Skin Up - Ski Tour Diary Part 2Written by Dan Morgan, Monday, 05 March 2012
Part 2 of a multi-part series. Read part 1: Skin Up - Ski Tour Diary Part 1.
A Beginner Guide To Ski Touring
I’ve already set the scene on the temperature. Any facial hair remotely near the mouth of my companions was now transforming them into worthy models for any Artic Expedition photo shoots that might have been going on nearby. Only the sense of excitement of backcountry riding in such incredible terrain was keeping me going.
Ski Area Acclimatisation
We spent the first day practicing the basics, getting used to the conditions and hitting some of the more accessible off piste via short boot packs and rock scrambles. One one occasion we rode some tracked lines heading right towards the bottom of a lift, but instead of heading for it, we simply stayed left and rode some of the most incredible powder lines of the weekend. The cost of this deviation? A five minute skin back up to the lift. This was my idea of touring. It was “safe” and cost us nothing, but it gave me a false impression of the fitness required to skin. Keep reading.
First Bonafide Skin On Skis
Day two was to be our first experience of ski skinning “proper” and our guide had a cunning plan up his sleeve to ensure there was little chance of us not reaching our goal. We were to drop into a valley easily accessible from the resort lifts, but with no obvious means of escape or turning back once we’d skied to the bottom. It was skin out, or die trying. Nice.
First things first, the ski down was excellent. We weaved through and dropped avalanche barriers after being assured of the safety by our guide, which soon opened up into a vast powder bowl with just a couple of other tracks already there. Apparently, this route is only skiable in these conditions with favourable avalanche risks 2 or 3 days a year. We lucked in and had it all: tight trees, steeps and wide-open spaces.
When our guide stopped and reached for his skins, we knew the 5 minutes of heaven was over. As usual the skiers were ready to go in about 3 minutes, with my G3 Alpinist skins slipping on with no fuss, and the Duke’s switched to tour mode. Then we turned to help the split boarder pull apart his enormous skins…
Eventually we set off. Boots were loosened and I had a bit of heel lift in the boot as a result, but it did not affect my ability to get forward, though I was concerned the rubbing may result in a blister. I foolishly chose not to delayer, despite our guide doing so. It was still approximately -25 degrees Celsius so despite the head telling me to shed a layer or three, I didn’t listen.
Kick Turns Are HARD
The first few gentle turns were okay, but when it came to performing some kick turns in deep snow on a very steep slope, I had big problems. The instructional videos on the web, along with our guide, make it look easy. However, my lack of experience coupled with steep, deep snow proved to require some mastering. The skins provided plenty of grip for my skis but they do require plenty of weight on the middle of the ski to perform optimally. Lean too far forward or back and some slippage can occur, resulting in a mid kick-turn “sit down break” for me. It feels counter-intuitive especially on a steep slope, but simply requires a lot of practice and good limb mobility. I found it increasingly difficult to swing the ski 90 degrees, especially given the mount point of my skis meant I had a lot of ski upfront, a steep slope and deep snow - but persistence eventually won and I started to make turns as my fellow ski tourers started to pull out a lead on me.
Skiing Uphill Is HARDER
After a couple of turns approximately 20 minutes into the skin, I slammed into the next issue. My fitness. Walking uphill using skis may look easy. It really isn’t. I’m not the fittest guy in the room, but I am not the laziest either, but I started to really struggle to keep pace. My optimism and excitement when applying my skins soon disappeared. I tried to tell myself that conditions were difficult, and the guide was experienced. Rich however, was having no problems on his split board setup in the same terrain and set off ahead while the guide waited for me to give me some tips. If offered a lift off the mountain at this point, I may have wimped out. A few minutes layer, with breath regained and layers discarded, we set off again, with me heeding the advice of a constant but slower rhythm. It was hard work, and hot, but it was definitely easier. I was not wearing any gloves or hat after about 20 minutes into the skin but it felt like a summer day despite the incredibly low temperatures.
We eventually regrouped, I got a second wind and progress remained steady but it was still very much a cardiovascular workout. I even had the energy to laugh watching a split boarder attempt to “ski” down a rare and steep downhill section. When we reached the summit, about an hour and 20 minutes after starting, it felt like I had conquered my Everest as I pondered the ratio of fun of skiing down versus the hard work coming up of the past hour and a half.
Let’s Go Again?
It was at this point the guide shared the fact about this route only being skiable a couple of times a season, and that he may do it again after we left. He also mentioned that it was actually possible to ski down and out at the bottom to the Gondola at the foot of the resort. It was by no means an easy blue run, far from it, but doable. We came to skin, so I was glad we’d experienced what we had, but I had mixed emotions so soon after the effort of skinning out of what we thought was a dead end. Regardless, we checked out watches - we had time, if we were quick, so we went again. This time we passed where we had put on our skins and discovered more amazing skiing. More trees, natural terrain park of jumps as the valley narrowed, then a herd of Chamois crossing in front of us while we waited. A few river crossings and sketchy lines later, we’d made it out.
Those final few hours really made the weekend and drove home the benefits of packing skins to me. You don’t have to skin up to find the best terrain - often you can start from where the masses are assembled, and just use the skins to get back. The five-minute skin probably gave us the best powder of the weekend, whereas the one that took me over an hour and tested my fitness gave us the best terrain and experience. Strictly speaking we could have skied on the first time, but the sketchy lines involved in skiing into the valley at the end were probably equal to a lung burning skin out.
In the end, no blisters. I missed my train home, but so worth it.
First Ski Tour - Conclusion
- Do not over-estimate your fitness or under estimate the physical demands of touring. Attempt a tour within the resort bounds to get used to the equipment and benchmark your fitness.
- Do plenty of familiarisation work before the first significant skin. Practise kick turns on all manner of conditions.
- If you go off piste, consider hiring a guide - ours was brilliant.
- All the gear but no idea? Be safe and know how to use your equipment - hiring a guide is no substitute.