A Beginner’s Guide to Backcountry Ski Touring

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With more and more of us exploring the winter mountains on skis, Sophie Nicholson examines the appeal of backcountry skiing and advises on how you can do it too

“Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity”. This valuable insight from the legendary John Muir may have been written in 1901 but is arguably more applicable today than ever before. In an overcrowded and overcomplicated world where lives are dictated by the constant pinging of email and text message alerts, where we stress about being stressed yet spend all our downtime staring at a constant stream of selfies and surburban sunsets, there has never been a greater need to unplug, raise our heads, and reconnect with actual reality. Little wonder then that latest research suggests more and more of us are heading into the hills than ever before. The numbers of people participating in mountaineering, hillwalking and climbing are officially on the up, but the real and arguably most fascinating growth in mountain sports is taking place in the ski touring sector.

What was once a slightly obscure sport for a committed audience has been garnering mass appeal at a meteoric rate in recent years. In America alone, the number of backcountry travellers soared from 4.26 million in 2008/9 to an incredible 6.34 million by winter 13/14, and in the same season, sales of backcountry ski and snowshoe gear surpassed $44 million (SIA). Over the border in Canada, they have been witnessing a similar trend with the number of backcountry permits issued in Glacier National Park increasing by an astonishing 124% between 2009 and 2012. Karl Klassen of Avalanche Canada revealed that he “wouldn’t be at all surprised if some places were seeing 10 or more times the traffic than they’ve seen in the past.”

This backcountry skiing phenomenon has a borderless appeal that extends beyond the traditional alpine playgrounds of the Alps and the Rockies. The Ski Club of Great Britain claim that demand for their ski touring holidays has soared by 50% in the past two years and ski touring in the UK itself is also on the rise. The Scottish scene in particular is gathering both momentum and international recognition, and the proof again is in the numbers: The British Backcountry Facebook group has over 5,000 extremely active members and LATE – the highly acclaimed Scottish backcountry film by Puzzle Media has received over 24,000 hits on Vimeo in just six months.

This is all pretty amazing stuff when you consider that we’re talking about a sport that is brutally unpredictable and seriously hard work. On a good day, you might get to stand on a spectacular summit in bluebird conditions and ski the line of your life with your closest friends. On a not so good day, touring can involve hours of slow, sweaty, heart-pumping ascent in unrelenting wind and cold, only to be rewarded with a 15-minute, utterly unglamorous descent down through crud, crust and ice. Heading into the backcountry is always a gamble so why do people do it? Who and what is driving this backcountry beast and is it here to stay?

THE APPEAL – What kind of people  are ski touring?

Adventure-seeking skiers
The growth currently being witnessed in backcountry skiing can be largely attributed to evolution. A generation of downhill skiers have now grown up and outgrown the prescribed confines of the traditional ski resort. Having spent many years riding noisy ski lifts and pounding groomed pistes, this group are looking for a more authentic mountain adventure and ski touring is the next logical step. As Lou Dawson – the well-known ski mountaineer and founder of the excellent backcountry skiing blog WildSnow.com explained in a 2013 interview with The Denver Post, “Backcountry touring offers fun and adventure that you can’t necessarily get at a ski resort. You feel like you can get a little adrenaline pumping.”

From the Alps to Scandinavia, North America and beyond, downhill skiers from all over the world have been leaving the resorts in droves in recent years and the same situation is happening here in the UK. “The Scottish ski scene has changed massively over the last 10 years,” explains Andy Townsend, Head of Snowsports at Glenmore Lodge. “Previously you had skiers confined to the ski areas and mountaineers touring up the more remote mountains, but now the skiers are venturing out into the mountains in search of challenging ski lines and absolutely shredding the brilliant Scottish terrain. These new breed of Scottish freeriders are really keen to explore further and further into the wild Scottish mountains and are skiing some incredible lines in style.”

