How Alpine Touring Works


Winter Sports Image Gallery An off-piste skier in Valais, Switzerland. See more winter sports pictures.
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What do you get when you combine hiking and downhill skiing? If your answer is "a lot of work," chances are you have yet to discover the joys of alpine touring. While touring may require plenty of physical exertion, the payoff can make it worth the extra effort. Alpine touring takes you off the beaten ski trails to discover fresh snow and spectacular views.

If you're ready to skip the ski lift and experience backcountry skiing, you'll need some extra gear and a good guide. Alpine touring doesn't necessarily require different gear than what you'd use for downhill or cross-country skiing, but investing in some specialized stuff can make the trek safer and more enjoyable.

As far as time commitment, climbing a snow-covered mountain can take a few hours -- and, considering that one hike up will get you just one ski down, you could spend a day or even a few weeks alpine touring.

One of the biggest draws of alpine touring is the sense that you're headed into undiscovered wilderness. The sport is growing in popularity, but there are still plenty of hills that are rarely touched by other skiers, so you'll feel the fresh snow crunching (or slipping) beneath you as you explore the land.

But before you head out to find the next empty mountain, there's some information you'll need to have -- from what to bring to who to travel with. Traditional ski trails are marked and defined, but the pristine alpine touring trails are typically not regulated by a ski resort, which means you'll have to depend on an expert guide so you don't end up skiing over a cliff or causing an avalanche.

So strap on some skins (we'll explain later) and get ready for alpine touring.

Alpine Touring Equipment

At lower elevations, you'll probably be wearing your ski boots and carrying your skis up the mountain.
At lower elevations, you'll probably be wearing your ski boots and carrying your skis up the mountain.
Gordon Wiltsie/National Geographic/Getty Images

The main difference between alpine touring and alpine skiing is how you get to the top of the mountain --in alpine touring, you'll be relying on your own two feet instead of sitting on a cushy chair lift. Think of the sport as a combination of cross-country skiing and downhill skiing, with a little mountain-climbing thrown in.

Alpine touring equipment is similar to that of downhill skiing, and some people do use the same equipment for both. The biggest difference (and advantage) of alpine touring equipment is that it's typically much lighter and more flexible than the equipment you'd use on groomed trails (also known as "on-piste") -- it's easy to carry and won't sink into fresh snow. The heavier, stiffer, more traditional equipment works better on packed-down resort trails.

You can think of alpine touring skis -- also known as "randonnee" (French for "hike") -- as a blend of cross-country and downhill skis. Like cross-country skis, they leave your heels free for the walking motion required to climb the mountain. But when you're ready to ski, you can secure your heel to the ski with bindings. Alpine touring skis are shorter and wider than most other skis, for easier maneuverability (and so you don't sink in the snow). And alpine touring boots are lighter, more flexible and more comfortable than downhill boots. Alpine ski poles are longer than other poles, because they're also used as walking sticks. But they're made with carbon-fiber material, so they're still very light.

So you're on your skis, ready to skip the lift and hike the mountain (in ski-speak, that's called "earning your turns"). Your next question is probably: How do I hike a mountain in skis? This is where skins come in. They're strips of material that attach to the bottoms of your skis to increase traction during the ascent. In one direction, the skin is rough for a good grip, so you don't slide back down the mountain. In the reverse direction, it's smooth for sliding along the snow. So, when you get to the top, you peel them off, turn them around and restick them in the opposite direction for the ride down the mountain. They used to be made of real animal hide (hence the name), but now they're usually made of moleskin or a synthetic fabric. Skins are cut to fit the ski and are attached with a glue-like substance that allows you to remove and reattach them without leaving a residue.

On tougher parts of the climb -- especially early on, when skis are unusable because of snow melt -- skins might not be enough. So, you can wear snowshoes or attach crampons (spikes) to your ski boots. Crampons are also helpful when climbing especially steep slopes.

While this is the basic equipment for alpine touring, in the next section, we'll take a look at some safety equipment that may come in handy on the mountain.

Emergency Gear for Alpine Touring

Ryan McCreary/All Canada Photos/Getty Images                    In snowboard touring, you use a splitboard instead of skis.
Ryan McCreary/All Canada Photos/Getty Images In snowboard touring, you use a splitboard instead of skis.
Ryan McCreary/All Canada Photos/Getty Images

You definitely won't be skiing the bunny slopes when you're alpine touring, so it always pays to be as safe as you can. Here are some emergency items that you might want to pack:

  • Helmet. Because things fall -- especially rock and melting ice. And you really don't want to get knocked out cold in the middle of nowhere.
  • Avalanche beacon. This transceiver allows other beacons to locate you beneath the snow. They're available in digital (easier for the inexperienced to learn, but less precise), analog (more precise, but tougher to learn) and combination models. This tool can be pretty complicated, so it's important to practice using it.
  • Avalanche probes. These segmented poles, which typically extend to about 8 feet, can dig through avalanche debris.
  • Shovels and saws. These essentials can cut through slabs of ice, and some models can be attached to ski poles.
  • Compass or GPS. This comes in handy in all kinds of emergencies -- from avalanches to whiteout conditions.
  • ABS Escape. You can often rent this newer, fairly pricey safety device from ski resorts. It's an airbag that inflates instantly when activated, displacing the snow that could bury you in an avalanche.
  • First-aid kit. Make sure there's an emergency warming blanket and enough medical supplies to allow you to survive a trek out of the wilderness.
  • Backpack. You can purchase special alpine-touring packs to haul your gear.

