Ski touring is known by several different names and comes in several different incarnations. Known variously as alpine touring, ski randonné, backcountry skiing, and even ski mountaineering, what drives this sport is a desire to get to powder that is off-piste, or outside of the usual groomed hills of ski resorts, and into the fresh virgin powder that less experienced, less adventurous skiers don’t know about.
Alpine touring comes in several different incarnations, which range from glorified cross-country skiing to high altitude combinations of ice mountaineering and alpine and cross-country skiing. Your skills and your equipment needs will depend on how far and how high you are planning on pushing yourself.
Ski Touring Basics
In its most basic form, ski touring combines the best of hiking, climbing and skiing in areas that are untouched and difficult to get to. Instead of using transportation such as lifts or helicopters, half of the sport is just getting to a peak using only your two legs and some specialized equipment.
Various forms of backcountry skiing have been popular in Europe as far back as the mid-1800s, and as a result, the infrastructure in places such as the European Alps is somewhat more established. This is to say that there are more options in Europe for multi-day trips (called peak-to-peak, as you are taking your time to move across several peaks), as manned lodges are in place for shelter, food and emergency supplies. This eliminates the need to carry heavy supplies such as food and shelter on your back, which can really inhibit your movement.
In Europe, the popular style of alpine touring is the ski randonné. This style is distinguished from the style more popular in North America called Telemark in its equipment and also the style of skiing. Randonné skiers use a type of binding on their ski that can convert from a cross-country-style toe binding (with the heel free) that allows for ease in gliding across plains, and also makes for less resistance when climbing hills, to an alpine-type binding in which the heel is clamped in for more support during the downhill ride. The boots used in randonné are a cross between a ski boot and hiking boot, again for versatility in movement and support.
Telemark is unique in that the shoe is softer and the binding is toe-only: those who prefer Telemark shun the heel binding in favour of a more difficult style of downhill skiing in which the heel is free of the binding. Telemark equipment is heavier than randonné equipment, but randonné equipment can be more expensive to get in North America, where Telemark is the more popular style of ski touring.
One reason that the weight of the Telemark ski equipment is less of a problem in North America is that the ski touring industry isn’t as established as in Europe, meaning that peak-to-peak, multi-day trips are difficult, with fewer manned lodges and therfore more of a need to carry food and shelter on one’s back. Day trips are more common, although peak-to-peak infrastructure is growing in popular backcountry ski areas.
The basic equipment you will require includes skis, boots, bindings, skins, and poles. When you are just starting out with ski touring, you can actually use a removable binding insert that can convert your alpine skis to allow for a free heel.
This set-up is not great if you really get involved in the sport, as the stiff alpine equipment makes uphills and long, flat traverses difficult. The wide, heavy skis make difficult some of the uphill maneuvers such as jump-turns, herringboning uphill, snowplowing, side-stepping and traversing. Likewise, using strictly cross-country equipment will not give you the control or weight you need in deep powder descents.
If you are a snowboarder, you will be happy to know that various snowboards designed for touring have been developed. Some snowboarders will remove the snowboard and replace them with snowshoes to manage the traversing and climbing, while others may prefer a splitboard, which can be split into two and used with skins for uphill travel.
Skins are an important piece of your equipment. For those who are familiar with cross-country ski equipment, you will note that cross-country skis have a fish-scale pattern in the bottom of the ski that provides resistance when you are pushing off your ski to give you velocity. Skins accomplish the same feat. Originally made out of seal skin, modern versions are made from nylon or mohair. One side of the skin has adhesive to stick it to the ski, and the other is covered in hair that grips the snow in one direction, but provides a smooth surface for gliding in the other. The skins enable traversing as well as traction when skiing uphill.
If you are planning on a major peak-to-peak on a serious mountain, brush up on your ice-climbing skills. Along with your ski equipment, you should have with you, at the very least, ropes, harnesses, ice axes and crampons. Crampons are useful, even when you are not planning on doing any mountaineering, but are stuck in a region where the snow is quite icy or the hills are rather steep. Crampons are metal teeth that clamp onto your ski (or your boot) and enable you to climb icy inclines when they are too steep for a skin.
Aside from proper equipment and a good dose of common sense, there are some other skills and safety equipment that you need to invest in, in order to make your trip safe and successful. At the very least, you need basic knowledge of weather patterns and avalanche safety before you head out off-piste. Basic emergency avalanche gear that you should carry with you includes: an avalanche beacon/transmitter, a snow shovel, a probe, a survival blanket and a first aid kit.
You should know how to use each of these, as well as first aid for obvious threats such as frostbite and fractures. When you head out, let your loved ones know the general area where you plan to travel as well as your planned return date. If you are trekking in a new area, if possible, take someone who knows the land or, even better, a guide for that region.
Trekking across virgin territory and skiing down fresh, deep powder is a feeling that cannot be expressed in mere words. Once you experience the awe and accomplishment of climbing a peak and skiing it for the first time, chances are you will be hooked on ski touring. Take the time to learn the safety measures necessary to have a long a fulfilling relationship with the great wintery outdoors.