The Eagle Ski Club website says “a competent skier can make a series of beautiful turns on the descent”. How can you turn this from blind hope to reasonable confidence? And what level of skiing skill do you need for each category of Eagle tour?
There is no substitute for ski instruction - you have to learn the basics of balance, weighting, edging and speed control. Most skiers learn on-piste, and with modern equipment and instruction you can reach a reasonable level of fluency on the piste in a few weeks. But what happens when there is no longer an army of machines and people preparing the perfect surface for you to ski on? The gap between on-piste and off-piste competence is probably wider than many believe, while the size of pack needed for hut-to-hut touring can destabilise you as well as considerably increasing the effort required.
A committed ski-tourer will usually prefer to ski off the piste, even when conditions are less than ideal: it is important to practise in all depths of snow, in cut-up "crud", breakable crust and hard, icy conditions, so that you know how to handle these conditions when you have no alternative. Coping with all these conditions requires a wide range of turning techniques, from snowploughs and stem turns to perfectly smooth parallels or telemarks (which allow you to stay on the surface when others are breaking through) and jump-turns.
Most S1 tours are training weeks and are expressly intended to take skiers from good intermediate piste skiing technique to being able to cope with a reasonable range of off-piste. For Nordic touring, gradients at S1 and S2 may be reduced slightly; Nordic skiers wanting to attend Alpine or mixed tours should consult the leader.
S2 and S3 tours form the bulk of the Club’s activities. At S2 you must be able to ski off-piste with a pack and decide what types of turn to use in all conditions. These tours probably do not include open crevassed glaciers or very steep slopes; it is acceptable to use kick-turns in really difficult conditions but you must be able to ski the breakable crust so often found in spring. You must be able to keep going, even in heavy snow or icy conditions, and so you must have a wide enough range of technique not to tire yourself out in the first few hundred metres. You should be able to link smooth turns in fresh, deep snow and to cope with moderately steep sections (up to 30°).
At S3 you are expected to ski more accurately and to link turns down the fall-line in reasonable conditions. When skiing down a crevassed glacier it may be necessary to follow an exact line, even if you are at the back of a group of skiers where the track is becoming ever-faster. Some slopes may be over 30° and not have a lot of width available, so everyone must keep to their allotted line. The ability to jump-turn is essential. Some S2 tours may, according to the snow conditions, include short sections requiring S3 skills, and these are usually marked S2-3 or S2+.
S4 skiers combine S3 skills with the balance and confidence to remain in the fall-line in most conditions; they will enjoy jump-turning down 40° couloirs or short swings in confined spaces.
S5 skiers seek out the very steep sections and attack them with relish; they are an elite few in the Eagle Ski Club, and indeed in ski-touring generally.
Among the other skills needed by ski-tourers is the ability to control your speed on a single-line traverse, or on a narrow, perhaps icy track. Versatility is the key; ski-tourers do not need to ski very fast, and there are no crowds of suntanned beauties on the chairlift to admire your perfect technique. But being able to cope with any kind of snow is important, and you must sometimes ski or sideslip down very hard or icy slopes, where walking down is not usually an option.