Ski touring off the beaten track: more accessible than you think

Ski touring. That holy grail of skiing — making your way up untracked valleys to stay in a cosy hut with other skiers, rise at dawn, climb into the daylight before skiing alone down untouched, pure powder without another soul in sight. It might sound like heaven, but finding those quiet spots as ski touring becomes more popular is getting ever harder.

Why go ski touring?

“We all get that the idea of walking uphill on skis makes little sense when there are lifts that will take you up for no effort. However, in reality lifts only allow you to access a relatively small amount of skiable terrain and of course it's the most crowded part. More and more folk are wanting to get away from the crowds and realising that it's easier than they thought,” says IFMGA guide Nick Parks, who spends every winter in the little valley of Zinal-Grimentz in the Swiss Valais.

“But touring is not for beginner skiers — the number one skill in ski touring is to be a competent off-piste skier. It's not a good idea to learn powder skiing at the head of some steep remote valley. Fitness (as in most areas of life) helps, but you certainly don't need to be a Mo Farah to enjoy ski-touring. I often equate ski touring to cycling, effort output is roughly the same, yes you've got to put some effort in but the downhill makes it worth it. Just like cycling you don't attempt Lands End to John O'Groats without some training.

What about the kit?

Years past, ski touring equipment was difficult to use and only for the pros, and very specialist — the bindings were wobbly, boots unskiable and skis hard to handle. But today equipment is an entirely different story, and you can buy all-round skis, boots and bindings that will do all the jobs. “Hike-and-ride” or “freeride” boots combine the support you need for downhill skiing but with a “walk mode”, that allows you to tour uphill. Ski technology has moved on so far that the skis are light and easy to handle on piste as well as in powder.

Don't have to go into the back of beyond

From Val d'Isère there are a number of classic tours with which to start. The tour de Pramecou in Tignes, accessed via the funicular up Grand Motte, then a short skin across the glacier to access a gentle rolling valley — or gnarlier couloirs depending on your skill levels.

Or ski into the Haute Maurienne Vanoise from Val d'Isère, roughly following the route of the Col de l'Iseran, enjoy a couple of nights of quiet adventure in an older, different world before joining your family in luxurious, cosy surroundings of Le Chardon.

IFMGA guide Fred Buttard, owner of Maurienne-based Upguides, explains: “From the top of the Pissaillas glacier T-bar, you spend about 30-45 minutes skinning up to the ridge before gliding all the way down to Bonneval-sur-Arc. There is a variety of route to ski down for all levels, from the super advanced to the off-piste newcomers that prefer smooth and easy terrain. The itineraries are tricky though and of course I strongly recommend to do it with a guide — even if it's not one of our team.”

Fred, who was based for many years in Val d'Isère, says: “From my experience of both sides (the Tarentaise and Maurienne) there are few places left where you have such a difference areas so close one to the other. Two worlds.” 

Link up with other like-minded skiers

If you're on a ski holiday with friends and family whose idea of hell would be to climb uphill on skis, websites like Roped-up and apps like Ski Bro can help put you together with other trip or like-minded skiers or snowboarders with split-board equipment. Or join a course or specific organised tour if you are a first-timer — it helps to have the time to learn new skills like dealing with bindings and skins without the pressure of advanced tourers rushing you.

“Nearby to Val d'Isère, lesser-known gems La Rosière and especially Sainte-Foy are brimming with epic easy touring options,” says Val d'Isère resident Matt Carr, marketing manager of SkiBro. “The Foglietta north face in Sainte-Foy is a regional 2000m vertical classic, spectacular in the right conditions but can play host to huge avalanches, so a guide is essential.”

Ski touring gets you off the beaten track

The only problem with ski touring is that, once you've tried it, skiing on piste with people all around will never be the same again. When once you might question the wisdom of walking up a hill when there are lifts, you'll relish the peace and quiet and stillness — and fitness.

Nick Parks sums it up: “As the well-known drinks commercial put it — with ski touring you can reach other parts of the mountain most skiers can't reach…that in essence is the beauty of ski touring, the freedom to roam the winter mountains with minimum hassle.”

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