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Mountain Guide, Rob Collister, introduces the activities of ski mountaineering and ski touring; be you a climber who wants to reach their mountain as easily as possible or a skier who just wants to escape the piste and discover the backcountry.

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Ski Mountaineering: an introduction

Not so long ago, skiing was something mountaineers, British ones anyway, regarded with suspicion. Like eating quiche, real climbers didn't ski. If they did, it was as a separate sport, a winter holiday with the family, not to be confused with serious mountaineering. When they went climbing in the Alps in winter, they would stolidly plug lines of holes two feet deep up the glaciers and take days to reach their route; or they would hire snow shoes in Chamonix and take almost as long. Of course there were exceptions who proved the rule; Dougal Haston, for one, and there has always been a small band of devotees in the Eagle Ski Club and the Alpine Ski Club. But on the whole, skis, whether as a means to an end or as an end in themselves, were not part of the average mountaineer's equipment.

Now, all that has changed. Skiing is seen as a useful skill to acquire and as enjoyable a form of mountaineering as rock-climbing or ice climbing. Almost everybody is doing it. And with good reason, for it is the only sensible way to travel in deep winter snow: easier than walking on the uphill and as exciting or scary as you care to make it on the descent.

Improved equipment
One reason for the growth of interest has been the improvement in equipment. When I first went touring in 1970, I was using wooden skis which were far too long for me, (and snapped, halfway through the holiday). They were fitted with cable bindings which had no lateral release, and I wore lace-up leather boots that were a pleasure to walk in but only a slight advance on flip-flops to ski in. Consequently I used to enjoy the uphill and survive the downhill!

Gear has come a long way since then. Boots like the Scarpa Denali or the Nordica TR10 are almost as good as downhill boots to ski in and nothing like as uncomfortable to walk in as they appear. Broad modern skis have made the off-piste accessible to far more people.

Bindings have altered radically, with Fritschi and Silvretta dominating the market at present. Most are now of the step-in type, with sensitive forward and lateral release for downhill skiing and a climbing aid to raise the heel on steep ascents. Harscheisen (ski crampons) are standard on most models. Ski-brakes are becoming more common as an optional alternative to safety straps, but you do have to choose between the possibility of losing a ski in deep snow (which does happen) and slicing yourself open with a tip or an edge in a bad tumble (which also happens).

Skins for going uphill, which have a pile allowing the ski to slide forward but not backwards, have improved too. They used to be made of seal fur and were attached to the ski with straps. Now they are made of nylon or mohair and almost universally use a sticky backing, a system which works well so long as the bottom of the ski is dry.

Telemark equipment
An increasingly popular alternative is telemark equipment. Bindings are very light and boots are fastened only at the toe, with either a three pin or a cable system. Boots need to be solid and warm but bendy so that you can 'kick' with each stride on the flat and crouch down to execute a telemark turn. Using this sort of gear, the High Level Route from Chamonix to Zermatt has been skied in twenty-four hours instead of the usual week, but you need to be a very good telemark skier to handle that type of terrain.

Where to ski
Many people confine their ski touring to the Alps where there are plenty of huts, good maps and guide books, reliable snow and plenty of people around in Spring to reduce the seriousness of it all. However, there is no lack of possibilities in Scotland, Wales and the Lakes when the snow is right, which is admittedly less often than it used to be. In fact, once you have the gear you can ski anywhere there is snow which, in winter, is a sizeable chunk of the northern hemisphere, including some less obvious destinations like Morocco, Corsica, Lebanon and Greece.

Starting out
To enjoy ski mountaineering you do need to be fairly fit and you need to be able to ski. Skiing with a pack in deep crud calls for a certain amount of both strength and skill, and the more you have of each the more you can enjoy it. You can get by with one or the other. If you are very fit you can put up with frequent head-plants and the protracted performance of putting self and skis together again afterwards. If you are a good off-piste skier but unfit you may be able to hang on uphill and still cope with the downhill. But you will have the most fun if you are both. If you are neither, your holiday could be a disaster, not only for you, but also for the rest of the party who have to wait for you.

For climbers learning to ski, it is tempting to head off into the untracked snow straightaway, but it is well worth having some lessons and waiting until you feel confident that you can handle most pisted slopes, one way or another, and have had a go at some off-piste. Looking good matters not a jot, but knowing when not to fall over and being able to traverse, side-slip and kick-turn are important skills for getting out of trouble. It is wise to adopt a conservative approach to your skiing, too. The back of beyond is a bad place to break a leg.

Getting instruction
If you wish to start under tuition or to try out the gear at someone else's expense, the UK national centres, Glenmore Lodge and Plas y Brenin, run introductory courses, as do a number of British Mountain Guides. The Eagle Ski Club has an extensive programme of guided and unguided tours for all levels of experience in different parts of the Alps and welcomes new members. The Ski Club of Great Britain also has a touring programme along with ski-safaris and off-piste holidays.

If you prefer to do your own thing, remember that avalanches are a very real hazard for the skier. Learn all you can about snow, and carry a transceiver and a shovel, just in case. The one is no use without the other. If you don't believe me, see how long it takes to dig a hole in the snow a metre deep with your hands. That said, there is no finer feeling than skiing untracked powder that you have reached on your own two feet. Go for it!

© Text and photos Rob Collister 2002 ('Starting out' photo © Dan Carron)

Related travel-quest sections: winter sports and ski mountaineering/ski touring

Other contacts:
The Eagle Ski Club
The Ski Club of Great Britain
Glenmore Lodge
Plas y Brenin

Rob Collister is a very experienced International Mountain Guide who has led climbing, mountaineering and ski mountaineering tours and expeditions all over the world. He now acts as a freelance guide as well as occasionally working in some of the UK's leading outdoor centres and leading weekend hiking and walking trips for his own company, Wild Wales. Rob is also well known for writing about the outdoors, he has produced several books and regularly writes for some of the top outdoor magazines.