Head up the mountain under your own steam: ski touring, a new trend in sport. The GORE-TEX brand provides tips on how to choose gear and what you should know about avalanches
Escape the crowds. Enjoy a ski experience away from the lifts and mayhem of the ski resorts. Get to where no one else has been. Enjoy breathtaking winter views at the top of a mountain and then float effortlessly through unspoiled powder back down to the valley. That’s one aspect of ski touring. The other is that it is hard work in a cold mountain environment where there are significant risks of avalanches. If you are thinking of taking up ski touring, here are some tips and suggestions on how to choose your gear and garments and what you should know about avalanche safety.
In recent years ski touring has gained immensely in popularity. Alpine clubs estimate that in the Alpine region alone over one million people are using skis to go uphill. There are many different reasons for this phenomenon. In addition to the euphoric feeling of floating through powder as you make your way back down to the valley, it is certainly the enjoyment of physical activity and the satisfaction of being outdoors and doing something with friends. For some it is also the burning ambition to get up higher, faster and further than anyone else on skis, while for others it’s just as much about looking forward to a hot shower and a well-deserved drink afterwards. In recent years ski mountaineering and touring have firmly established themselves as popular winter sports in which health, enjoyment, performance, competition und adventure all play a significant role. If you’re thinking of getting started, good preparation is crucial. You’ll need to make decisions about equipment, a suitable ski school, which avalanche transceiver to buy, or whether you need a new functional garment – possibly a highly breathable GORE-TEX® Active product. You’ll also have to plan your tour carefully, pay attention to weather forecasts and heed avalanche warnings.
Anyone can experience the thrill of ski touring – as long as you have familiarized yourself with the ins and outs of the sport and informed yourself about the risks. Preparations for a winter alpine tour are more complicated than in the summer. It is essential that you are well prepared and well informed about the dangers you are likely to encounter in challenging mountain environments. Apart from needing to be sufficiently fit and able to judge exactly how much hard work you are capable of when conditions get tough, i.e. if the weather is colder or windier than you were expecting, you will also need to know about weather variables, avalanche safety and snow conditions and have the appropriate orienteering skills.
Information about snowpack stability and avalanche danger levels is provided by the Avalanche Warning Service EAWS (European Avalanche Warning Services) http://www.avalanches.org/eaws/en/main.php. Weather forecasts for the Alpine regions are available at sites such as www.zamg.de.
Ski touring requires a considerable amount of specialised equipment. Even experienced skiers will need to invest in new gear when they leave the confines of the pistes and enter backcountry terrain. Piste skiing and ski touring place very different demands on bindings, boots and clothing. And then there’s the avalanche survival gear. Essential items are an avalanche transceiver (specialized for the purpose of finding people buried under snow), an avalanche probe and a shovel so that in an emergency a buried victim can be dug out as quickly as possible. Special inflatable airbags can also help save lives. They are expensive, but if you get caught in an avalanche they can help keep your head above the snow. This is one of the occasions when you shouldn’t look at the price: the newer device, the better it will be. New airbags are more precise and easier to handle. More information about avalanche airbags and other avalanche survival gear can be obtained from specialist sports shops and ski touring and mountaineering schools.
Tip 3: Software – dressing in layers
Even your clothing has to perform when you are on a ski tour. It needs to keep you comfortable and help maintain your body temperature. Which is easier said than done! Down in the valley it is often relatively warm. Further up the mountain it can be freezing cold, it could even be blowing a gale or snowing. As you makeyour way up the mountain your body will produce a lot of sweat and excess heat. When you stop for a rest at the top and then ski back down to the valley you’ll cool down quickly. In cold and windy conditions you need to be well protected. The best way to be well protected is to dress in layers: next to your skin a close fitting functional base layer garment made of a quick-dry material (synthetic fibres or merino wool), an insulating layer over the base layer, for instance a fleece, and a wind and waterproof jacket and/or pair of trousers as the third and outermost layer. GORE-TEX® Active products have been specifically engineered with ambitious ski tourers in mind: garments equipped with GORE-TEX® Active product technology, i.e. garments from Maloja (maloja.de), Dynafit (dynafit.de) or La Sportiva (lasportiva.com), have been built for extreme breathability and are ideal for highly aerobic activities such as speed ski mountaineering ascents and other physically strenuous, fast-paced outdoor activities. The equipment in your backpack should include a spare pair of gloves, an additional baselayer garment and, if you’re expecting extremely cold temperatures, an extra layer of insulation (e.g. a lightweight quilted jacket) that you should put on when resting on the way up and at the top of the mountain. For further information on GORE-TEX® Active products visit www.gore-tex.eu.
