by Rob Collister
Ski touring is a booming sport. More and more skiers want to leave crowded pistes, lift queues and the mogul-fields of so-called off-piste runs to venture deeper into the mountains in search of untracked snow. More and more mountaineers are attracted by journeying on ski through the icy grandeur of the winter alps. In short, there are more and more ski-mountaineers. But to enjoy touring one definitely needs to enjoy the up as well as the down, for on an average tour eighty per cent of the time will be spent going uphill. Undeniably, beginners are often more conscious of sweat and toil than of beauty in the landscape, more aware of aching muscles and sore feet than of mountain magic and, when the skis are at last pointed downhill, it becomes only too evident that rubber legs will no longer respond to the demands being made of them. This is a pity because in all probability it is equipment or technique as much as fitness that is the problem. Good uphill technique is a much-neglected aspect of ski touring, but to develop it you need the right gear as well.
The crux of the matter is skinning. Skins – once made of sealskin, nowadays of nylon (which lasts longer) or mohair (which glides better) or a mix of the two – stick to the base of the ski and have a pile that enables the ski to glide forward over the surface of the snow but prevents it from slipping backwards. It is important that the skin covers as much of the base of the ski as possible; at the very least, the central third of the ski should be covered to the edge. Some skins now come with a trimmer to cut them to size, whatever the shape of the ski. Don't be tempted to use old narrow skins (64 cms) with a modern broad ski; when the terrain becomes steeper, they simply don't work …
Combined with a binding which can be clamped down in descent but will release at the heel in ascent, skins make it possible to walk uphill on skis.
However, this is where technique comes in, for it is important to glide the ski forward rather than actually walk. It is surprising how many quite experienced tourers skin uphill badly, lifting the ski with every step and leaving a slightly herring-bone track instead of two neat parallel lines. The combined weight of boot, binding and ski on each foot can be as much as 5kg. After 1000 metres of ascent, the skier who lifts 5kg with every step is unlikely to be appreciating the view! Or, as Tilman put it long ago, a pound on your feet is the same as ten on your back.
Performed well, however, in a good track and at a sensible pace, skinning can be a rhythmic, almost effortless movement that leaves the mind free to wander, or even to quieten into a trance-like state in which time loses all significance.
To skin efficiently, one ski is slid forward in a long but not uncomfortable stride and the weight transferred to it. At this point in a normal walking pace the foot (and so a ski as well) would come off the ground. Instead, allow the boot to come up until it is almost vertical, but still pressing the ski lightly onto the snow, before sliding it forward and past the first ski. The weight should be kept directly over the centre of the ski, with a firm push downwards on steeper gradients to help the skin to grip. The tendency on steep slopes is to lean too far forward, causing the skin to lose traction and before you can say 'head plant' you are in the snow!
Modern touring bindings (Fritschi and Silvretta are the current market leaders) have an attachment for giving the heel of the boot a higher platform to rest on, which makes steep ascents easier. Taking shorter strides helps, too; as does placing the sticks behind you for support, with palms of the hands on top of the handles pushing down. But if the skinning still feels difficult or uncomfortably steep, simply put in a track at an easier angle or ask the trail-breaker to do so. Slipping and struggling up a track that is just a few degrees too steep, even if it is more direct, is counter-productive in the long run.
A good skinning track winds its way up the mountain as though it belongs there rather than being arbitrarily imposed on the landscape. It gains height gradually and uses natural hollows and flattenings to change direction in smooth, rounded curves. Sooner or later, however, the angle will steepen, the track must needs begin to zig-zag and the skier is faced with performing the most important manoeuvre in up-hill skiing – the kick-turn. Unfortunately, it is a skill that older people and those with stiff hips often have trouble mastering. Nevertheless, as with skinning, good technique, or even just a knowledge of what to aim for, can make life a lot easier.
Most skiers will have been taught to kick-turn facing down the hill, but uphill skiers need to do it uphill – not only is it easier, with a loose heel, but not having to contemplate the drop below makes it less scary as well!
I like to start with one pole down the slope for support, the other uphill for balance but well to one side out of the way. With both skis at right-angles to the fall-line, lift the uphill ski until it is vertical then turn both boot and ski to replace it on the snow so that the skis point in opposite directions. This is the most strenuous part of the exercise and where flexibility helps. It is best done as a single fluid movement. Drawing the uphill ski back first can help to give it some momentum in swinging forwards and upwards.
