This page provides an introduction to ski touring and ski mountaineering for people who are interested in taking up the sport.
Ski touring and ski mountaineering are terms used to describe essentially the same activity – travelling through snow covered terrain, using skis to go both uphill and downhill. Ski mountaineering emphasizes getting to the tops of mountains along the way, and ski touring emphasizes the journey, but there is considerable overlap, and the terms may be used interchangeably.
In order to travel uphill on skis, alpine ski-tourers use “skins”, which are stuck to the bottom of the ski - these allow the ski to glide uphill, but not slip back down. At the top of the hill, the skins can be removed, and the slope skied downhill in a similar way to a piste skier in a ski resort.
Ski touring can be practised anywhere there is sufficient snow, but the Alps are the main destination for most UK based ski-tourers, during the main season which runs from late December through to May or early June. The style of trips can vary from day tours (always returning to a valley base overnight e.g. a hotel) to hut-to-hut tours (where the nights are spent in mountain huts).
Ski touring can be hard work, with long uphill sections, and sometimes very difficult skiing on the descent if the snow isn’t as good as expected. However, the effort is well worthwhile to give access to the pleasures involved – the thrill of making first tracks on a long descent well away from the rest of civilization with remote and pristine mountain scenery all around.
How fit do I need to be?
You need to be reasonably fit to ski tour – a normal ski tour is somewhat more energetic than a hill walk, and it can require much more energy if conditions are bad. The fitter you are, the more you will enjoy it - it can be hard work skinning uphill for a few hours with a rucksack on your back, and if the snow isn’t quite as good as you would have hoped on the descent and your skiing skills aren’t up to it, it can be very tiring falling over. More information on fitness levels is here.
How good a skier do I need to be?
As with fitness, the better an off-piste skier you are, the more you will enjoy ski touring. As a minimum starting point you need to be able to ski well on pisted red runs and have some off-piste experience. A ski tour will often encounter many types of snow, depending on the weather history and as altitude and aspect changes – this means that the skier has to have the skills to be able to deal with everything from fluffy powder and spring snow through to crud and breakable crust.
People starting from a mountaineering background with little skiing experience are often frustrated at the length of time it takes to learn the necessary skills. However it is worth spending a few weeks on the piste, or attending off-piste training courses, as this will allow a ski tour to be enjoyed rather than just survived. More information on skiing levels is here.
Alpine .v. Freeheel
There are two major styles of skiing – Alpine and Freeheel (also known as Nordic or Telemark). The main difference is that with Alpine equipment, the heel of the boot can be locked down - so that it is rigid for the descent, whereas in Freeheel equipment, the heel is never locked down. This difference in equipment means that different techniques are required for turning whilst going downhill (using Telemark turns for Freeheel equipment). In the past Freeheel gear was significantly lighter than Alpine, but there is often little difference now. The choice is down to personal preference, but if you ski one style already, you will probably want to keep to that whilst touring. The Eagle Ski Club welcomes both styles of skiing (and snowboarders too).
What equipment will I need?
Ski touring requires a reasonable amount of specialised equipment, and the costs of acquiring it all in one go can be quite daunting, so the best approach is to hire equipment to start with, and once you are confident you want to do more ski touring, you can buy items incrementally.
The items which are essential for all tours are as follows: skis with touring bindings, ski touring boots, skins, harscheisen, avalanche transceiver, shovel, avalanche probe.
Ski touring boots have Vibram soles to make walking more secure, may have special fixings for some touring bindings, and are more comfortable for walking than standard downhill ski boots. If you already own downhill skis and boots, it is possible to get a “securafix” adaptor which allows the setup to be used for touring, and this can be an inexpensive option, but this is probably best only used occasionally.
Skins were originally made from seal skin, but are now made from nylon or mohair. They stick to the bottom of the ski, and allow the ski to glide uphill, but not slip back down. Modern skins normally need to be cut to fit the shape of the ski, so they are not easily interchangeable. Harscheisen (also known as couteaux or ski crampons) are used whilst skinning uphill in icy conditions, and stop the ski slipping.
An avalanche transceiver is a small radio device which allows a skier to be found underneath avalanche debris. This is essential safety equipment, along with a shovel (which must have a metal blade – plastic shovels are not very effective at cutting through avalanche debris) and an avalanche probe.
It will also be necessary to have suitable clothing, rucksack, ski goggles etc. In addition to this, for glacier travel you will need a harness, and for trips involving some climbing, crampons and ice axe.
How do I get started?
If you are starting from a skiing background and already have a reasonable level of off-piste skiing skills, then probably the best way to get started is attend an Introductory Ski Touring course. The Eagle Ski Club normally provides one such course each year as part of the Club Touring Programme, and similar courses are offered by many mountain guides and the national training centres (e.g. Plas y Brenin and Glenmore Lodge). Such a course will provide a good grounding in basic ski touring skills as well as other topics such as avalanche awareness and crevasse rescue.
If you are starting from a mountaineering background, it is probably worth considering whether it would be worthwhile to attend an off-piste training course first, to make sure that your skiing skills are sufficient to enjoy ski touring.
Having attended an introductory course, many people have the ambition to ski the Haute Route from Chamonix to Zermatt, which is perhaps the best known ski tour in the world. However, this is quite a challenging route, and it is probably best to do one or two ski tours in easier areas first to ensure that your skills are honed, and so that you will be able to enjoy the route when you do it.
What are the risks?
Ski touring takes place in a very challenging mountain environment and there are significant risks of injury or death from avalanches, crevasses, falls, benightment etc. However, by going on your first ski tours with a mountain guide, or with an experienced amateur, you will be able to learn more about these risks, and along with further training courses, get to the point where you feel confident to lead your own ski tour into the mountains.