Fitness and nature lovers
As is the case with hiking and mountaineering, backcountry skiing offers peace and purity, fitness and freedom, and the many rewards that come from challenging ourselves and assuming a level of self-responsibility in the outdoors. The growth in the numbers of people taking to the mountains on ski can be viewed as an extension of several wider trends currently happening all over the globe. Keeping fit, adventure-seeking, and ‘getting closer to nature’ are all very relevant themes right now and have grown in popularity as a direct reaction to an increasingly sedentary and sterile existence. We all need escape from the monotony of our hustle and bustle and to punctuate our lives with stand-out adventures as often as we can, and a day out ski touring in the mountains provides exactly that. As a result, it makes perfect sense that we are seeing more and more people choosing to venture into the backcountry on ski to reset busy brains, recharge inner batteries and reconnect with a more simple existence.

The multi-faceted mountain athlete
For many mountaineers, hikers, climbers and runners, becoming familiar with ski touring is part of the multi-faceted mountain athlete trend. A long, tough day in the backcountry is not only an ideal way to maintain endurance during the winter months, it also provides the perfect classroom to hone and develop general mountain skills. No matter whether you’re an ice climber or alpinist, Munro bagger or fell runner, you will become a more skilled mountain athlete if you practise ski touring because it requires you to become proficient at a host of essential mountain skills including navigation, route planning, terrain selection, avalanche avoidance, rope work, glacier travel, emergency rescue, and much more.

Andy Townsend has observed a noticeable increase in demand for both the avalanche awareness and navigation courses run at Glenmore Lodge in recent years, with attendees coming from a range of outdoor backgrounds: “As well as training skiers, we are seeing a lot of mountaineers and hill walkers keen to try ski touring as it is still the best way to move around the British mountains in winter.”

Moving quickly and efficiently in the mountains is particularly important for those operating at the highest level such as professional climbers and mountaineers like Andy Kirkpatrick. Having never even put on a pair of skis before making a 600km crossing of Greenland in 2006, Andy is now a fully signed-up member of the ski touring club. Mastering the sport has opened up a whole range of remote and spectacular climbing objectives to Andy that previously would have been off limits: “I’ve used skis in Antarctica, Alaska and Norway and love the freedom and fun of the Nordic style. Skis allow us to cover thousands of miles of snow and ice quickly and efficiently and access areas which would otherwise be impossible to reach.”

The vertical racers
Ski mountaineering racing – aka skimo or rando racing – is the quad burning, lung busting race version of the sport that has also been witnessing a surge in popularity in recent years. This branch of ski touring is less about a wilderness experience, and more about moving as fast as you can uphill on the lightest equipment you can afford before ripping your skins and hammering it downhill on your skinny skis. Oh and it’s all done wearing lycra. Sounds like hell? Possibly… but it’s obviously a powerful and incredibly addictive kind of hell as the numbers of people entering races are on the up and up all over the world.

GB SkiMo Captain Ben Bardsley was part of the ground breaking British team who made the podium in the legendary Patrouille des Glaciers race in 2014. Ben explains the potent appeal of the sport: “The races are extremely exhilarating – beasting up a slope, heart rate at its max, only to then plunge down the side of the next hill as fast as possible, still in oxygen debt. Pretty addictive for sure. I come from a background of fell running and adventure racing thus, ‘Skimo” racing was a clear, natural progression. The races are extremely well organised, offer excellent value for money and keep you really fit. What’s not to like?”

For competitively motivated fitness junkies with performance on their minds, skimo is the winter sport of choice. As the Team North Face Ultrarunner Rob Krar explained in the recent “How Elite Athletes Do Winter” feature in Outside Magazine: “Ski mountaineering has become integral to my success and longevity in ultrarunning. Grinding up the mountain and floating back down is a welcome contrast, both physically and mentally, to pounding out countless miles during the running season. Skimo takes me out of my comfort zone and challenges me in different ways that end up benefiting my running. I enter the running season near the top of my fitness, rejuvenated, and motivated for the season ahead.”

HOW TO GET YOUR FIX

New to the sport
Get learning and start slowly! This brave new world of backcountry skiing comes with a whole new language and set of skills that you’re going to need to become familiar with before you can safely venture out into the mountains on ski. There’s a whole new language, set of techniques and a huge range of skill sets to learn, not to mention all the new touring-specific kit that you’re going to need to get to grips with so pacing yourself in the early stages is key. 

If you’re just starting out, the wisest thing you can do is to call in the professionals to help get you on your way. If you’re based in the UK, get yourself up to Scotland and sign up to any one of the ski touring skills courses on offer at Glenmore Lodge. The crew at the Lodge offer a range of avalanche, navigation, and intro to ski touring skills courses that will help you launch your backcountry career from a solid and informed basis.

