First, a clarification. Should we be talking about ski-touring or ski-mountaineering? Basically, they are the same thing. It used to be said that ski touring was the same as cross-country skiing (also known as nordic or lang-lauf), using very light free-heel equipment; whereas ski-mountaineering used heavier boots and skis with a binding that could be clamped down in descent, to tackle steeper terrain.
But the telemark revolution has put paid to that, with free-heel equipment being used on even the steepest of slopes. Some will still argue that ski-touring is about making a journey either from hut to hut or, failing that, pitching camp somewhere new every night; whereas ski-mountaineering is about the ascent and descent of specific peaks. However, that argument does not really hold water as many hut to hut tours involve traversing a peak on the way and the equipment and techniques required are exactly the same. So let’s regard them as interchangeable terms.
Ask your average climber, or skier, come to that, what they know of ski-touring and the chances are they will mention the Haute Route. Originally named the High Level Route by the British alpinists who pioneered it in the 19th century, this wonderfully scenic glacier journey from Chamonix to Zermatt is without doubt the most famous ski tour in the world. As such, it is much-frequented but also often underestimated. It is by no means a piece of cake and not recommended as a first tour if it is to be enjoyed rather than merely ticked. The journey can be continued to Saas Fée, but it is hard to avoid the lifts and pistes of Zermatt, and after the drama of crossing three cols and skiing down beneath the North face of the Matterhorn, the extra day is liable to feel an anti-climax.
The traditional Haute Route takes six days, weather permitting, and crosses a shoulder of the Grand Combin known as the Plateau du Couloir, which involves carrying skis up at least three hundred metres of steep snow, sometimes ice. A popular, easier alternative is to by-pass the Grand Combin by taking a route from Verbier to the Lac de Dix, rejoining the original route at the Vignettes hut, having traversed the Pigne d’Arolla. The Patrouille des Glaciers (Glacier Patrol, so named by the Swiss army in the nineteen thirties) is a race which covers the same ground in reverse, from Zermatt to Verbier, in a single day. Another variation, favoured by Swiss and German guided parties in particular, starts from Zermatt but avoids the Grand Combin by crossing the Fenêtre Durand into Italy: from the little village of Glacier they travel by taxi to Courmayeur, take the telepherique up to the Torino hut and ski down the Vallée Blanche, somehow persuading themselves that they have completed the Haute Route!
It is a weakness of even the traditional Haute Route that road transport must be used between Champex and Bourg St Pierre at the end of Day 2 from Chamonix. However, for the purist a challenging option is to cross the East ridge of the Grande Lui and descend into the Swiss Val Ferret; a second day takes one up the valley and over a high col to the Great St Bernard Monastery which provides cheap dortoir accommodation for itinerant ski tourers; and a third day takes one through some steep, complex terrain to the Vélan hut. An ascent of Mont Vélan, a very fine ski peak, can be combined with rejoining the classic Haute Route at the Valsorey hut beneath the Grand Combin.
The Pennine Alps, in fact, lend themselves to an almost infinite number of variations on the Haute Route theme. A glance at the Swiss 1:50,000 ski map (with the blue cover) reveals a network of mountain huts, each one the hub of a spider’s web of red lines indicating possible ski routes. Spring is the usual season for ski-touring. The days are getting longer and temperatures milder, but there is still plenty of snow in the mountains and glaciers are at their safest. During April and May many huts will be open, with a guardian in residence providing meals and drinks, enabling skiers to travel light. However, if you prefer the emptiness of the Alps out of season and are prepared to carry your own food and a stove, nearly all huts have a winter room, which can be used at any time. It is this hut system that makes the Alps unique and has made ski-touring so popular compared with other parts of the world such as Canada, the U.S. and New Zealand.
Nowadays, every region of the Alps likes to boast its own Haute Route and there is excellent ski-touring to be found even in peripheral areas like Bavaria in the north, the Dolomites and the Julian Alps in the east and the Alpes Maritimes in the south. The greatest scope, however, is to be found in the higher, more central areas, where glaciation is most extensive and snow lasts longer.
