We’ve done this kinda thing before, but things have moved on post-Covid. With so many people taking to touring, and so many resorts catering for their needs, it’s never been so easy to find your first easy skins, day trips and first summits.
There comes a point in every skier’s life when the limits of the resort are just, well… limiting. You’ve got the off-piste dialled: you can ski any kind of snow that mother nature lays down before you, of a fashion. You’ve got, and know how to use, the essential avy kit (transceiver, probe and shovel) and you (and your mates) wouldn’t head off-piste without.
But, taking your place in the queue of freeriders in the line of bucket steps, there comes a point where that massive bootpack looks distinctly unappealing, and you want a better way to get further away from the groomers, and the crowds. It is time to go touring… and it is easier than you think!
First up, we need to get to grips with the kit, technique and clothing. While a detailed ‘how to’ is beyond the range and remit of this article, the basics are refreshingly simple. Next time you are in resort, head to a decent shop and rent some touring kit for the day. You’ll be amazed how well the ‘loose and bendy’ to go uphill, can convert into ‘buckled up and locked-down’ for the descent.
Skins really are only as complex as massive furry Post-it notes and, when combined with a zen-like approach to calm sliding, going uphill is more of a pleasure, than a chore. Which is just as well!
Before you simply kit-up and quest off into the wilderness, it is worth nailing the techniques of skinning (and the all elusive ‘pat your head and rub your belly at the same time’ kick turn) closer to home. So, choose some small tours off the side of your favourite pistes or, better still, go to a resort with dedicated skinning tracks. The good news is that ski touring in resort is now a thing, Just check out the Tirol website to discover how many resorts have a number of groomed skinning tracks to choose from.
Wherever you start off, please don’t go skinning up a busy piste. Nobody wants to come over a blind roller, or round a fast bend, to find you grappling with your first kick turn – arms, legs, skis and poles in all directions – across the slope! Besides, skinning on a groomed piste is really quite unpleasant, as well as tricky…
Once you have had those skins on, and have skinned uphill for a few hundred metres (of distance, not even vertical) you will have answered everything you need to know about kit. Those ‘all or nothing’ heavyweight ski togs can be a bit too much, a bit too heavy and not very versatile. For sure, to begin with, you don’t need a whole new wardrobe, but lots of layers are the answer – the lighter the better.
So, now that you are gliding up the slopes, and no longer looking like you are walking in 180cm flippers, you are free to go wherever you wish. More than ever, touring can be all things to all people, so let’s sit down over a coffee and find out whether you want to…
Get away from the crowds
Put your skins on and you realise this is your pass to access all areas. If you can see it and skin up it, you can ski it (assuming it is safe, obvs). You don’t even need a destination, beyond the top of that great-looking pitch of fresh snow. Some of my favourite tours are even upside-down: ski that amazing looking pitch that nobody else can access, then skin back up for another lap. Short forays beyond the traverse lines; or all-day powder quests over the hill and far away – the choice is yours.
Get some exercise
If you’ve ever wondered why people are skinning up the side of a perfectly good piste, then this is usually the answer: they want to train, or practice, or get fit for bigger things at the weekend. They don’t necessarily lack the imagination to go further. More likely, they might (for now) lack the desire to carry all the safety kit, the time, the visibility in a storm, or the mates to head further into the wilderness with. So it fits the pre-work run or the lunchtime schlepp. Brands like Dynafit even have their SpeedFit range dedicated to those who want to train in the mountains, rather than the gym. But you will see all shapes and sizes of people on all shapes and sizes of kit – some racing snakes on their ski-mo noodles; some heavyweight mountaineers training on their all-mountain rig (that’s me, by the way); and everything in between.
Climb a summit
There is something simply magical about standing on the top of an alpine peak with your ski tips hanging over the top of an untracked pitch. But allow me to let you into a secret – this experience is more easily attainable, by more (average) skiers, than many people ever realise. Modest summits like the Six Blanc (a short one-hour skin above Bruson, Verbier) or the peaks and passes above Les Contamines de Montjoie, are ideal day trips early in your career. A peak like the Breitspitze (2,203m), above the tiny resort of Galtür, is almost horizontal in approach; it takes less than one hour to reach, but gives stupendous views over the Montafon Valley and it’s a great descent back into the resort. Start small and buy yourself time for plenty of faff while you build your skill base. Then when you are ready for more, ranges like the Silvretta Alps will be just the ticket; or dip into the partner article of Connoisseur’s Corner (page XX) for places where you can readily find great day summits, without epic skinning!
Complete an iconic journey
Some people just love going places. I have to admit, there is something magical about exploring a new valley, looking over the next col, or skiing round the next ridge-line to a whole new vista. If this sounds like your gig, then ski touring is for you. Like cross-country on steroids, this often involves threading your way in a cunning line through the mountains via the most efficient route. The big-powder chasers can look away at this point, for if you save on the climbing, then the chances are you are going to go short on the descent as well. But some people like it like that, and it has its place. Don’t start with the Haute Route (although I pretty much did!). Day tours, star tours (different tours from one base) or multi-day hut-to-hut extravaganzas – it’s all there for you to discover.
So we have the aspiration, now how do we make it happen? Thankfully, it is not as tricky as it once was:
Get some kit and skills
You might like to start off in-resort, by renting some kit and trying out the skinning tracks for yourself. This way you can take it one day (or even one lap) at a time. Alternatively, you might like to go on a course. Alison Thacker and her team at Off-Piste Performance (offpiste.org.uk) give people the skiing skills they need, as well as an inspirational introduction to touring, in Scotland, Norway and the Alps.
But a course does not have to last a whole week. Even though I am a guide, my family really enjoyed the afternoon Group Skiing sessions offered by MGS ski (mgsski.com/skiing/?group) on holiday with them in Val Cenis. The local ESF instructors did a great job of introducing the kids to ski touring in bitesize chunks; while Jerome did a great job of burning off their old man and showing me all the best pitches.
Get a guide
If you can afford it, this is money well spent. By doing all the right things in all the right places, you will just accelerate your learning and avoid any life-changing ‘feedback’ from injury or incident instead. Far better to get constructive feedback from an expert, while lapping the best snow in the valley! But if you ski with an instructor, be sure they are fully qualified to be off-piste. An IFMGA badge is the acid test for being able to go anywhere.
Get some mates – and mentoring
Living in the heart of a city in the UK, you could be forgiven for finding it tricky to find mates to go ski touring with. The good news is that there are some excellent clubs dedicated to touring. Check out the Eagle Ski Club, the Ski Club of Great Britain, or the Alpine Ski Club for starters. Some of the best ski clubs are some of the oldest, with a wonderful history and tradition of peer-to-peer mentoring by more experienced members to introduce and support the newbies.
- Good-value kit at Decathlon
- Decathlon article on how to start ski touring
- Ellis Brigham article on ski touring for beginners.
- How to ski tour (everything you need to know in a 10-minute tutorial) from Dynafit.
- Off Piste Essentials (the kit dates it, but the technical input is still as good as when we filmed it).
- Get a guide: British Mountain Guides are IFMGA qualified, so they can take you wherever you want to go, and many operate all over the world.
- Once in resort, make sure you get a local guide who is IFMGA qualified. Or find a suitably qualified ski instructor (not all are able to ski off-piste or take you touring). Be sure to check with the ski school.