In the next section, we'll look at one of the most dangerous pitfalls for an alpine skier: avalanches.

Avalanche Safety

Man digs avalanche pit in snow before skiing downhill in Yukon backcountry.
Man digs avalanche pit in snow before skiing downhill in Yukon backcountry.
Brian Stevenson/Aurora/Getty Images

Avalanches are a danger that all backcountry skiers must prepare for, and any quality alpine tour guide will require safety equipment in case you get caught in one. According to the Northwest Weather and Avalanche Center, 24 people died in avalanches in the United States in 2006. About half of those were skiers and snowboarders [source: The Oregonian].

Alpine skiers have to be aware of avalanche danger because they're skiing in remote areas that aren't groomed or monitored. Trails that are managed by ski resorts or park services are considered safer, because these organizations use explosives to create "planned" mini-avalanches that prevent larger, surprise avalanches. Plus, they groom the snow so that it's more predictable and easier to navigate. In the backcountry, you don't have markers to guide you away from deceiving, snow-covered cliffs. Also, you won't have as ready access to emergency personnel, so you have to know how to survive on your own. It's key to have an experienced guide who knows the area and can lead groups through the more demanding and dangerous courses.

Monitoring weather conditions is one of the most important safety measures you can take to avoid getting caught in avalanche conditions. Warm weather can melt snow and ice, and refreezing can destabilize the new layer. These floating "slabs" can suddenly shift and cause an avalanche. Avalanches are especially dangerous for backcountry skiers because of the cliffs and ridges.

So, by waiting at least 24 to 48 hours after a big storm and avoiding areas where it looks like snow has recently fallen, alpine skiers can improve their chances of not being surprised by changes in the terrain.

The best way to avoid getting trapped in an avalanche is to ski with an experienced guide. The best way to survive an avalanche is to practice with emergency equipment until you can rescue someone, including yourself, without thinking. You won't have ski patrols nearby, so you'll have to be prepared enough to react quickly and effectively in an emergency.

Now that you know how to protect yourself, read on to begin planning your alpine skiing adventure.

Planning an Alpine Tour

A group of alpine tourists on the ascent in Norway
A group of alpine tourists on the ascent in Norway
Vegar Abelsnes Photography/The Image Bank/Getty Images

If you want to go alpine touring, the Alps would seem an obvious starting point. And ski touring in Europe is, in fact, very popular. You can travel for a week or more through Switzerland or Italy, staying in mountain refuges along the way. But alpine touring is also popular in the United States. The Adirondacks in New York are considered a good place for beginners because the mountains have a gentler slope. Beginner trips can range from one to three days.

The best time to go depends on your level of expertise. "Corn snow," prevalent in the spring, is best for newbies because there's an upper "crust" that can support weight. Also for this reason, morning trips are safer, because the temperature hasn't had a chance to rise. Powder snow is popular with more experienced alpine skiers. Fresh, untouched powder requires quicker climbing so you don't sink, but the payoff is that it also allows more of a "floating" feeling as you ski. Powder, which is more prevalent in the dark, colder days of winter, is also more dangerous because light powder can disguise rocks, stumps and ice.

No matter where or when you choose to ski, the most important consideration should be who you're skiing with. Experienced instructors who know the terrain will be able to guide inexperienced skiers away from cliffs. For experienced alpine touring skiers, it's still advisable to go with a group of people you trust -- these people may be your first and only search-and-rescue group in the event of an accident or an avalanche.

Once you've mastered alpine touring, there are plenty of competitions in which you can show off your off-piste prowess. These events are especially popular in Europe, where more than 250 races were scheduled during the 2007-08 winter season. In the United States, alpine touring competitions are also becoming more popular. The United States Ski Mountaineering Association, for instance, sponsors a series of 12 races throughout the year [source: Hirschfeld].

To learn more about alpine touring, skiing and related topics, take a look at the links on the next page.

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More Great Links

Sources

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  • "Alpine skiing." Encyclopedia Britannica. 2008. Encyclopedia Britannica Online. http:search.eb.com/eb/article-9005901.
  • Amar Andalkar's Ski Mountaineering and Climbing Site.http://www.skimountaineer.com
  • Colorado Avalanche Information Center. http://avalanche.state.co.us/.
  • Colorado Ski Mountaineering Cup. http://www.cosmicski.com
  • Comey, Robert H. "Alpine Toyring Access Management on Public Lands in Avalanche Terrain." Ski and Backcountry Operations. http://avalanche.org/
  • Fit Sugar. http://www.fitsugar.com/140292
  • Hansen, Eric. "The Well-Outfitted Backcountry Skier: You've taken an avy-safety class. You've learned how to use the gear. Now outfit yourself with these essentials." Skiing. March 1, 2006.
  • Hewitt, Ben. "Neither Rain Nor Snow Can Stop a New York Trek." The New York Times. Nov. 19, 2006.
  • Hirschfeld, Cindy. "Racing the Slopes, Uphill and Down." The New York Times. March 21, 2008.
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  • Thornton, T.D. "They just might be on to something …" The Boston Globe. Jan. 3, 2008.
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  • U.S. Ski Mountaineering Association. http://www.ussma.org/default.aspx
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  • Wineke, Andrew. "Going Up: Lifts? These skiers don't need no stinkin' lifts. They ski up the mountains before skiing down." The Gazette (Colorado Springs, Colo.) Jan. 11, 2008.