Updated 25th September 2022 | Words and photos by Fiona Russell
Originally published: 29th January 2021
The appeal of downhill skiing is obvious, so why would anyone want to ski uphill? That’s what the resort lifts are for, isn’t it? Yet ski touring, which combines uphill and downhill skiing in one journey, is a fast-growing winter activity. The increase in popularity appears to be due to several reasons. Firstly, modern materials mean that skiing equipment is now lighter in weight, which makes uphill skiing more efficient. Secondly, many skiers also report that they crave greater freedom and adventure away from busy resorts and groomed slopes. In addition, the past two seasons, with COVID-19 restrictions limiting travel and resort openings, the trend for ski touring has been given an extra boost. It’s just as well the snowfall across many areas of the UK has been so good this year.
If you would like to give ski touring a go, here are 12 things to know before you try.
1. It’s like hiking, only on skis. If you think about what it would be like to walk or glide uphill, but with skis on your feet, then you have ski touring in a nutshell. This style of skiing uses specialist equipment to allow you to “ski” uphill. The boots are lighter, with a “walk mode” that allows ankles to flex. While the toe of the boot is fixed to the ski, the heel can move up and down to allow for the action of ski-walking. The skis are also lightweight and strips of fabric – called “skins” – are attached to the bottom. The friction of the fabric acts like a brake to stop the skis sliding backwards, yet it allows for gliding forwards. When you want to ski downhill, the skins are removed and stowed in your pack. The ski boot is adjusted to a stiffer ski mode and the heel is secured to the skis. Then you’re off…
2. It might be a fast growing 21st century trend, but people have been gliding on skis for centuries. Skis have long been a means of transport in places where snow is common and one of the earliest written mentions of ski touring dates to 1555, when Norwegians were described “attaching long skis to their feet and fawn skins to the bottom of the skis”. These early skins provided traction on uphill climbs. The hair of the skin was likened to “Hedg-Hog bristles” [sic].
3. Ski touring is also called backcountry skiing. This terminology is particularly common in the USA. It makes sense really, because this type of skiing allows you to get away from the busy ski lifts and resorts and access the quieter, less frequented areas of the mountains.
4. You really “earn your turns”. While traditional skiers will use uplifts, such as chairlifts, tows and gondolas, to climb the slopes and then ski downhill, ski tourers are required to reach loftier locations by ski-walking. This takes time, strength, energy and technique. But ski touring offers a great workout and the term “you earn your turns” refers to the fact that once you have skied uphill, you get to enjoy skiing neat turns downhill.
5. Ski touring technique is fairly easy to learn. Having said that, this winter sport is more suited to intermediate to expert skiers because of the demands of the off-piste terrain. You need good coordination, balance, flexibility and fitness to ski uphill, especially if you want to gain good height before the downhill ski. The aim is to glide forwards without lifting the skis off the ground. Skiing downhill through deep, fresh snow, or on unpredictable snow, as well as on a range of slope gradients, will test skiers’ skills. It’s very different from the groomed slopes of the pistes.
6. Safety is paramount. It’s advisable that you are able to navigate by map and compass and avoid avalanche-prone slopes. Go ski touring with more experienced friends or book a ski touring tuition course so you can learn how to be safe in the hills and mountains. The skills courses will teach you to better predict the weather forecast, the slopes that will be more avalanche prone and also check the stability of the snow as you ski. This type of skiing requires you to be self-sufficient and it’s vital you take responsibility for your own safety.
7. There is more to the kit list than skis and boots. The essential extra items include ski poles, an avalanche transceiver (in case the worst happens and you are buried in snow) and a snow shovel and probe (so that you can search for and dig out a friend if they are buried in snow), as well as a map, compass and mobile phone.
8. Clever layering is the key to ski touring comfort. The uphill part is hard work and sweaty, while the downhill part will feel much chillier. It’s a good idea to wear baselayers (top and bottom) and breathable waterproof shell pants and jacket. A lightweight insulated jacket and another windproof layer will be useful for extra warmth. Ski-specific socks, a hat and/or ski helmet, gloves (two pairs - one thinner and one thicker), neck-warmer, buff or balaclava for the face, ski goggles, sunglasses and a rucksack to carry your kit are recommended. Add water and snacks and you should be good to go.
10. Learn how to adjust your heel positions on the uphills. There are flat, middle and high positions, which make it easier to cope with different slope gradients – whilst also relieving the pressure on your calves.
11. You might well face a bit of “heather bashing” and “rock hopping”. This is all part of the British skiing experience. Ski touring in the UK is not always on deep snow cover. There is a greater chance of a thick blanket of the white stuff on higher mountains but the lower you ski, the greater the chance of a bit of vegetation or rocks sticking through.
12. Enjoy the freedom as well as the journey. On touring skis you can explore wherever your fancy – and the safe conditions – take you. One day you might go out for a couple of hours, while on another occasion it could be a full day’s adventure. It’s a far more liberating type of skiing and – be warned – it’s one that is easy to become addicted to.
Fiona Russell, better known as Fiona Outdoors, is a Scotland-based outdoors journalist and blogger.
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