An introduction to ski touring

For many good intermediate to advanced skiers/snowboarders the natural progression of their winter sport adventures is to try ski touring. It’s such a pleasure to watch a good skier/snowboarder moving effortlessly down a powder-covered mountainside, but reaching that level of ability can seem unachievable with so much to learn - technique, kit, mastering powder, changing conditions, weather, avalanche risk (all of which can be summed up as winter mountain craft). In this blog (the first of a series) we start to follow the journey of two skiers in their quest to become ski tourers under the guidance of James (an ESF instructor with over 20 years experience and your host at the Ancienne Poste Avajan).

All activities were carried out in accordance with Covid-19 regulations in place at the time.

IMG 3172

Outdoor sport (especially endurance based) has always played a big part in our lives (but it has to be fun too). We are keen road cyclists and love the mountains and outdoor life whatever the season whether it be for hiking, climbing or skiing. So, to help us maintain a high level of fitness during the winter and to enjoy the mountains, but in a new way, ski touring seemed like the next step. However, our past experiences had been mixed, with patchy instruction, ill-fitting kit and poor snow conditions leading to outings that were not fun and reduced our confidence. However, our enthusiasm for the sport has never faded so we decided to have another go.

We are fortunate enough to know James and asked him if he could teach us to become ski tourers.

The first thing James did was to make sure we had the proper kit. James has forged great contacts in the valley to ensure his clients are well equipped. He met us at Ski Mountain the ski shop based at the bottom of the Skyvall telecabin. There we were efficiently measured for boots and skis all of which were brand new stock.

James suggested the best place to start learning was at the local ski resort, Peyragudes (currently closed for normal skiing). This decision immediately made us comfortable. It is a familiar environment with plenty of non-groomed slopes that were covered in fresh powder allowing us to practice safely.

With James’ instruction we quickly learnt how to apply the skins to our skis. The skins (so called because they were originally made of seal skin) ensure the skis “grip” the snow as you walk up. James demonstrated and explained the technique to move the skis to enable us to “walk” up the mountain efficiently using minimum energy.

IMG 3179 (2)

As the gradient and conditions changed, James explained how and when to change the settings on the bindings to make walking easier/efficient. He showed us how to make a turn when traversing across a steep slope and we built on each technique according to the conditions.

IMG 3183 (2)

After about 1.5hours of steady, unhurried ascent we arrived at the top of the ski resort. During a picnic lunch James clearly set out the techniques and mental mindset needed for the descent.

IMG 3199

Before we set off, we removed the skins from our skis and set the bindings and our boots to ski mode. The first few turns felt awkward but James was patient and gave us simple exercises to enable us to rapidly improve. He described the difference between skiing in powder vs a groomed piste, the importance of momentum, position and how to make turns. They are not the normal closed C shape but more of a shallow linking S as you move out of the turn early to keep momentum. This is needed because the deeper snow makes you move more slowly. It is amazing how many ski lessons involve the instructor drawing the shape of the turn they want you to make in the snow whilst patiently explaining how to achieve it.

IMG 3206 (3)

During the descent James gave us tips, guidance and encouragement. He observed our style and line and provided the tools and advice to correct any faults and improve technique. Less than half way down things were coming together. Everything felt more natural and fluid and our confidence grew. By the time we reached the bottom we were buzzing from a mix of adrenalin, achievement, happiness and definitely wanting more! We achieved our initial goal thanks to James’ patient, clear and enthusiastic teaching.

IMG 3209

We are ready for our next lesson when we’ll venture further and build on what we have learnt including the mountain crafts that James insists, quite rightly, we learn so we can become competent and safe ski tourers.

IMG 3229 (2)

More than anything it was a great day out, lots of laughs, incredible views, a good cardio workout and a fabulous ski down. James made the outing fun and positive and we can’t thank him enough. Look out for the next instalment of our adventures in the world of ski touring and find out how we progress under James’ instruction and guidance.

IMG 3219 (2)