Skiing and snowboarding have become huge parts of our lives and each autumn we hope to get a chance to get to the mountains and throw ourselves down the beloved slopes. However these days, the situation is a bit different. With the majority of ski resorts closed in Europe and Covid-19 still at large, going skiing is more difficult than it has ever been before. For those of us that are lucky to be living in ski resorts and mountains being on our door steps, we need to find a way to scratch the itch to go up riding.
This is where touring comes in.
Ski touring is basically when you walk up the mountain in order to reach some sort of terrain that you want to slide back down. In normal times, it is usually done off-piste or outside of ski resorts in order to get that perfect line that is unreachable with chairlifts. There are special ski bindings that allow your heel to be unclipped enabling you to walk by gliding your skis along the snow to your destination. You also need to have a pair of ‘skins’ which are strips of fabric with sticky backs that you attach to the bottom of your skis to prevent you from sliding, thus helping you get up the mountain. Skins are especially important when walking on steep terrain. For the ride down, you take those skins off, put them in your backpack, change the settings on your bindings, and use your skis as normal.
While touring is normally done in the off-piste, right now with resorts being closed, it is the best way to get up to the top of the mountain and have the ability to ski. For this reason, Val d’Isere and other ski resorts have been grooming and securing a selection of slopes in the resort for people to be able to tour up to the top in a safe manner and then have the ability to ski down. The main area that has been prepared for ski touring in Val d’Isere is in La Daille with the climb beginning at the bottom, next to the famous Funival lift, and all the way to the top of Bellevarde. It is a very pleasant but challenging climb that is achievable by everyone. There are some steep pitches that do make it harder and some that are deceiving in a way that they look flat but are actually at an angle.
There is also a way to go up to the other side of the mountain by starting to go up the Col de l’Iseran, which is normally a road in the summer meaning it is not that steep, and finishing past the restaurant of Le Signal. I have not yet done this tour and therefore can not comment on it but I have heard that it is also very beginner friendly and can be done by anyone. You just have to make sure you don’t start going up the slope in a straight line from the start as it gets steep very quickly (it is better to zig-zag up).
Touring makes it super easy for skiers to be able to enjoy the mountains and the skiing. However, I am a snowboarder and it is not as straightforward as it is for Skiers. As snowboarders, we have 3 options of how we can get up. The first option is just ‘bootpacking’ all the way up. Which means no extra equipment, just your trusty snowboard boots and your board under your arm or clipped onto the backpack. Second option we have is snowshoeing. Snowshoes or ‘Raquettes’, as they are called in France, are special footwear that you put on to your shoes/boots. The large surface area of the Snowshoes helps you stay on top of the snow, rather than sinking into it, making it easier to get up to the top of the mountain. They also have spikes on the bottom, giving them much more traction and not letting you slip down- just like Ski Skins. They are very easy to use and work similarly to ski touring bindings, where the heel gets unclipped allowing you to walk easily. For the ride down, just clip the snowshoes onto your backpack and you are good to go. They are not too heavy and therefore won’t weigh you down at all when riding down.
The third and best option is using a split board. A split board is a snowboard that can be split in 2 halves, which act like skis, and allow you to ski tour up the mountain. This method also requires special splitboard ‘skins’ that act in the exact same way as the skins on a pair of skis and help you get traction in order to not just slide back whenever there is some steep terrain. While walking, you have 2 halves of a board with a special set of bindings that act like ski touring bindings in releasing the heel. Your feet point towards the nose in order to make it easy to walk up. This is done through the interface that is used on the board. This interface allows you to pivot the bindings while walking and locks them in place when you want to ride down in your chosen stance. In terms of bindings, it does not matter what you use but it is advised to invest into special touring bindings as they are usually lighter and more sturdy than normal bindings and have special features that make it easier to tour up to the mountain. Once at the top and want to put the board together to ride down and enjoy the fruits of your labour, you have special clips at both tips of your board that secure the two halves together and make one snowboard for you to use. All that you then have to do is to turn the bindings sideways, strap in and you are good to go.
It is also advised to always have a backpack handy with you. You can put some water in there, some extra clothing that will help you stay warm (especially important for when you ride down) and other things you may need like a camera. It is also advised to use poles when going up as they help make it easier going up. There are different types of touring poles but even the normal skiing poles will do if you are not planning on going super far off-piste.
DISCLAIMER: I have been talking about on-piste touring. It is secured daily by the ski patrol and therefore you do not need to worry about any safety equipment. However, make sure that you have all the right Avalanche equipment (beeper, probe, shovel and an airbag) and learn how to use it in order to stay as safe as possible when going off-piste. It is also advised to hire a guide when going off-piste who has the knowledge of the mountain, making it safer and a lot more enjoyable.
There are pros and cons to all 3 methods of going up and let’s start with the first method of ‘bootpacking’. The pros of this are obviously that you do not have any extra equipment and thus no extra weight that needs to be carried. There are also no extra costs to doing it as you should already have all the equipment you may need as all you need is appropriate clothing, snowboard boots and a board with bindings. However it is possibly the hardest of the 3 ways of going up. On the steep bits, you have very little traction and are therefore prone to sliding back a bit and potentially slipping. The second method, or ‘snowshoeing’, makes it easier in terms of traction and makes walking up a little bit easier but then you are left with snowshoes at the top and therefore have to strap them onto your bag. You also have to get snowshoes by either purchasing them or renting them. Snowshoes themselves cost around €150-€200 and renting them in Val is around €10 per day. The third methind, and probably the easiest, is split boarding. Split boards make going up the easiest out of the 3 methods because of the way they glide across the snow. But split boards are very costly. I am not too sure about the price of renting one in Val d’Isere but to purchase one will set you back more than it would cost you to get a normal snowboard. The split board is a very niche type of board and therefore it is an expense that is not advised for day-to-day riding.