Getting in the know with a pro right from the start really is key. The very worst thing you can do is to fast track yourself into a position that you’re not yet ready for so don’t go signing up to the likes of the infamous multi-day, hut-to-hut Haute Route ski tour until you’ve served a decent ski touring apprenticeship. The Alps-based International Mountain Guide (IFMGA), British Mountaineering Instructor (MIC) and founder of High Mountain Guides Rob Jarvis explains why this is a very bad idea: “It’s certainly a great ski journey but a bad beginners tour.  The first morning of the first day is full on with steep & exposed kick turns.”

If you want to get out on the hill as soon as possible then a far better use of your time in the early stages would be to get practicing your skills. Master your uphill skinning technique, nail your kick turns, get to grips with transitions and ski crampons, and familiarise yourself with your avalanche safety gear and rescue techniques within a safe environment.

Once you feel confident that you’ve grasped the basics, you’ll be ready to take things to the next level with an entry-level ski tour. If you’re heading out into the Cairngorms, then you might want to consider a tour of Lurchers Gully, one of Andy Townsend’s (Head of Snowsports at Glenmore Lodge) favourite tours in Scotland. “It is quick to access from the Coire Cas car park and usually you can link patches of snow all the way across to start of the gully, which climbs gently up to 1,000m. A quick detour to the summit and you’ve bagged your first munro on skis!” says Andy. “The descent is great fun – you can either make gentle turns down the centre or rip giant carves whilst you play on the side walls which steepen up to form a natural half pipe. It is guaranteed to leave skiers of all abilities grinning ear to ear and as its quite quick there is always time for a bonus loop, back up and down before contouring across the hill back to your car.”

The next steps
“What skills you need to develop to enjoy some great tours with safety and style depends on your background…” says Rob Jarvis. “If you have an off piste skiing background it may be that you will need to develop mountain skills like route planning, navigating and basic mountaineering skills. If you have a mountaineering background, you may need to develop your actual off-piste skiing skills as well as understanding how to use avalanche and weather forecasts to choose the best areas to go.” High Mountain Guides offer a range of Off-Piste & Ski Mountain Skills courses in Chamonix in conjunction with Off-Piste Performance run by Alison Culshaw. Alison is a BASI International Ski Teacher who delivers CPD courses to the British Mountain Guides and runs BASI Mountain Safety Courses training aspiring instructors.

In order to improve as a backcountry skier you’ll also need to keep working on your avalanche safety skills. Taking it to the next stage with an advanced avalanche course such as the AAA Level 2 course run by the Avalanche Geeks “should give you the confidence to make structured decisions about what and where to ski when the hazard forecast ramps up” says co-founding Geek Mike Austin. Getting to grips with the finer details of snow science and practicing advanced rescue techniques will all help the aspiring ski tourer amass the necessary experience required to start making the transition from follower to leader in the backcountry.

By now you may be hoping to head out to the Alps so you might want to consider basing yourself at a hut with lots of options for safe and mellow day tours. “A few examples depending on the time of year are the Bonatti Hut in the beautiful Italian Val Feret, the Loriaz Hut above Vallorcine in the Mont Blanc Range or even the remarkable Grand St. Bernard Monastery high on the Swiss / Italian alpine border” says Rob. “If you have a few options up your sleeve you can call the guardian closer to the time and check on conditions.  It can be fun and make the most of shorter weather windows to link days tours with short overnight hut trips rather than committing to a long hut to hut expedition! When you are feeling ready to take on a multi-day tour, heading to the Silvretta Alps in Austria would be a great place to start.”

Advanced wilderness exploration
The number of experienced backcountry skiers travelling to far off lands in pursuit of fresh lines, wild landscapes and bucket list-style adventures is definitely on the up. Inspired by the exploits of big mountain riders such as Jeremy Jones and the now sadly deceased Andreas Fransson, this new generation have spent years honing their skills on the well-trodden skin tracks of the world and are now looking
to replace busy mountain huts with tents pitched in isolation, surrounded only by steep lines and spectacular terrain. These exploratory skiers are a knowledgeable, self-reliant and exceptionally skilled bunch, more likely to be found laying down tracks in exotic locations like Kyrgyzstan and Iran than they are wrestling with the crowds on the Haute Route.

