SKI TOURING IS THE NEW TREND. It’s growing beyond its traditional ground of haute routes and refuges and we now see it daily even in our ski resorts. The ones that got a bite onto it can’t keep their mouth shut bragging about its virtues. You are getting the munchies and you know it, but gearing up seems complicated and it’s expensive.
In ski touring you have to go up and you have to go down.
We want to go far, go high, do it fast, do it light and with less effort. At the same time we want to shred it, we want to have strong boots, solid bindings and wide skis that surf on powder. Carrying a kilo on your feet consumes as much energy as carrying five kilos on your shoulders. It’s then crucial to define our objectives and choose the right gear doing the right compromises between weight and performance.
To get an idea of what I mean, you will hear that a good ski for alpinism, long distances and strong uphills should not go beyond 90mm wide underfoot. On the other hand, a good freeride powder ski should not go below 90mm.
It’s all about the pow: FREE TOURING
If we are looking to crush a powder slope, dive at every turn between the trees, gliding, hair in the wind and rock n’ roll, then your world is Free Touring: in between freeride and touring. We are focusing on the way down and the uphill is the price to pay for it.
In winter we will most likely seek the powder not above the tree line to limit avalanche risk, while in spring, when the mountain is more stable, we will look for slopes and corridors on the shadow that still preserve corn snow.Generally, this ascents do not require more than 800m uphill. Free touring gears are solid and powerful, however this makes it heavier than long distance ski alpinism sets.
We will seek for a ski with a solid volume that keeps us afloat on the pow. However the larger the ski, the heavier the ski. The larger the ski implies as well larger volume for the skins, hence heavier again. Our ski does not only need to have volume, we will need
enough rigidity to drive and dominate the turns. We will need then a ski with a solid core and a smart layering system, if we try to take a weight shortcut by diving into an ultralight construction, you may get bizarre feelings in your way down.
If we look for a ski that works on powder, but we want to cut as much weight as possible, then you should go for a width in between 94 and 99mm underfoot for men and around 88mm for women. If we go for this option, make sure to have a meaty front rocker. Generally for men I would recommend a height around the forehead and for women under the nose.
On such set up, you should dominate and crush powder untill around 30cm deep on a medium to steep slope.
If we are after a deep pow cruiser that still will allow us to climb 800m uphill on spring conditions, then we should go for 99-109mm width underfoot and 5 to 8cm taller than us for men. For women this will be 92-98mm wide and towards the forehead for the height.
Wider skis are absolute bombs on deep snow, however I will not recommend them for touring; it just gets painful to overcome a hill over 400m of vertical gain, especially if it requires several kick turns.
We will need them to be stiff and able to transmit the energy firmly to our skis, yet with a fair walking mode. The standard locking system is three buckles and a power strap, however we may find variations. Some models include carbon plates on the upper cuff and/or a hard plastic tongue that brings extra support on the downhill. The sole will be covered in rubber and will be slightly curved for stretches of mix ground and bootpacking yet not as pronounced as in ski mountaineering boots.Your boots should have a double pin locking system for adjusting to a tech binding and a lever for releasing the walking mode.
Mind the fit! Most touring boots have a remarkable narrow construction towards the base of the feet. Try different models from different manufacturers and keep in mind the option of buying good foot beds and even thermoforming the linings. Do not try to gain in comfort by buying a larger size. This shortcut will not work and you will get a nasty unstable feeling on the downhill.
Tech bindings with pin system. Period. Get over your irrational fears. However for free touring we will step aside from the ultra light and we will go for models with reinforced heels. Generally such models have a break on the heel part. Some of the most popular are the Dynafit Tlt Radical 2, G3 Ion, Plum Yak and Marker Kingpin.
There are as well step-in touring bindings such as the Marker Tour F12 and the Diamir Freeride pro. I will not recommend those systems for touring. Although there are no doubt stronger, there are painfully heavier. They are generally combined with skis over 110mm underfoot and bulkier boots. Such equipment is a freeride kit with a walking mode for short approaches rather than a proper touring setup.
Up, up, up, more up and then down: SKI MOUNTAINEERING.
Reaching a representative summit, crossing a valley until a col, a link up of refuges, a ring road around a massif, traversing a glacier…If this sounds a bit more to what you had in mind, then welcome to ski mountaineering!
Such activities generally include one or several of the following characteristics: long distances, positive gain over 800m, steeper terrain, stretches of mix ground and they can requiere of the gear and techniques of alpinism.There are runs for all levels, the learning curve is not necessarily more difficult or dangerous than for other activities, but it’s recommended to take the first steps by a qualified mountain guide.
As this activity is framed in the high mountain, the best season is the spring when the Mountains are less charged in snow and we benefit from longer and warmer days. On a good year, the season can last until early june and start again with the first snowfalls of the fall.
Given the high amount of effort required, we will seek for a set that minimizes weight and allow us to progress on safety. In the mountains going fast means going safe, hence the lighter we go, the safer we are. To illustrate this statement, with a proper ultralight ski mountaineering kit, we should be able to overcome a corridor or a steep slope one third faster than with a wide-ish solid free touring set. Hence, we will be one third less of time exposed to avalanches, serrac or rock falls.
Light and Fast. We will look for a width underfit between 80-85mm. We will go for a height just under the nose for men and under the chin for female. It’s important to reduce the height not only to save weight but as well to gain manoeuvrability on kick turns and safety while bootpacking.
If we are looking for a climbing ski, but we still want it to be playful on not so deep fresh snow, and we need extra support on steep and narrow descents, then we should go for an underfoot width of 86-89mm.
Should I go Carbon? Keep in mind that carbon constructed skis can save up a quarter of the weight. There are some models that barely go over one kg. You can really feel the weight difference. However they are as well far more unstable on hard uneven snow and they are more fragile; they do not hold abuse so well. Carbon is not a good option if you want a do all ski for every condition. On the other hand It can be a really smart option if you like long distances, strong uphill and not so thrilling descents on good snow.
We will find models with minimal layering and closing systems to cut down as much weight as possible. The classic one or two boucles and one power strap, is rapidly getting replaced by one or two boa locks and a power strap. It can be interesting to go for a model that saves some buckles and carbon plates on the upper cuff if we need extra support on technical descents. The soles are covered on rubber with a strong pattern and have a pronounced profile to help on technical mix terrain. Some models have this feature more accentuated, it will be useful for us if we will spend time on mix slopes, ridges or generally bootpacking.
Ultralight tech bindings. Some of the most popular are the Dynafit Tlt Superlite, Dynafit Tlt Speed Radical and Plum Guide.
Finally, I would like to point out that nowadays the line dividing the different modalities of touring is getting thinner and thinner. Every season the main manufactures achieve to introduce new models more in between free touring and ski mountaineering. Moreover it’s not unusual to see people going for a 95mm underfoot free touring kind of ski built in a ultralight minimal tech binding. On the other hand you will find skis 84mm underfoot built on a reinforced heel tech binding such as the TLT radical.
The possibilities are endless!
Notice that on this article I have focused on skis, boots and bindings; the three pieces of gear that causes more headaches on the first time. However, to complete your kit, you will also need skins and ski crampons. Do not get too crazy on these accessories and ask your retailer to give you the ones that will fit your skis and bindings.
I hope that you now have a stronger criteria to build a proper setup for crushing your objectives safely. But remember, your gear won’t do all the job, YOU will have to take it up!