A beginner’s guide to ski touring (and three great places to give it a go)
If someone had told me five years ago that I’d spend my weekends climbing up mountains on skis I would have laughed them out of the room. Why would I waste my precious energy climbing uphill when I could just jump on a chairlift and lap piste after piste? But after moving to Tirol, something changed. I wasn’t happy just skiing resorts all day. I wanted a new challenge and touring, which combines my love of skiing with a dose of fresh air and a lot of calorie burning, ticked all the boxes. I decided to give it a go, and after my first ski tour, I was hooked. There’s something about the peacefulness, rhythm and closeness to nature of touring that you just don’t get with downhill skiing. However, as with any new sport, there’s a lot to consider when starting out, from what to wear to where to go. Here’s my guide to getting it right.
Fitness is probably the aspect of ski touring that scares people away more than any other. The idea of sliding up a mountain for several hours is quite a daunting one but you don’t have to be an ultra-marathon runner to give it a go. There are all sorts of routes for all different levels of fitness. The trick is to start small and build yourself up, just as you would with any other aerobic sport.
The other key element is pace. I’d say I have average fitness, and the first tour I tried left me rasping for breath. Then someone told me to just slow down and go at my own pace. As soon as I stopped trying to keep up with my fellow tourers, I settled into a rhythm that allowed me to skin for a couple of hours without a break.
You don’t need to be a skiing pro to try touring either. Sure, some of the routes demand good technique and experience of tricky terrain, but there’s plenty of easier tours around the Austrian Tirol as well. If you can ski a red run comfortably then you’ll be able to handle any of the tours below. You can also try touring up a ski piste, which is allowed in a number of resorts around Tirol. Just make sure to stick to the rules and to respect your fellow skiers.
Get the Gear
Touring requires a whole lot of different gear. Unfortunately, standard skis and boots just won’t cut it. Your skis need a specific kind of binding that will lift at the heel for the skin up, but clip down for the ski down. Touring boots, meanwhile, tend to have a generous walk mode so that you have better movement on the way up. Both the skis and the boots tend to be lighter than alpine skis, to take the strain out of the hike. Lastly, you need a pair of skins to attach to the base of your skis so that they grip into the snow as you climb. Most ski shops have sets of touring boots, skis and skins available to hire.
Don’t make the mistake of touring up in your thick, insulated ski jacket. Touring is all about layers. I usually wear baselayers on my top and bottom, a thin pair of ski trousers and a light mid-layer on top. In my backpack, I carry a spare mid-layer and a shell jacket to change into at the top. Same goes for gloves: I keep a pair of normal ski gloves in my pack and tour in a pair of thin liners. Picking the right combination is a very personal thing, but this is a good place to start.
As soon as you leave the safety of the ski piste, avalanche gear and knowledge are paramount. Everyone skiing or touring in the backcountry should be carrying a transceiver, shovel and probe. But they also need to know how to use them. If your avalanche knowledge needs some work, then take a course. SAAC, for example, offers free basic courses. Until then, stick to avalanche-safe ski tours on the piste.
Ready to get your ski tour on? Here are three routes perfect for beginners:
This is the ultimate beginner ski tour, following a former ski piste below the beautiful Hohe Munde mountain. It takes around an hour from top to bottom, and the slope never gets that steep, so you can concentrate on your skinning technique without worrying about slipping. On the ski down you can choose between an easy track or sections of off-piste.
Start by getting the gondola to Stiglreith. From there, it’s about 1.5 hours to Rösskogelhütte , near the top of the hill. It’s a very gentle tour, following the piste most of the way, but the final section winds through the trees offering amazing views over the Sellrain valley. The ski down is also on the piste, so you don’t need any avalanche gear or knowledge.
This is a beautiful tour through the trees up to Birgitzer Alm, taking about 1.5 hours. It’s not too steep, though anyone after more of a challenge can carry on up to Birgitzköpflhaus, an extra 30 minutes skinning. If you come here just after a snowfall, you’ll find some great powder lines in the top section.