If you aspire to be this type of skier then one such destination that may appeal would be Greenland. “‘East Greenland is one of the wildest, least populated mountain areas on earth with thousands of kilometers of alpine peaks, fjords, huge glaciers and almost unlimited potential for new ski lines. There are few other places on earth like it” says IFMGA mountain guide Matt Spenceley, the founder of Greenland expedition specialists Pirhuk. “Any trip out from the village is serious – there are polar bears in the area, thin sea ice as well as all the challenges of really big alpine ranges and glacier systems. With the right skills though, the experience of exploring pristine wilderness to find great first descents around every corner is just magic.”

Easier to reach from Europe than many other iconic destinations such as South America and Antarctica, Matt has seen an increase in the number of adventurous backcountry skiers coming to Greenland in recent years: “this seems to be part of a greater trend for people to take backcountry ski skills developed in more conventional areas out to the big mountains and wild areas. As a way of exploring the world whilst finding quiet, beautiful places to ski, it takes some beating.” 

If this sounds like a dream trip and you’re comfortable covering 1,500m of ascent day after day, able to ski variable snow safely even in steep terrain, can nail your kick turns, and know how to use crampons and an ice axe efficiently then it could be time to start saving your pennies for the ultimate backcountry ski expedition.

GET GEARED UP
One of the biggest driving factors behind the rise in popularity of backcountry skiing in recent years is without a doubt down to the kit. Modern day touring gear is light, comfortable, durable, reliable and optimised to cope with the demands of both the ascent and descent. Moreover, it is now widely available meaning more and more skiers can easily get their gloves and mitts on the equipment that will allow them to leave the confines of resort and head off in search of peaks and powder.

“Radical developments in touring equipment means that customers now have a choice of super-lightweight kit for a whole range of backcountry downhill experiences, from fast and light (Randonee), to classic ski mountaineering, to mixed piste/tour and to freeride (lift-served touring)” says Rob Edmonds, Founder of Mountain Spirit – the UK’s number one ski touring specialists. “With more and more of the bigger brands – such as Salomon, Atomic and Dynastar – jumping on board, the development of touring equipment is only going to get better.”

The absolute requisite bits of kit that you’ll need to get started in the backcountry are your avalanche safety gear (avalanche beacon, shovel and probe), alpine touring bindings, touring boots with ski/walk mode, a set of skins for your skis and ski crampons for hard and icy skin tracks. It’s an expensive investment so make sure you do your research, consult the experts and if at all possible, try before you buy. Consulting the experts in the first instance will ensure you avoid making any painful, miserable and expensive purchasing mistakes. Most ski shops in Europe have ski touring kit for hire as do the likes of Mountain Spirit, Ellis Brigham and Cairngorm Mountain Sports in Aviemore.

As you become more experienced you are likely to be on the search for lighter gear that will allow you to move faster on the ascent but is still capable of delivering on the descent. Weight saving pin tech bindings and lightweight touring boots are likely to become your focus and there will be numerous factors to take into consideration including your own style of skiing, the kind of terrain you are most regularly travelling through, fit and of course budget.

At the advanced end of the spectrum, the need to move fast and light becomes even more crucial and this is when ski touring kit becomes uber feathery. For example, an entry-level ski touring boot designed for short day tours and designed to provide a lot of support on the descent may weigh about 2kg per boot whereas a super high end, carbon touring boot is about half that. 1kg may not sound a lot but believe me, you’ll notice it.

Saving weight underfoot is key but it only makes sense if what you’re carrying in your pack is also designed to allow you to move fast and light. From harnesses and helmets to carbon poles and probes, every conceivable piece of ski touring specific kit and apparel is now being designed to shave off the grams without sacrificing performance. The basic premise is this – less weight increases speed and with that your chances of getting higher and deeper into the backcountry. This is the ultimate ski touring goal. 

MORE INFO

Books/Videos/Websites

‘Ski Touring – A Practical Manual’, by Bruce Goodlad. The ultimate information resource for potential and established off piste skiers, ski tourers and ski mountaineers.

