Owhile most of us canceled the ski season last year, with lifts closed and borders closed, the lucky few who found themselves in the mountains often had to improvise to get their feet wet. There was nothing to do but climb on your own and – there’s even a hashtag for it – #EarnYourTurns.
From the Cairngorms to the French Alps, sales and rentals of equipment have exploded. Ski touring has shifted into high gear and will never look back. It ticks endless boxes – open spaces, solitude, adventure, health and wellness goals, not to mention less impact on the landscape.
If this all sounds like too much hard work, you’re not alone. I hesitate between love and perseverance. However, After a few days in Verbier hiking from hut to hut, I’m addicted to the freedom of “skinning” — adding grippy coatings to my skis so I can get up and down the slopes. I’m also addicted to the joy of watching the sun rise aloft, knowing that the first race of the day is mine.
In Le Châble earlier this year, fresh off the train from Geneva, I left my suitcase in lockers, rented light touring skis and rode up the valley in a taxi, with a mountain guide and some overnight essentials in my bag back. Shortly after, we hooked up and rode through the forest in moonlight so bright there was no need for a torch. The air was calm, the branches of the trees bulky with shimmering powder.
After a three-hour ascent, gaining 800m in elevation, we reached Cabane Brunet for a fondue and a glass of wine. Deer mounted on the walls sported surgical masks, although we had the place to ourselves – obviously it fills up later in the season as the days get longer.
In our newly renovated dorm, a platform has been set up with tidy mattresses, each with a duvet and pillow; Hut etiquette is to bring your own sleeping bag liner. I’m more of a glamper than a happy camper, so the hut keeper became my new best friend when he presented me with a token for a hot shower, timed for a strict seven minutes to save water. He also packed us a packed lunch the next morning, a simple ham sandwich with big bread to keep us going.
The next day started before dawn, with a good two hour climb before the sun peaked on the mountain to our left. We then climbed until we were caught by a father and his teenage sons. Obviously locals, very fit, they were rushing from the bottom of the valley, in training for the Patrouille des Glaciers – a hardcore ski mountaineering race organized by the Swiss army.
We waved at them and took our own path to the right, drawn to a beautiful virgin expanse. S-curving is always a joy and the thrill is heightened when it includes the knowledge that you only get one descent. So off we went, weaving through the trees to finally arrive at a parking lot where a taxi was waiting for us, ready to take us to Le Châble.
Make new tracks
Reaching the area of the piste map, we took the lifts up to the Cabane Mont Fort, a renowned hut at the top of the slopes of Verbier. We arrived just in time to see the last lunchtime guests and enjoy the sunset all to ourselves on the terrace, enjoying a warming Jagertee.
Inside, an assortment of charcuterie, cheeses and rosti awaited us, along with plenty of wine and schnapps. Upstairs, there was another token timer shower and a bunk covered in a cozy duvet. Sleep was wonderfully easy, and at first light I ventured outside to watch pink hues appear on the distant ridges as I played catch the snowball with the resident dog.
After a hearty breakfast, we set off for the drop-offs and ravines of the Rock Garden Valley, navigating a mini couloir to hunt for cobwebs before a half-hour traverse and climb. Not one to disappoint, my guide, Richard Michellod, again delivered some fresh leads. We bounced all the way to the bottom before catching the gondola for our final descent to Verbier.
Our final route took us through beautiful old mayens – wooden huts used as staging posts when shepherds put cattle out to graze during the summer months. As we reached a clearing above the town, we found a bench and unhooked ourselves to chat in the sunshine.
Verbier caters to a range of ski touring enthusiasts, Richard told me – those who like big mountains without lifts and those who want access to interesting routes just a bit further than you would like to walk on skis. . The age range is huge: the older ones seek tranquility in nature while the younger ones enjoy the adventure.
Most opt for the comfort of a cabin at night, and I would normally be one of them. Our alpine huts, however, were on the luxurious end of the spectrum – many others are much more basic, as veteran friends touring back home were quick to tell me. But the experience of ski touring? An exhilarating combination of silence, change of scenery and escape.
Annabel Illingworth was a guest at Cabane Brunet, which offers half-board dormitory beds from £65pp (cabanebrunet.ch), and Cabane Mont Fort, half-board from £75pp (cabanemontfort .com). Guiding up to six people from £490 per day (guideverbier.com). Fly to Geneva
Annabel hits the slopes
Ski touring: beginner’s guide
Intermediate and above skiers who are confident on red runs and some powder should be well placed to give touring a try. Skinning uphill is a workout and the fitter you are the easier it will be – but you control the pace and can make as many stops as you want.
Choose a gentle slope for your first attempt and always go with a guide or someone experienced to show you the ropes and give you safety tips. In the UK, affected groups include the Eagle Ski Club, Alpine Ski Club, Scottish Ski Club and Ski Club of Great Britain.
Some resorts have dedicated ‘skimo’ practice tracks and there are many recommended backcountry routes. Off-piste, it’s always easier to follow in someone else’s footsteps than to break in fresh snow. You usually go up a hill in zigzags, which means learning to make a turn to change direction.
The equipment arrived in leaps and bounds. The kit takes a bit of getting used to, especially clipping in if you have pin bindings. Lightweight boots and skis are best for long hikes. For a combination of piste and powder, heavier hybrid boots and all-mountain skis with pin or hybrid bindings will provide more stability and grip, but they require more work on the climb.
Reducing the weight you carry is an art, bordering on obsessive for many. Take only the essentials, which include water, an avalanche transceiver, a shovel and a probe, and know how to use them. This year Ortovox released the first transceiver with voice navigation, which is aimed at beginners, has impressive battery life and useful avalanche videos online.
Wearing the right clothes is essential. The climb generates a lot of body heat, so layering and breathable fabrics are essential. You can get away with downhill gear for short sessions, but in reality you’ll need dedicated outdoor gear if you plan to do it regularly.
Last but not least, snacks. Marathon runners gummies will help maintain energy levels or you can go all out and make protein balls to share with your mates. You’ll earn brownie points and they might even offer to break the track first.
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