Published the 18 December 2015
Today, I’m starting a new series of articles dedicated to the practice of ski touring. Are you ready for an adventure? Let’s get going!
As the subject itself is as vast as the natural areas it lets you explore, I’ve decided to start with just the basics: equipment, safety, choosing an itinerary and practical tips for climbing.
To enjoy a smooth introduction to ski touring, you need specialist equipment.
Over the last few years, manufacturers have made major advances in making equipment lighter and easier to use. Weight is a very important factor in ski touring. Lightweight equipment means you arrive at the summits at your best so can really make the most of the descent.
Basic equipment includes the following:
Boots: Lighter than Alpine skiing boots, they have an all-important “walk” mode that releases the ankle and makes it easier to move. They are also equipped with inserts at the front of the soles that free up the heels when climbing. Finally, the soles are also often made from a special non-slip material that makes it easier to walk on rocks.
Skis: These are specially constructed to weigh less than usual and come fitted with the notches and holes you need to be able to easily attach skins.
Bindings: These are very specific to ski touring as they allow the heel to move freely when climbing. They are also much lighter than Alpine ski bindings. Ski touring bindings usually come with a riser wedge which eases the pressure on your hamstrings when climbing up a sustained incline.
Certain bindings do not have stop-skis, so you need to add a little wire that attaches to your boot to ensure that your skis don’t slide off down the slope on their own when you take your boots off.
Skins, an essential element, which stop you from sliding backwards every time you take a step when climbing! There are several different types of skins, with or without grip, synthetic or natural fabric…we’ll return this point in more detail in a future article.
Telescopic poles, which have many advantages. They can be made long enough to really push off when climbing, made slightly shorter to adapt to the gradient of the slope on an incline, and finally, returned to normal length so they don’t get in the way on your descent.
Crampons: these are pieces of metal that you attach to your bindings and plant in the snow to stop you from sliding on ice when skins alone won’t cut it. Although they’re optional for beginners in the discipline, they’re useful to pack in your bag.
All of this equipment can be hired directly from the resort. Consider that before spending money on purchasing it!
Finally, another element that you shouldn’t neglect: your clothing.
In addition to the aesthetic side of things, your clothing should allow you to move freely, be made of breathable fabric and protect you from the cold and bad weather. That’s why I recommend that you opt for multiple layers:
- breathable under-layer: t-shirt, leggings and headband/hat close to your body to keep you warm and let sweat escape. I prefer Merino woollen garments which don’t trap unpleasant odours and keep you warm even when wet.
- a fleece jacket: an intermediate layer to keep you warm. Certain types also have some windproof qualities, a benefit well worth considering.
- a small down jacket: ideal for cold days, this won’t take up room in your bag when tightly packed. A further preference is for real down, which keeps you warmer than the synthetic alternative.
- a waterproof windcheater: essential to protect you from wind and rain. Choose a breathable model, fitted with vents and boasting good waterproof properties (<20 000mm)
Certain layers will stay in your bag on the climb up but you’ll be glad of having them during the descent when you’ll start to cool down again. You could also take a pair of thin gloves for the climb and normal ski gloves for the descent.
Finally, as you are learning an outdoor activity, it is important to stay hydrated and well-fed. Think about packing your bag with a flask of water or tea, cereal bars and dried fruit, for example.
The attraction of ski touring lies mainly in discovering unspoilt natural areas. But before embarking on your mountain adventure, you need to check the weather and avalanche risk forecast. You should especially check the BRA (Bulletin estimating the Risk of Avalanche).
You also need to equip yourself with the following three items: DVA avalanche beacon, shovel and probe. A DVA beacon allows you or a victim to be found in the event of an avalanche. It should be kept close to the body and requires up-to-date training in its use. The shovel and probe are required for pulling avalanche victims out of the snow.
Finally, make sure you tell your group where you’re going and give them an estimated time you’ll return.
Choosing an itinerary
Now you’re fully equipped, we’re going to choose where to go!
Ski touring is a sports activity that requires a minimum level of fitness. That means it’s a good idea to adapt your session to suit your fitness level, skiing ability and snow conditions.
To begin with, select an itinerary with a small altitude drop which is not too exposed should a fall occur.
A number of websites offer topographical massif maps detailing all the useful information you need:
- altitude drop
- snow conditions if another ski tourer has recently carried out the itinerary
For further information: skitour.fr / camptocamp.org
However, I strongly recommend that you go on your first sessions with a mountain professional.
We love having a great time together in Val Thorens, so don’t hesitate to sign up for a Dynafit Snow Leopard Track session, we’d be delighted to introduce you to it.
In ski touring, before you can descend, you obviously need to climb. To help you conserve your strength, here are a few words of advice:
- When you take a step, do it by pushing your toes forward to slide your ski along the snow and not by trying to lift your ski.
- Try not to make your movements too big, but take your time and keep to a regular rhythm.
- Plant your poles level with your feet. That will allow you to push off more easily. If you’re climbing through powder snow, think about using wider diameter baskets for a better push-off.
- When the incline gets steeper, use the risers on your bindings to help your posture and reduce the strain on your hamstrings.
- When the slope becomes too steep, don’t climb straight up the incline but traverse it. Use uphill kick turns to turn yourself around.
Explanation: An uphill kick turn is a half-turn made on the spot.
Once you’re steady, point your chest in the direction of travel and keep your legs flexible. Plant your poles on either side of your body, make sure you have solid footing on both the downhill and uphill skis. Then lift the uphill leg further than you would for a normal stride and rotate it to form a right angle between your two skis. Then do the same with the downhill ski to place your skis parallel. As it’s easier said than done, it’s useful to practise this on gentler slopes beforehand.
- Once at the top, it’s time to take your skins off and pack them in your bag. Make use of this time to put on another layer of clothing so that you don’t get cold. You’ll also appreciate a hot drink or cereal bar, so remember that when packing your bag.
- Before launching yourself onto your downhill run, think about putting your boots back into “ski” mode, if not, prepare for a shock! As for the rest of it, it’s just like Alpine skiing so just have fun.