Lift-accessed ski tours for the win, to save you time (and leg burn)

four ski tourers heading uphill under the sun

If you’re prepared to open your mind (as well as your wallet) you’ll find lift-accessed ski tours can save you time and leg burn

There is a particular genre of ski tour that starts at the top of the lift system and quests off into the wilderness. Some go in search of a summit or fresh powder field, while others may just want to sneak over the next ridge-line to get away from it all.

There are a million reasons why you might want or need a bit of lift assistance: timing, fitness, weather and conditions, or simply chasing more of the good stuff than your legs alone could find.

If you are prepared to open your mind (as well as your wallet) you’ll find there are lots of ways to get a little help with the uphill.

man in bright green jacket and headband on fresh-snow descent, big mountains as a backdrop
Martin Chester skiing back into the Serre Che lift system

Time is money

Capitalising on the lift can buy us back more time in the day, which can be helpful for a plethora of reasons. In the early season, daylight hours may limit our range. In the spring, soaring afternoon temperatures may dictate an early finish; when we are novices, our lack of skills and un-practiced transitions may mean that we require a bit more time. The clock often screws the nut on our decision making and we can buy back a bit of mental bandwidth with a lift.

Nowhere else in my life is it so directly obvious that time really is money.

I look back fondly on early tours, when I had little more than no clue, Kath and I exploring the Alps in our battered old Transit van. Waking up early season, all we could see against the darkness of the night was the ice on the windscreen. We knew that if we were prepared to take a lift to get started we could leave a little later, and stay in the warmth of our sleeping bags a little longer.

Back then, it was all about the money and discovering the simple pleasures of the small resorts. One-horse towns, with just one lift, that offered great value for a ride up to the high point, where the real fun started.

Above that we were free, in every sense. Some of these places were tiny, but that was their superpower: no cool crowds were coming here in search of the fresh tracks; and all we needed were some skins to escape the few locals and turn a cheap ride into a serious amount of vertical.

Some resorts still offer a points system, where you don’t pay by the day, but pay only for the lifts you take– rewarding those of us who are prepared to spend the rest of the time putting in our own effort for the up. But do your homework, as ‘points’ are not a universal currency!

Several of the smaller Austrian and Italian resorts still offer this, where a points pass costing circa €25 will give you all the single rides you need to go ski touring for a week.

A city break in Innsbruck is a delight for the one-lift-up touring aficionado. Hop on the free bus out of the city for your first lift of the day, hopping off at Glungezer, Axamer or Kühtai. Each one offering an amazing-value lift ticket and a first-class mini tour off the top.

For example, Glungezer will set you back just €10 for a single ride; or you could go large and splash out on a two-hour ski pass for just €28, then get your skins on once you are fully warmed up. Invest your savings in a bratwurst ’n’ beer in a traditional bierkeller; or an evening at the theatre for the more cultured, then ride a different lift the next day.

In Arolla, it will cost you only CHF16 to ride the lifts to the very top, despite the fact that you are in the heart of the Swiss Alps.

And before you ask – no, you really must not put your skins on before taking a drag lift. Whatever the weather at the top!

If you have a group of you, the cash you will save on the lifts will go a long way to covering a day with Graham Frost, a local British guide. You won’t be disappointed!

A line of eight ski tourers on a grey day head up over a rounded, featureless summit
Skinning out from Bivos’s three-lift system

The big players

This approach is not limited to the small lift systems alone. Many of the bigger resorts offer a ‘rando’ (or ‘touren’) ticket where, if you are prepared to get up early and ask for the privilege, you may be allowed on the first bin with the lifties.

These are rarely offered online, and usually negotiated by the local guides, so don’t be surprised nor grumpy if this is not so easy to find. It is a privilege not a right to get through a big resort for such a small fee.

Then pay close attention, as there are frequently strict rules about exactly which lifts you can use. One wrong turn and you will be back at the bottom, at the back of the queue, with your wallet out.

Link the right lifts to the top of the Lona drag in Grimentz, and you’ll soon be skinning round the corner for a coffee at the Cabane de Becs, selecting which of the classic tours you’re going to savour today – with options on every aspect and only a little more skinning required.

Early in my career, but later in the season, we realised these rando tickets bought us extra time, in a limited window of safety. The early lift enables you to skip the pre-dawn walking and bush whacking below the rising spring snow line.

Hop on the Val d’Isère lifts, then skin up the Pointe de La Sana, having time to work it all out and still get back to the safety of the pistes before it all gets a bit hot and harrowing later in the day.

Rather than fight your way down a disintegrating snowpack, you can cruise the pistes all the way back to a cold beer in the hot sun.

Now I’m older, money is less of an issue, and it is more about the value or return on the investment.

So, if you can afford it, you can scale up this winning formula and bring on the big players.

There was, is, and always will be something exhilarating about queuing in anticipation at the bottom of those big lifts: jostling with the freeriding hipsters at the Grands Montets or Aiguille du Midi. The tension is tangible but the stakes are high– knowing that their terrain will be tracked soon after the first queue is done.

But not for us. There is something beyond cool about knowing that, once we hit the glacier, the skins are going on, and our love affair with adventure is only just starting as we quest off in search of the great untracked.

A quintessentially Swiss version of this idyllic formula is ‘tracks and trains’. Riding the train out of Andermatt feels a totally cool way to go ski touring. Pile out at the Oberalppass station, pausing for a coffee at the Piz Calmot (or not – this is Switzerland after all, and there has to be some kind of downside). Skin just 700m of vertical up the Pazolastock and you are free to quest off in just about any direction, knowing that when the snow runs out, you can hop on at the next station and a Swiss train will whisk you back to Andermatt with typical Swiss efficiency. Even better if you catch the après-ski train back from Tschamut and party your way home. If you are there for a week, you’ll find the trains are included on your ski pass.

I’ll expect to see you at the top of a lift somewhere, putting your skins on and just about to quest off.

My three favourite…
Big lifts that access big adventures

I always feel that familiar nervous tension in my belly when I ride the train out of Grindelwald to Kleine Scheidegg. The frightening days spent checking out the condition on the Eigerwand have gone now, in favour of wondering about the off-piste conditions on the Lauberhorn. Then you take the big underground train ride up the Jungfraujoch to access the pristine glacial wonder-world above. You will be dining out on this 1,500m vertical kick start for the rest of your trip, whether it is a day, or a week before you ski out at Blatten, at least 2,000m lower.

Riding the crazy bins at La Grave and skinning off for the traverse of La Meije, gave us one of the finest ski weekends my wife and I have ever shared. One huge lift, several crazy abseils, amazing scenery, hanging glaciers, climbing couloirs and all rewarded by one mother of a descent down the Glacier de l’Homme at the end. Parfait!

Funny how, a few years later, Kath and I have come full circle. Skinning above Pila with the kids when they were taking their first tentative steps into touring, the lifts brought it all into reach. While a 1,000m epic was beyond us, the few hundred metres to the Pointe de la Pierre (from the top of the lift to the summit) was pure pleasure. The 1,000m descent was even better!