The Eagle Ski Club website and Yearbook say “For most tours you need to be reasonably fit and a good intermediate skier”. The Tour Gradings (E1 – E5) are meant to give some guide to the level of effort required, but these also take into account several other factors, so many people still seek further guidance as to the level of fitness required as well as ability in skinning and uphill kick-turns. It must be borne in mind that especially on lower grade tours it may be possible to travel on many days without the need to make use of excessive kick-turns; this is something that the leader of a specific tour could advise on.
The amount of effort required on any given day’s ski-touring depends on the altitude, steepness of the slope, length of the climb, quality of the snow, weight of your pack, your kick-turning and skiing ability, and even how well you slept last night. The tour leader can predict some of these factors, but others are down to you or to the conditions on the day. If you are not fit enough, you will not enjoy the tour and may even put your and other people’s lives at risk. Likewise, if you are not organised to begin the day promptly you may hold up others which can lead to frustration for everyone.
To give you some idea of what you might expect, on an E1 tour you will normally be based in the valley. This often means that you need to gain quite a lot of height to reach any peaks and thus you will need to be reasonably confident in uphill skills such as kick-turning on slopes of moderate steepness (less than 30°), but on the other hand packs will be light and you may be able to use some mechanical assistance – check the tour description carefully. It may also be possible for you to do a short day or to skip a day altogether if you need a rest. Most groups will climb for 3 - 4 hours at 250 – 300 metres an hour – the equivalent of a good brisk walk in the hills. Some E1 tours specifically cater for tourers who want a gentler pace, but others are training courses or short breaks where group members may be quite fit and keen – again, check with the tour leader what is expected.
E2 tours are the backbone of the Club’s activity: when staying in mountain huts, there are often many worthwhile peaks within 1000 – 1200 metres above the hut. Your pack is likely to weigh around 10 - 12 kg, although sometimes leaders arrange that you do the longer climbs on days when you are staying two nights in a hut, so that you can have a lighter pack on those days. When moving from hut to hut, again a climbing speed of 250 metres an hour is the benchmark, but remember that you now have a heavier pack, and it may be very important to reach your destination in the guide-book time for safety reasons. Your execution of any kick turns needs to be fluent and consistent, even on slopes of around 30°or you may risk slowing the party down. You need to be confident that you could walk in the hills all day for several days in a row with the equivalent of four or five 2-litre bottles of water in your pack.
E3 tours specifically ask for more fitness, in order to carry heavier loads or handle longer days – 12 hour days are not uncommon on these tours, even when things go to plan! Even if you play sport regularly, you will probably have to do some specific training to make sure you are ready at the start of the tour – you may consider going out a few days early to prepare yourself, particularly if you will be climbing peaks over 3500 m. It should be a given at this level that uphill skills such as kick-turning on steep slopes and difficult snow should be executed fluently and consistently.
The E4 designation is mostly a measure of commitment and independence – you will be fully self-sufficient, so your pack or pulk may be very heavy, particularly at the start of the tour. You need to discuss with the tour leader the range of conditions you might expect, and the expectations of the rest of the group; in most cases a high level of fitness and endurance is expected.
E5 expeditions will require not only a high level of core fitness but also specific leg and back strength training for the heavy loads involved.
If you have a desk job and don’t regularly do some sport, you will probably struggle even at E1, unless you do some training first. Not all sports have the same training value: aerobic sports such as hill-walking, distance running and cycling are better preparation for ski-touring than most ball games. If you are unfit, you can improve your aerobic fitness quite quickly by doing something that makes you both sweat and puff for at least half an hour three or four times a week. Strong upper legs help too: many regular sports players will benefit from walking uphill with a heavy pack for a few weekends before setting off.
It is a good idea to keep track of your fitness – you may be surprised how much fitness you have lost since last year (or even since before Christmas!), and day 2 of the tour is not the time to realise this. One well-known benchmark is the Harvard Step Test – see www.topendsports.com/testing/tests/step-harvard.htm for a simple explanation and formula or www.brianmac.demon.co.uk/havard.htm for more details. This test is not an absolute measure of fitness, but it is quite good for comparing yourself against others of your size and age, and very good for tracking your own fitness.
Whatever level of tour you intend to do, you will always enjoy it more if you are fitter. If you are the fittest in the group, you can take more photographs, enjoy the views and make the best of the downhill sections. If you are the least fit, you will always feel under pressure and may even endanger the rest of the group.