski different terrain and untouched powder.
It is by far one of the most fun, challenging and invigorating activities I’ve ever done. There are a few things to consider before enthusiastically diving head first into the uphill skiing world.
So, what exactly is ‘ski-touring’?
In a nutshell, ski touring is the activity of walking (also called skinning) uphill on skis, often away from the main ski resort area, and then skiing downhill off piste. It allows you to spend a day in the mountains with constantly changing scenery and often never covering the same ground twice.
What’s the attraction?
Skiing away from the resort means solitude and truly immersion in the heart of the mountains
It is insanely good for general all-round fitness - so the post tour raclette is well earnt!
You get to learn a whole bunch of mountain skills and be a total mountain geek
Meeting some totally rad people who share similar passions (obsessions. . .)
Powder (untouched, hurrah!)
Long descents without ski-school dodging…
Enjoying the learning curve - cliché but the magic happens outside your comfort zone, right?
What’s the required ski experience level?
To state the obvious, you need to be able to ski!
You need to be able to ski off-piste in a variety of conditions. We all want champagne powder of course, but the mountains will decide what you ski on so you need to be able to cope with slush, ice, crust, heavy powder, deep powder etc. There are so many different types of snow and sometimes, you can encounter them all in the one day!
You do need to be relatively physically fit as it will be more enjoyable if you have a bit of base fitness
If you book on a course (see below) they usually outline exactly what they need in terms of experience
So how can I start ski touring?
Book an introductory course
I believe this is the best way to kickstart your ski touring. Courses are also great if you are short on time, if your friends don’t see the appeal and if you don’t have the luxury of living in a ski resort.
I booked onto a weeklong course with a great company called Icicle Mountain Adventures. It was an ‘Intro to Ski Touring’ week, covering everything from learning how to use equipment, techniques on the snow, awesome day tours with a mountain guide and optional evening theory lessons geeking-out over ropes and crevasse rescue techniques. It was well worth it.
I had also had some off-piste tuition before the course to fix some self-taught bad habits with the Women’s Mountain Club Chamonix, a group of simply amazing females who provide some short courses throughout the season for women only.
A small half-day tour will give you a chance to get used to the gear and a general taste of it. Even skinning up a piste for your first try is a good place to start. Check that this is permitted as some resorts don’t allow this for obvious safety reasons.
Using a piste is a good way to test the feeling of downhill skiing post-uphill plod – hello jelly legs, goodbye technique!
Over time, you can progress to bigger and more technical routes, but get the basics down first.
Book an avalanche awareness course
I also did mine with Icicle. Spending a day looking at snow packs, assessing risk and learning how to use your avalanche kit is so important. You spend almost all of your time off-piste when ski touring, and quite rightly, nobody should head out with someone who doesn’t know how to actually use their safety kit.
Find some friends
I was extremely lucky to have my much-cooler-than-me friends who were kind enough to take me out and teach me some basics. Never go alone, know how to use your equipment and that your friends do too!
I often used FATMAP. This is an app that details different ski touring (and free riding) routes in your area on a visual 3D map display. It details vertical height gain, maximum slope gradient and other useful info.
All the Gear
As with most mountainy fun activities comes an equally mountainy fun gear list. There are some things that are needed on every ski tour and then there are other paraphernalia that may be needed depending on your specific route.
I recommend renting initially whilst you are figuring out the sport and then going to a specialist shop for advice when you are ready to invest.
Touring boots. These are different to downhill alpine boots. They have a walk mode and a downhill mode. I can’t stress enough how important it is to get professionally fitted and comfortable boots.
Touring skis. These are generally lighter, longer and wider than downhill alpine skis but smaller than powder skis. This isn’t to say you can’t use powder skis for touring too but just bear in mind the added weight - unless you want legs like Arnold Schwarzenegger!
Touring bindings. These allow your heels to lift when going uphill before securing them back in for downhill.
Skins. These are stuck to the bottom of your skis to allow you to walk uphill without sliding down. And beware, they will also stick to everything when flapping in the wind on a col!
Poles. Telescopic poles are best so you can pack them away easily when not needed
Clothing. Layering is key. A full-on ski jacket is normally not light enough to be packed away on the uphill and too warm to wear. The brighter the better (for no scientific reason - it’s just more fun!)
Avalanche safety kit (shovel, probe and transceiver). And again, know how to use it!
Other gear you may potentially need
Ski crampons (spikey things that can attach to your bindings if it is icy)
Boot crampons (in case of boot-packing/hiking a section you can’t skin or ski)
Harness (glacier travel)
Prussiks, slings, karabiners (glacier travel)
30m rope (glacier travel)
Each time you head out, you’ll learn a bit more. The environment is changeable and unforgiving in the mountains, and I found myself never really skiing the exact same conditions twice – and I spent a whole season doing it! Hopefully with experience and more confidence, you will find yourself plotting your own ski touring adventure (longer days/multi-days involving hut holidays).
Final words of advice: book a course, be curious, learn from a professional and most of all enjoy it!
Jess is an outdoor enthusiast, especially in love with skiing, mountain running (especially in the gorgeous Lakeland Fells!), climbing and long hikes. She works as a cancer pharmacist in the UK’s Lake District and hopes to be able to promote the fact that an active outdoor lifestyle whilst having a busy day-job is possible, beneficial and just damn awesome!
Follow Jess’ adventures on Instagram at @jesspealing