Ski touring is one of those sports I never thought I’d try. As a teenager, I remember looking from a chairlift at the crazy people walking up the hill with skis on. Why would they do that when they could get a lift up and enjoy the buzz of skiing? Even now, when I ski past someone walking up a piste, I giggle on the inside, picturing that scene from Planes, Trains and Automobiles where the people in one car are yelling to another car: “You’re going the wrong way”.
But then… I went the wrong way.
Yes, I tried ski touring. I followed my own advice about avoiding the half-term crowds, and I tried a new sport.
Ski touring equipment is different to downhill ski gear. Touring skis are lighter and softer to save energy during the walk up. The bindings allow your heel to move freely and to be raised while climbing up, then clipped in for the descent.
My normal ski boots fitted the skis and bindings I hired, but touring ski boots are lighter and softer, making them more comfortable for going uphill. I decided to hire the touring ski boots too, plus some adjustable poles, so I could use one long pole and one short pole when traversing a slope.
You can use stiffer, wider skis to enjoy any off-piste powder, but you will have extra weight on the way up. Every skier needs to find the balance between light, soft touring equipment and heavier, stronger off-piste gear. More on that later.
Finally, there are ‘skins’ for the ski bases, originally made out of sealskin. They allow skis to move up the hill without sliding back. Skins are now made of nylon or mohair, with a special weave to prevent backwards movement. They have a sticky side to attach to the skis. These are easy to apply as long as the sticky side doesn’t stick to itself (like tangling sticky tape, it takes some force to unstick).
My friends had told me about the importance of layering up. I wore four layers — a t-shirt, a long-sleeved thermal, a fleece and a thin shell layer for wind protection. I packed avalanche safety gear just in case, plus snacks, lunch, sunscreen and water.
Testing before touring
Some friends of mine who are experienced tourers were kind enough to take me on an easy route for my first time. We started on some downhill runs via chairlifts to get me comfortable with the sensation of bouncy skis and flexible boots. The boots felt more like hiking boots due to their softness, but after a few runs, I grew used to the sensation and adapted my skiing to suit.
For good measure, we finished our pre-tour on a black mogul run. Although this certainly raised my confidence, it was hard work in soft boots. I used up some of my energy before the tour started.
Starting the tour
We skied half way down the blue piste on the Beauregard peak of La Clusaz, where a small trail started. We attached the skins to our skis and loosened our boots. We packed away our top layer jackets, which were too warm for the ascent.
For the first five minutes, I found it difficult to slide my skis rather than lift them. Lifting is extra effort that isn’t required. This bad habit stopped when the gradient increased, and sliding soon kicked in. We also raised our heel steps to reduce the gradient for our feet and calves – kind of like wearing high heels. In the full sunshine, I took off my gloves and fleece too.
One of the most challenging aspects was turning corners, as ski tourers tend to zigzag up. I found it difficult to shake off the feeling of my skis sliding backwards. I used my poles and skis to prevent any backwards movement even though the skins were already doing that. With loose heal bindings, turning felt even more awkward!
Another challenge was keeping pace with experienced tourers. The muscles needed for sliding skis up a hill are different to alpine skiing, and I needed regular stops to catch my breath — a good opportunity to take in the views too. By the end of the hour-long tour, I had stripped off my third layer. My t-shirt was warm enough in the sun.
Ending the tour
Our reward at the top was a sunny lunch, with views of Mont Blanc in the distance and the peaks and pistes of La Clusaz in the foreground. After, we removed our ski skins and packed them away, locked our bindings into alpine mode, then tightened our boots and layered up for the descent.
We enjoyed untracked powder at the top, although fatter skis would have been even more fun. The powder turned heavy further down and I felt like a small kid, snowploughing with my arms stretched wide and poles hanging down. This is where the light touring ski setup was detrimental, and we all slowed down. Even so, the descent was over quickly, and we were back on the Beauregard piste within about five minutes.
Despite thinking “I’ll never do this again” on the way up, the views at the top and the fun on the way down have motivated me to go again. Have I motivated you too?
Tips for first time ski touring
- The first time you try ski touring, go with experienced tourers who you trust.
- Layer up and be prepared with food, drink, blister bandages and maybe avalanche gear (that you know how to use) if you’re going away from the pistes.
- Go early in the day so you can take your time and really enjoy the experience.