Tip 4: Hardware – a compromise between the fun of going up or downhill
The biggest difference between ski touring and normal skiing is the hardware: skiers only ski down the mountain, ski tourers climb up it first – with skis on their feet. To travel uphill on skis, ski tourers use skins which are stuck to the bottom of the ski. These allow the ski to glide up gradients of up to 30 degrees without slipping back down. The special touring binding is not fixed to the heel for the uphill climb so that you can lift your heel and perform a more natural foot motion – almost like when you are cross-country skiing. Before the descent you clamp down the heel so that both the heel and the toe of the boot are firmly positioned in the binding, just like normal downhill skiing. For the uphill climb ski touring boots are not as rigid as normal ski boots and offer more flexibility around the ankle. They also have profile soles to provide a secure footing in situations in which you have to walk and carry your skis (over rocks or up extremely steep sections). Prior to the descent the boots can be buckled up more tightly to provide the kind of stiffness you get in normal skiing boots.
What could be nicer than skiing through unspoiled powder? However, wherever the snow is deep and the slopes are steep there is always the risk of an avalanche and avalanches are always a serious danger to life. The main aim of all ski tourers and freeriders should be never to get themselves into a dangerous situation. Nevertheless, whenever you venture off piste, and never mind how much planning you have done, the risk of an avalanche can never be totally avoided. That is why you need more than just skis, skins and sticks. You must always carry essential safety equipment which must include an avalanche probe, a shovel with a metal blade and an avalanche transceiver (specialized for the purpose of finding people buried under snow) that is turned on and in the transmitting mode. This equipment will help you dig out a buried avalanche victim as quickly as possible. But even with all this equipment it will still be a race against the clock. After 15 minutes the survival probability starts to drop. After 30 minutes buried under snow the chances of survival plummet to 50%. One answer is not to get buried in the first place. Avalanche airbags can make a difference – but not always. The aim of these large, inflatable airbags is to keep the head of an avalanche victim above the snow. However, the best equipment in the world won’t be of any use if you don’t know how to use it. You will need a good grounding in safety skills. And then you will need to practise, practise, practise.
Tip 6: Practice on the piste
In recent years on-piste ski touring has become increasingly popular. The downside is that you don’t get away from the crowds and into untracked terrain. The upside is that you don’t have to concern yourself with orientation andavalanche skills. Furthermore, ski areas with an extensive network of snow making systems can guarantee well prepared pistes for unlimited up and downhill fun throughout the winter season. On-piste ski touring is the ideal solution for newcomers to the ski touring world and the ideal opportunity to get to know your equipment and work at your technique. Avalanche safety gear is not necessary for on-piste ski touring – but only if you also stay on the prepared runs for the downhill part of your tour. Despite the ease of ski touring on well-maintained slopes, you still have to watch out for skiers hurtling down the pistes at breakneck speed. In order to avoid conflicts, it is advisable to find out in advance whether there are any local restrictions and respect all signs and markings within the resort. Some resorts have introduced designated routes for uphill skiers alongside their ski runs. But one thing you should never do is uphill skiing at night: this is when the snow cats are out preparing the pistes for the next day. They can pose a serious danger to night time skiers! So, although staying on-piste might initially appear to be the easy solution, it is not entirely risk-free. You still need to follow certain rules and behave in a considerate manner. A good and informative video can be seen on YouTube at: http://tinyurl.com/pcc53p2.
If this has tempted you to try out this popular sport, the above mentioned ski resorts offer great facilities to get you started. As with most mountain sports, you should start with an easy tour before tackling a difficult one, choose a short tour before moving on to longer ones. Don’t go for too much, too soon and don’t take any risks. Probably the best way to get started is to join a guided tour, attend an introductory ski touring course and get a good grounding in basic ski touring skills and other topics such as avalanche awareness.