‘Backcountry Essentials With Joe Vallone’. In this EpicTV series, La Grave-based IFMGA/UIAGM mountain guide Joe Vallone shares his wealth of backcountry knowledge to help viewers develop essential ski mountaineering techniques including rigging for a abseil, side-stepping on steep slopes, and making the transition from skinning to bootpacking. (www.epictv.com)

The British Backcountry Facebook Group. Created by Blair Aitken in 2012, the British Backcountry Facebook group is an invaluable resource for all things backcountry skiing in the UK. The photographs and backcountry antics of the likes of Hamish Frost, Brodie Hood and Peter MacKenzie offer inspiration in droves.

Courses

Avalanche Course – If you only sign up for one ski course in your backcountry career, make it an avalanche course. The Avalanche Geeks run a range of American Avalanche Association accredited courses throughout the winter in the UK and Europe. 

Ropework for Tourers & Freeriders – Glenmore Lodge run a host of ski touring specific courses in Scotland to cater for all abilities and experience levels. Their 1-day ‘Ropework for Tourers & Freeriders’ course is ideal for experienced ski tourers looking to access and manage steeper terrain. (www.glenmorelodge.org.uk)

Chamonix Off Piste Ski & Mountain Skills – A joint venture between High Mountain Guides and Off Piste Performance this 5-day course focuses on both the mountain practicalities of backcountry travel and off piste skiing techniques.

Outdoor First Aid – React First’s 2-day ITC Certificate in Outdoor First Aid is designed to meet the needs of those travelling in remote and potentially hostile wilderness regions. The course covers a host of best practices to deal with outdoor specific emergency situations including hypothermia, injury, and acute mountain sickness. (www.reactfirst.co.uk)

Cassic ski touring itineraries

The Four 4,000ers – A classic and very long Scottish ski tour that takes in the four highest mountains in the Cairngorms – Cairngorm itself, Ben Macdui, Cairn Toul and Braeriach – in one day. A serious tour that should
only be attempted in good weather and by fit and experienced ski mountaineers used to navigating in featureless terrain in bad visibility.
Distance: 32km. Elevation gain: 2,100m. Time: 12–15 hours

European Alps – The Alps, Dolomites, Pyrenees and Apennine Alps are home to some of the best ski touring on the planet. Fantastic mountain scenery, varied terrain and the networks of manned huts provide extensive potential for backcountry adventures. Classic touring destinations include the Gran Paradiso National Park in Italy, the Silvretta range in Austria, the Bernese Oberland region of Switzerland, and of course the most famous ski tour in the Alps – the Haute Route from Chamonix to Zermatt. Most of these hut-to-hut multi-day tours take around 6 days to complete. The Haute Route is a 120km journey with 6,000m of ascent and descent.

Further afield –While North America does not have the same tradition of hut-to-hut ski touring as Europe, there are still world class multi-day backcountry adventure to be had across the pond. Two of the most well known itineraries are the 6-day, 29 mile Wapta Traverse in the Canadian Rockies and the 10th Mountain Division Hut system in Colorado between Aspen and Vail.

 

Exploratory ski touring

From Antarctica to Argentina, Bosnia to Bulgaria, Iceland to Iran, Montenegro to Morocco…the potential for incredible backcountry skiing around the world is endless if adventure is your thing. There are many guiding companies out there offering life punctuating, off-the-beaten track ski adventures and the following recommended outfitters/trips are a great place to start:

    Ski the wild, remote mountains of East Greenland with Pirhuk

www.expeditiongreenland.com

Ski the Japanese Backcountry, Arctic Norway or Russia with the Mountain Adventure Company

mountainadventurecompany.com

Ski Greece, Iceland or Kashmir with John Falkiner

www.johnfalkiner.com

 

GUIDES/GUIDING COMPANIES

There are numerous mountain guides who will guide you on ski tours, whether as part of a guiding company, or as an individual. Check out the British Mountain Guides website (www.bmg.org) to see which guides specialise in ski touring. Alternatively there are plenty of companies who offer this service including Jagged Globe (www.jagged-globe.co.uk), Icicle Mountaineering (www.icicle-mountaineering.ltd.uk), High Mountain Guides (www.highmountainguides.com) and the Mountaim Adventure Company (www.mountain adventurecompany.com).

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