For those that aren’t familiar, ski touring (also known as back country skiing in the US) generally takes place off-piste and away from ski resorts. It’s a way to explore the mountains and snow-laden winter paths, with less emphasis on the downhill itself and more emphasis on the surroundings. For many it’s a chance to escape the usual ski crowds in search of powder, although this year it’s also a means for people to get out and actually ski. You may remember that the initial spread of Covid in Europe was heavily linked to ski resorts, particularly this one in Austria, and therefore countries have been hesitant to open the lifts and resorts back up to tourism this year. That coupled with various lockdowns across Europe and the UK has meant that many haven’t been able to enjoy their favourite winter sport. Those who are lucky enough to live in mountainous regions have been able to access the snow and don their skis in the only feasible way without lifts- ski touring and ski mountaineering.
This has meant that after a very snowy winter, where snow even settled in the lower level ski fields that haven’t had snow for a few years, many people who wouldn’t ordinarily hike up the mountains to get a chance to ski back down, have been giving it a whirl. In fact sales in SkiMo gear hire have increased in many places, enabling those outdoors stores that have seen a decrease in winter related sales, a chance to appeal to a different demographic. The same goes for snow shoes and winter trekking gear, which have been in high demand.
So Why Try Ski Touring Now?
- Closure of Ski Lifts: starting with the obvious, just because some ski lifts are closed, it absolutely doesn’t mean that we can’t ski. This is where ski touring comes in, you can hire your skis and skins, or snow shoes, without the need for any ski pass. You can discover the trails around or book a guide to take you on something a little more adventurous.
- Social Distancing: since the lifts are closed, you can easily stay away from the crowds, plus given that extra effort is needed to ski up the mountains, you won’t find yourself surrounded by the usual crowds.
- A Sustainable Option: you’ll be making much less impact on the mountain environment, by taking yourself up and around with just your skis you’ll only being using your own energy, so fuel up!
- Connecting to Nature: since we’re creating less impact, we’re more readily able to enjoy our surroundings without invading them.
- Support Local Guides and Businesses: It’s been a tough year for the Winter Sport’s industry and we’re big lovers of supporting locals and their businesses. By hiring a guide and some gear you’ll certainly be supporting them while allowing for the best and safest experience.
A great way to start Ski Touring is to hire a local guide to take you around the local paths, get you familiar with the different ski bindings, skins and teach you how best to work the skis on the uphill and tackle the powder, or un-bashed slopes, on the downhill. Not only that but a guide will be best equipped with knowledge regarding mountain safety and avalanche risk.
If you decide to start yourself, it’s advisable to first do a basic intro course into avalanche and mountain safety, check local avalanche reports and make sure that you’re equipped with the right gear. To go uphill you will need to buy or hire skis, tour bindings and skins, which are placed on the bottom of you skis, meaning that you won’t slip backwards as you work your way up. If you’re a snow boarder you can go up with snowshoes and the board on your back, which requires a backpack with suitable straps. You can call up the local ski hire to find out if they can rent out the gear to you and it’s a good idea to book it in advance. If you’re going with a guide, they will likely be able to provide you with the local ski hire information.
Since getting uphill requires a fair amount of effort, it’s a good idea to have a decent level of fitness before trying. Nonetheless starting off slowly is key and will allow you to build up to the harder routes. It’s also fair to say that you should be a competent skier, able to tackle red slopes, and previous experience of different types of snow will be advantageous. For those that aren’t quite at this level, there’s always the option to snow shoe, which is less demanding but you’re still able to enjoy the surroundings, without such an effort and a little slower on the way down. It’s a great way to keep fit throughout the winter months and get you ready for spring runs and summer activities.
I tried ski touring myself for the first time a couple of weeks ago at a ski resort that’s currently closed down, so it was a good way to familiarise myself with the skis and techniques in an adapted ski area. It took me a little while to get to grips with the technique of sliding the skis uphill, as well as turning with the skis uphill. It was also more tiring than I had expected, although waking up at 5.30am to get there early might have had something to do with it! I was able to hire all the equipment onsite as during the pandemic the town I went to was catering for ski touring and ski mountaineering, so I had the opportunity to ask plenty of questions about how to use the skis and change the bindings to go up and downhill.
There were a lot of people doing the same route and I wasn’t the only one going for the first time. I was quite nervous to ski on the untended piste as I haven’t done much off-piste skiing, but after a couple of turns I felt a bit more comfortable and I was easily able to follow the piste down. After a good 3 hours of uphill effort, it only took around 20 minutes or so to get back down. It’s definitely opened my eyes to the different ways we can enjoy the mountains and winter sports and it has given me a lot of respect for the people that do it regularly. It’s also made me think more about our impact on the mountains and how we spend our winter holidays. This year has been devastating for the industry and I wonder if it will reframe the way that we spend our winter holidays. What the implications might be on the future of the industry. Whether we will have to go a bit back to basics in our enjoyment of the mountains in the next few years. Perhaps it’s given us a chance to really appreciate the mountains for what they are.
I’d certainly like to try again, I’m imagining how incredible it must be to go with a guide exploring the dolomites on a multi-day tour.
Lastly, for the non-skiers among us, it’s an opportunity to all set off on foot with snowshoes alongside our friends that ski and discover the surroundings together (socially distanced, of course), while skiers may be a little quicker on any downhills, the emphasis is placed on the surroundings, rather than the activity itself. I even saw people taking their dogs out with them!
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