Peau de what? Trying ski-touring for the first time and loving it!

I love the idea of adventure and new endurance sports. I love pushing myself as hard as I can physically. And I love the mountains. So ever since I heard about ski-touring, I have wanted to have a go. For Christmas this year, Mrs. F. and I went to Switzerland and found ourselves for a few days in a resort called Champex Lac.

Champex is a town we – and anyone who has been on the Tour de Mont Blanc, or run the UTMB or the CCC for example – will be familiar with. It is a small town with a handful of restaurants, a couple of shops and a big lake that in winter freezes and is turned into a huge ice-skating rink.

Champex is situated on the trail between La Fouly and Trient on the UTMB CCC route and sits nestled between the steep sides of a gulley at 1447m above sea level. Apart from the lake, it is not flat! But whilst this does not make for a great place to go cross-country skiing (especially if like me, you were trying to learn a new style of cross-country skiing on the day you went out on the ‘flat’ pistes) it does make for an amazing place to try out ski-touring

What is ski-touring?

Ski-touring is described by the good people at Mountain Tracks as:

travelling through mountain landscape in winter on skis under human power rather than through the use of ski lifts, giving access to wild, isolated mountain terrain and a remote and pristine landscape that is rarely experienced by resort-based skiers.

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Attaching the peau de phoque

It basically involved using what look like regular downhill skis with a modified binding that allows the heel to come up in the same way that a cross-country ski works. For the uphill bits, you stick a strap of fabric to the bottom of the ski, which stops the ski sliding backwards. That fabric is called Ski Skins or as the French call them peau de phoque, which translates as seal skins. For the downhill bits you whip the Ski Skins off and clip the heel of the boot down, and away you go!

The attraction for me is that ski-touring promises a bloody hard work out (uphill), an adrenaline hit (downhill), the promise of adventure (go off-piste) and the chance to do something different. The problem is that I wanted to know if it was something I’d like to invest time and money in. Champex offered me that possibility.

Not running

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Julie demonstrating perfect ski-touring form

After Julie and I spent a day trying to show my parents and mother-in-law the rudiments of cross-country skiing in an area that really has very little in the way of flat, we decided to have a go with ski-touring skis the next day. The owners of the ski-hire place helpfully told us that many people used the pistes above Champex to try ski-touring, climbing up on the sides of the piste and then skiing down. In fact, doing that was more popular than ever since the Patrouille de Glaciers race comes through Champex, so people wanting to do the race use this as a good training base.

We were fitted out with skis, boots and skins and readied ourselves for the challenge the next morning. I was beyond excited.

The good news for me, was that ski-touring was much easier than I feared it might be. The skins are amazing. They feel like velvet and really stick on the uphills – there is no back-sliding at all, even on the steepest and iciest bits of a prepared piste. In powdery snow, there was not even a hint of sliding backwards.

It does take a bit of getting used to. The boots and skis are big and heavy – certainly much heavier than cross-country skis. And I did have some pretty sore patches on the front of my shins after 4 hours in the boots.

However the sore shins would undoubtedly go after a few days practice and shin-toughening and whilst the boots and skis were a bit heavy they meant you could ski up – and down – a mountain!

Overall impressions

Basically, I loved my first mini-experience of ski-touring. It was really hard work but didn’t hammer the knees at all. My heart rate was high the whole time I was climbing and I loved the steady, plodding relentlessness of it. It really reminded me of ultra-trail running where you zone out and simply plow on and on and on… Typically, I had to go up and down the pistes above Champex three times!

I also enjoyed the downhill elements although I must admit that I need to do some work on my skiing – I am rather ungainly and would need to become a more competent skiier if I want to do more ski-touring (and I undoubtedly do, money notwithstanding!)

I am also happy to admit that I loved the way that ski-touring promises so much in the way of adventure. I can really imagine heading off into the mountains, under my own steam, in the quiet with nothing more than the sound of my breath and the click-clack of the boots and skis under me. I felt like a real adventurer in the moments when I was alone on the route up to the ski lift station. Now I just need to figure out how I can get back there to do more. Any suggestions on a postcard please!

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