An Introduction to Ski Touring

What makes an experienced snowboarder break out the skis? The vision of tranquillity, stunning views, fresh tracks and of course new adventures. Only last week Aidan, one of Action Outdoors seasonnaires, was given the opportunity to realise a dream and join his first ski tour. He ditched his board and rented full touring set up for the day trip. As an inexperienced skier with no touring experience Aidan had previously, like others, believed touring was out of his reach, until now.

I’ve been a snowboarder for 18 years. I’ve had some of the best moments of my life with two feet strapped firmly to the same plank, sliding, sideways down the slopes. I’m not the best rider on the slopes but I can manage to get down most things without falling on my arse too often.

But we’re in Chamonix. The home of European mountaineering where it’s all about skiing especially if you want to earn your turns by climbing up the mountains as well as sliding down them. When I came to Chamonix for the season I decided to learn how to ski. Inspired by the ski touring scene and the chance to escape the crowds and explore the vast terrain.  I haven’t abandoned my board but my aim was to get good enough to be able to join the others hiking into the wilderness on a pair of touring skis.

When I got the invitation to join my first ski tour I jumped at the chance. It’s easy to rent some kit and practice skinning up the side of a piste, but the real draw of touring is venturing away from the crowds where you can enjoy breath-taking views and hopefully some excellent descents. Unless very experienced yourself, you need a guide which can be very expensive. On the morning of the trip I rented all the touring gear and packed my avalanche kit ready to go.

We met at 8:30 for first lift up Flegere, one of the 5 Chamonix ski areas. A quick run up two lifts, a transceiver check and we were at the top of one of the pistes that I’d skied down many times. This time, though, we weren't heading down the piste, we were heading up over the col. I attached the skins to the bottom of my skis and got a quick lesson in kick turns, vital for negotiating the switch backs on the way up the climb.

We set off up the climb, following a line of other tourers making their way up too. After a short while the climb got a bit steep for us first timers and as the more experienced members of the group headed up further, we removed our skis and boot packed to the top of the col. I’ll tell you walking up a steep climb is hard work but the views at the top were worth it!

Breathing hard we removed the skins, strapped on our skis and followed the group on a long traverse across the edge of the bowl.

The slope below was full of avalanche debris. It was a sobering reminder of the need to constantly be aware of your surroundings in the mountains and the importance of taking a qualified mountain guide if you don’t have the knowledge to negotiate the dangers yourself.  We made sure to stay a good 25 metres apart, ensuring that if the worst were to happen and one of us were avalanched the others would be ready to come to our rescue and not caught in the avalanche themselves.

After the traverse we had one more climb to make before we started heading downhill for the full descent. As we climbed up towards the next col the view behind us became more and more dramatic and I was stopping on the way up for the views as well as to catch my breath.

At the top of the second col we pulled out our sandwiches, ate a very welcome lunch and contemplated the very nice looking snow below us. While all the snow had been tracked everywhere by the lifts this snow, accessible only by your own effort, was far less touched.

Unfortunately I've spent too many powder days on my snowboard, reluctant to take out my skis and spend the day falling over when I could be floating through the soft stuff confidently and this came apparent as I started to make my first turns and promptly face planted my way down the slope! The slope evened and I started to get the hang of the soft stuff, building confidence with every turn. Then we went into the trees and onto what is best described as a roller coaster track. A fairly narrow path which wound through trees, over streams and between rocks. This was real touring terrain.

We ducked tree branches, narrowly avoided streams, side stepped up small climbs and generally made our way down as best we could. It was real adventure skiing, in stunning surroundings. By this point I was getting tired and it was beginning to feel like my skis had gained a mind of their own.  Luckily this route had been selected for our first tour as it was very safe, perfect for inexperienced off piste skiers like ourselves to practice. Before I knew it, we were emerging from the woods at the bottom of a piste, conveniently located for an après tour beer, a much deserved sit down and just across the road from the train that was going to take us home with a sense of accomplishment and exhaustion. I can’t wait for the next tour.

Ski touring is gaining popularity at an incredible rate, especially in resorts like Chamonix where sometimes it feels like the fresh snow gets tracked as soon as it falls.  Everyone has their own reasons for donning skins whether it is the search for fresh tracks, to escape the crowds, accessing the vast and breath-taking views or as a means of building fitness and strength. Aidan proved that you don’t have to be an expert skier to enjoy ski touring. Like pistes there are ski tours for all levels, short and gnarly for the unfit powder junkie or longer gentle hikes for the less experienced skier searching for views, tranquillity or a good workout.

Of course the main challenge of ski touring is knowing where to go and how to stay safe. This is where a guide’s local knowledge and mountaineering skills are vital. They will gauge the fitness, ability and motivation of the group to select the most rewarding routes. The guide considers the weather forecasts, the snowpack and terrain to find best conditions and safest routes. Mountain guides are expensive therefore a week touring with a guide usually comes with a hefty price tag. This is what make UCPA absolutely unbeatable when it comes to ski touring courses. They offer a range of courses for all levels of skiers and tourers. You will have a fully qualified guide for the full week leading you safely on backcountry adventures. As well as guidance they will provide tips, instruction and mountain safety training so you can become a stronger skier, ski tourer and more autonomous in the mountains. 

Read more about ski touring courses offered by UCPA here.

21 March: Ski Tour Introduction £675
21 March: Mont Blanc Ski Tours £701
28 March: Off Piste Ski Tour Chamonix £760
28 March: Ski Tour Haut Route £901
4 April: Freeride Rando Shortbreak £478
11 April: Into to Ski Tour Shortbreak £418

Flaine UCPA Skiing
Skiers skiing deep powder in the trees

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