At this point, with the skis in opposite directions, the closer the boots are to each other and the nearer the two skis are to parallel, the easier the next stage will be. The wider the gap between the boots – and there will be a gap if the two skis are not parallel – the harder it is to crank the lower ski up and round to join its partner in a more natural position. The ideal is to pivot the lower boot around the upper, simultaneously giving the tip of the ski a little flick to bring it up clear of the snow. On steep slopes drop the lower boot slightly downhill before the flick-and-pivot movement. Avoid the temptation to swing the whole ski up-slope – on steep terrain this becomes highly precarious, and on easier slopes it is unnecessarily strenuous. It is very much a matter of 'feel'. Performed correctly, it requires little effort. Some master it in seconds and for them kick-turns hold no terrors. Others find it much harder but it is worth persevering for otherwise every uphill turn will be a stressful and energy-sapping event.
When skinning on a hard surface – wind crust or frozen snow, for example – edging should be avoided, for it quickly leads to strenuous side-stepping. Instead, roll ankles and knees slightly outwards, down the hill, so that the skin can be in contact with the snow, rather like cramponing. If the slope is too steep to do this, the answer lies with harscheisen. These devices fit between the boot and the plate of the binding and allow a row of metal teeth to protrude downwards on either side of the ski. When the foot and the plate of the binding are raised the ski can glide forward; when the foot is lowered the teeth bite into the snow like a crampon. (Some harscheisen are fixed to the ski rather than to the binding which makes for greater security but means that the whole ski has to be lifted with every stride.) Harscheisen are not worth wearing all the time or on easy-angled slopes as they reduce glide and restrict the stride; nor are they designed for use on water-ice or rock which can bend the soft metal of the teeth. But on steep slopes of hard snow, frequently encountered in Spring, they are worth their weight in gold for the confidence and security they provide. Like crampons, they are best fitted at the bottom of the slope rather than halfway up, where it is liable to become a stressful performance.
Looking after your skins is important if they are to function properly. After use, remove them from the skis and fold each end into the middle so that the skin sticks to itself. Hang them up to dry, folded, either inside or from the top of a vertical ski. Never leave them outside in the sun or in a warm room to dry on the base of the ski – the heat can cause the glue to transfer to the ski with disastrous results. It is impossible to remove it totally without a solvent.
However, most problems stem from the unpeeling of the skin from the ski. This happens most often when conditions are very wet or very cold. The warmer and drier both skins and skis can be kept, the better they will adhere to each other. It is essential to take trouble over cleaning and drying the base of the ski before applying the skin – admittedly not always easy, if it is snowing hard, for instance. But a skin working loose is at best irritating and at worst dangerous, as the whole party is held up while the problem is sorted out. The usual remedies are adhesive tape wrapped round skin and ski at the tail, quick-acting spray-on glue, or temporarily replacing the whole skin with a spare. Trouble with skins is much less likely to occur if they have an attachment at heel as well as tip. Although more expensive, this type of skin is well worth buying for the security and peace of mind it affords.
In cold conditions, if using skins more than once in the day, tuck them inside your jumper or jacket to keep them warm. It makes a surprising difference to the effectiveness of the glue.
More often than not, skins start to unpeel not because the glue is inadequate but because the base of the ski was not dry or because of clumsy skinning technique. However, after several weeks' use they will need to be re-glued. Suitable glue can be bought in most ski equipment shops. It should be applied as thinly as possible and then left to dry overnight in a warm room. After the skins have been re-glued a few times it becomes necessary to remove the old glue. One way of doing this is to buy a solvent; another way is to place newspaper over the sticky surface and warm it with an iron. The glue transfers to the paper which can then be peeled off.
Another common problem, especially in warm weather after fresh snow, is balling-up on the base of the skin. The ski can no longer glide and there is nothing, but nothing, more exhausting than heaving pounds of snow up the mountain with every step. The remedy is a spray-on solution or a rub-on wax produced by one of the skin manufacturers such as Coltex, Pomoca or Montana; candle wax will do, at a pinch. But for either spray or wax to be effective the skins need to be dried first; better to pre-empt the problem by treating skins the night before or at the start of a tour.
A combination of good technique and the right equipment, well maintained, takes much of the sting out of climbing on skis. Admittedly, there is still the rucsack on your back and the matter of altitude to contend with, but it is far easier to develop a rhythm on skis than it is walking uphill on foot. All in all, provided you are reasonably mountain fit, and you persuade someone else to break trail in that metre of new powder, there is no reason why long glacier ascents should not be a conscious pleasure, leaving you on col or summit in a fit state to enjoy the descent. Whether you do enjoy the skiing depends on a whole new set of considerations regarding technique and equipment. But that is another story.
© Text and photos Rob Collister