Rivalling the Pennine Alps as a mecca for ski-tourers is the Bernese Oberland, with a concentration of 4000 metre peaks like the Finsteraarhorn, Fiescherhorn and Gross Grunhorn, which lend themselves to a long approach on ski followed by a short but interesting mixed ridge to the summit. Others, only slightly lower, like the Ebnefluh and the Gross Wennenhorn, can be skied all the way to the top. At these altitudes ski-touring is a viable proposition well into June, though you need to start and finish early in the day. Many skiers access the range by the Jungfraujoch railway from Grindelwald or Lauterbrunnen and it is tempting to stay the night at the nearby Monchjoch hut. However, it is at over 3600 metres and unless you are already well-acclimatized the consequence is likely to be a headache and nausea that night and the following day for some, at least, of the party. It is wiser to descend to the Konkordia hut 600 metres lower for your first night (despite the sting in the tail of 350 steps up a metal ladder necessitated by glacier recession).
In France, the Vanoise national park to the south of Mont Blanc gives some surprisingly remote-feeling tours, given the plethora of ski resorts surrounding it, and relatively small huts limit the numbers in the area at any one time. The plum in this region is the Grand Casse by its West face which, while not in the extreme ski category, is definitely steep (35° – 40°) for a thought-provoking 300 metres.
Just over the border is an Italian national park, the Gran Paradiso, which is known for its large herds of ibex. For ski-mountaineers, the main draw is the 4000 metre peak of the same name, but the Benevolo hut at the head of the Val di Rhemes, south of Aosta, has become a very popular base for day tours and courses (It can also be reached on ski from Val d’Isere in France by crosssing a col.).
South again, the Ecrins region offers serious ski mountaineering with steep-sided valleys and few cols that are easy to cross on ski, though the slopes of the 4000 metre Dome de Neige des Ecrins are liable to become mogulled during the Easter period! The La Grave unpisted ski area under the Meije on the northern fringe of the area is a good place to warm up and acclimatize before heading into the mountains, when there is sufficient snow. To the east of the Ecrins, the Queyras is a beautiful area with more mellow terrain suitable for introductory tours. At the other end of the Alps, areas like the Silvretta, on the Swiss-Austrian border, and the Otztal and the Stubai in Austria, are also good places to start ski-touring.
In Scandinavia, the scope for hut to hut touring is immense but much of the terrain is rolling and best suited to lang-lauf skiing. The Lyngen Alps in northern Norway is a notable exception, like a larger, glaciated Glencoe, but a lack of huts makes life complicated. Areas like the Serek national park in Sweden require the same sort of expedition approach that is necessary in Svalbard or Greenland and it is common to use small sledges or pulks to carry food and equipment.
Over the water in North America, skiers in general prefer to access untracked snow by helicopter or snowcat. Although there are huts and lodges they tend to be isolated and best used as a base for day tours. Ski journeys are of necessity expeditions and if the terrain is steep, pulks are not practical, so tents, sleeping bag, stove, food etc. must all go in a pack, which does tend to cramp one’s style downhill. However, a ski tour does not have to be an endurance test if time is allowed for camping early and making unladen ascents. Exceptions, where European-style hut to hut touring is possible, are the Tenth Mountain Trail in Colorado and the Wapta Icefields traverse in the Bow Lake area, between Banff and Jasper in British Columbia.
And what of nearer home? In this era of global warming, good skiing in Scotland, let alone Wales or the Lakes, has become rarer and rarer. The SMC guide to ski-touring in Scotland must be one of the most misleading books ever published, with picture after picture of flawless blue skies and a thick blanket of snow. They must have all been taken the same week-end somewhere back in the seventies … To experience anything other than a long walk with some pretty rough skiing at the end of it, you need to be unemployed and living on the spot, or extremely lucky. No harm trying, though!
If you want to start under tuition or to try out the gear at someone else's expense, the 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.
But 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. Consider attending an avalanche awareness course.
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Eagle Ski Club
The UK's largest ski touring and ski mountaineering club. It organises up to 30 ski trips a year, ranging from hotel and chalet-based day tours to ski expeditions in the Arctic and the Greater Ranges. Some are led by members and others by professional guides.
The Alpine Ski Club
The Alpine Ski Club welcomes active and enthusiastic ski-mountaineers that are committed to ski mountaineering in the Alps and the Greater Ranges as members.
Scottish Ski Club
The Scottish Ski Club was founded as long ago as 1907 to promote all types of skiing in Scotland. The club maintains a number of huts in Scotland, and membership is open to anyone with an interest in skiing.
The Ski Club of Great Britain
With over 27,000 members, the largest ski club in the UK.