Ski Touring for Beginners

© Jim Blyth
Beautiful, mellow terrain in the Spanish Pyrenees  © Jim Blyth
Beautiful, mellow terrain in the Spanish Pyrenees
© Jim Blyth
So you'd like to ski tour – Alpine style.

If you've climbed in the Alps in winter or spring you'll probably have been overtaken by other climbers on skis or people ski touring as you trudge your way around exhaustingly on foot. If piste skiing is your thing you may well have seen a strange breed of skier with rucksack, ice axe and unusual bindings heading off in the opposite direction to everyone else. Heading off into the mountains, away from the infrastructure and crowds associated with pistes.

Most people encounter ski touring for the first time in either of the above ways and for some it is the start of something new, something fantastic – the delight of travelling in mountainous terrain on skis.
For the enlightened few, ski touring is the most enjoyable way to appreciate the mountains. It's fast, fun and efficient.

Untracked slopes far from the crowds  © Jim Blyth
Untracked slopes far from the crowds
© Jim Blyth

I'm going to look at what you might need to do to access the magic of ski touring if you are:

• A mountaineer
• A piste skier

Then I'll suggest a few top spots in the European Alps where you could put your new found skills to the test.

Day touring, Spanish Pyrenees  © Jim Blyth
Day touring, Spanish Pyrenees
© Jim Blyth

The Mountaineer

You are at home in the mountains. You can read a map, navigate, use an ice axe, crampons, have rope skills and use your judgment to make your own decisions. You can't ski and there lies the challenge. Don't despair however, as it has never been easier to learn. Artificial snow slopes, indoor snow arenas, low cost flights and fantastic ski gear are just some of the things that make learning to ski easier than it has ever been. You need to use all of the above to get skiing. The golden rule is to get lessons right from the start, before you pick up bad habits. Many mountaineers are self taught and tend to apply the DIY approach to learning to ski. Those who persevere with the DIY approach often pay the price of their decision throughout their ski touring life by skiing effectively but not well. More man/woman against the skis and the mountain rather than the aesthetic, flowing experience that skiing really is. Take lessons and stick with it. It's a long term investment and one very much worth the price.

Morning light  © Jim Blyth
Morning light
© Jim Blyth

The piste skier

You love being on the mountains but you are not in them. Others make the decisions for you and lifts will be running and pistes open only if the weather is right, it's not too windy and the avalanche situation has been controlled. You operate in a 'safe', controlled mountain environment. For you the challenge is still the skiing but there you have a huge advantage over the mountaineer. Added to this challenge you need to learn the basic skills of the mountaineer. Depending on how you ski it might be worth getting lessons to really master skiing on piste and to make the difficult transition to skiing the whole mountain. To learn the mountaineering skills get out into the hills with friends or join an amateur club and consider taking an introductory mountaineering course.

Once you have the downhill skiing skills to be able to descend efficiently in all snow types and you have some basic mountaineering skills the next step is to put them together. Add the techniques of ascending on your skis and you're there! The best option for you now is once again to get some instruction, it really will shorten your learning curve and hopefully help you avoid making any really stupid mistakes in the early days of your ski touring life. If you are not sure whether you have the skill level to start ski touring then I suggest contacting any of the providers you'll find on the web. Send off a few emails and talk to a few people. You'll soon get an idea as to where you're at.

Jim Olsen skiing the whole mountain   © Jim Blyth
Jim Olsen skiing the whole mountain
© Jim Blyth

Early morning on a Haute Route variation
© Jim Blyth
OK, so you've got the skills, where should you go?

Having guided many Chamonix – Zermatt Haute Routes I suggest not making this your first tour. Many people do manage to fight their way to Zermatt on skis but inelegantly to say the least. It's not what you do but how you do it. Style is important. It's a major factor in keeping you safe in the mountains. Keep the Haute Route for when you have a good few days ski mountaineering under your belt and you'll do it well and love the experience.

So if it's not the famous Chamonix – Zermatt you should be setting your sights on what should you be considering and where should you be going?

Firstly why not consider a week day touring from a comfortable valley base? You can choose your objectives day by day to progress through your week with the huge benefit of flexibility and light rucksacks. You should be looking for a base with easy access to non glaciated mountains that aren't too steep. Aim for 800m to 1000m of ascent per day to begin with. Hone your skills through practice before going further, higher and more technical.

Have a good look around on the web keeping in mind what I've just said. To get you started here's a couple of examples with reliable snow cover.

Switzerland – the village of Bivio in Graubünden. You can skin from your valley accommodation, skiing right back to the door at the end of the day. Lots of options and a ski lift if the weather is too bad for touring. Good from first snows to last snows.

France – the village of St Véran in the Queyras, southern Alps. A delightful spot with a range of accommodation options. Great summits and ski lifts to help you access some of them and to provide fun on bad weather days. Best early season through until the middle/end of March depending on the year. The Queyras are also ideal for a hut based tour.

For your first hut based tour you should be looking for mellow non glaciated terrain or terrain with small, fairly benign glaciers. If you are ready for the challenge of travelling in glaciated terrain then the options for hut based ski touring are vast. Here are two ideas for your first experience.

Austria – the Silvretta. Very comfortable huts, great easy terrain and ski summits. Mellow glaciers. Lots of options and a popular choice for many. Arguably the best spot for your first hut-to-hut tour.

Switzerland – the WildsRtubel. Based from the Lammernhütte you can enjoy several days of day touring in perfect terrain. Wonderful summits, mellow terrain and mildly crevassed glaciers.

Hope this helps. See you out there!

PS. I haven't looked up any definitions to write this but for me ski touring is travelling through the mountains, uphill and down using skis. Ski mountaineering is ascending and skiing summits which may involve use of ice axe, crampons, rope and climbing techniques. Travelling in glaciated terrain can be encountered on ski tours and while ski mountaineering. The terms are fairly interchangeable and mean different things to different people. There is a definite progression from ski touring to ski mountaineering.

Jim Blyth

Jim Blyth  © Jim Blyth Collection
Jim Blyth
© Jim Blyth Collection
About Jim Blyth

Jim specialises in ski guiding summits around the world. For 2012 destinations include Antarctica, India, Argentina, Chile, Armenia and Georgia. He also loves sharing his passion for ski touring through instructing on introductory courses and leading beginners tours.

If you are passionate about skiing and have a true taste for adventure and discovery then check out his website:

Jim is a British Mountain Guide and he works for the well known guiding company Jagged Globe.

BMG Guide Logo  © BMG

UKC Articles and Gear Reviews by Jim Blyth

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5 Jan, 2012
Jim, can this type of skiing be done in just normal winter boots? That might open up a whole world to me if it can!
5 Jan, 2012
I don't think Jim has a UKC account, but the short answer to your question above is 'no'. People may use skis purely to access winter climbs, but I think it's fair to say that in the Alps you would generally see people climbing in touring boots, rather than skiing in mountain boots. You have to be a pretty good skier to ski off piste in control in mountain boots. You best bet might be to hire some kit before taking the plunge.
5 Jan, 2012
"You can't ski and their lies the challenge."
5 Jan, 2012
I think he is right as in 'you can't ski and THERE lies the challenge' not their !! Aye Dan
6 Jan, 2012
The article has been amended since I posted. I quoted (cut and pasted, in fact) the original wording, which as you say was incorrect.
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