Ski touring in Chamonix is mandatory and not having a touring set up limits not just where you can go but who wants to ski with you. It might sound strange but I now fully appreciate where this comes from. The phrase ski touring was completely unknown to me just a few years ago. I remember watching from ski lifts, people slogging their way up mountains, completely unable to grasp why they wouldn’t just get on the lift and save themselves some trouble. Now, however, I am a total convert, with my eyes opened to not just the health benefits but the scope that getting yourself up a mountain provides.
What is ski touring
In short, you strap mohair or nylon skins to the base of your skis which then allow you to go up hill. Starting often from the valley bottom, but sometimes from a lift, you take yourself off the piste-bashed groomers, away from the crowds, and into the mountains fully under your own steam. Well, I say away from the crowds but that is not entirely true here in Chamonix.
With less than ideal conditions recently, lifts have been closed and the holidaymakers have been keeping indoors. A little bad weather, however, is not going to stop local Chamoniards and every time I have been out I have been amazed at the number of people skinning up the mountains to get the skiing in that the closed lifts have prohibited.
Skiing vs Snowboarding
It is almost a must here to tour, with even snowboarders going down the splitboard approach to get out on these adventures. With a rather archaic and lacklustre lift system, the only way to get out into these incredible mountains is to put a little bit of hard work in and getting out into the big mountains is what has become my biggest passion the last few years. But how?
As a long time snowboarder, I never had much interest in learning to ski – I had no good reason other than that I just loved being on a snowboard, so why change. Then 5 years ago I climbed Mont Blanc for the first time and was introduced to the world of alpinism and self-reliance in the mountains. It wasn’t long before my annual snowboard trips were replaced with summer alpine climbing holidays and snowboarding took a very much back seat.
When I moved to Chamonix in May 2014 I knew I had a decision to make. Come winter, what sport was I going to commit to. I knew I wanted to progress my climbing, to start getting forging my way up larger and longer north face mountain routes but how was I going to do this? To get to the bases of any of these climbs, I would need to tour so do I carry on snowboarding or do I take the plunge and learn to ski?
With about 13 years snowboarding experience, a huge part of me wanted to just keep on that track and get out quickly, however, another part of me just wanted to try something new. With so many other new experiences, why not see what skiing is all about and see if I can turn my hand to this over the winter of 14/15?
There were also a number of other important factors that finally swayed me, notably that it is possible to ice climb in ski touring boots but not snowboard boots making the dream of skiing into a mountain, climbing it, then skiing out a distinct possibility.
I committed. I dived head first into learning to ski and, I have to say, it was one of the best decisions I have ever made.
With my first season out the way; I learned to ski, I went on my first tentative ski tours, and I even skied into a climb, climbed the hardest route I had by that point, and skied home by head torch. Not bad for a first season.
Ski touring in Chamonix
As this winter approached, I was very excited. Though a long way to go in becoming a strong skier, I was not starting from scratch this year and I knew so much more would be opened up to me. Just the simple fact of being able to survival ski – getting down a mountain without dying! – would open up more this season but unbeknownst to me before I started, I have completely fallen in love with skiing in its own right.
Yes, I want to get out on more climbs that require ski approaches but just being out on skis, touring up and around, then skiing back and home is just so liberating. As I said at the begin, Chamonix has a rather limited lift system if you want to ski piste. Chamonix just isn’t a ski resort, it is a mountain town with unparallelled lift access into the mountains. With classic off piste descents like The Vallée Blanche and Pas de Chevre, people travel far and wide to experience this Massif. You look up into the mountains and see whole faces undeveloped and bare of the ubiquitous alpine mechanical lifts. I used to wonder why they don’t build more here but now I know – if they build more lifts it would fundamentally change what Chamonix is – the Mecca of outdoor sports, and the launching point to some of the finest adventures in the world.
The winter has had a slow start but it is most definitely here now. The early season excursions have given me a chance to practice my skills as well as work on my fitness. Thankfully all of the kettlebell training has massively complemented the preparation for ski season with swings priming my legs and core like never before, in this situation strength most certainly does matter!
I have not even scratched the surface of what is available here but I’ve been putting the work in, learning the skills and gaining the confidence of moving in the mountains with skis. The road is long but the wonderful thing about it is that every step and turn of the way is filled with incredible and magical views, wonderful people, and a sense of satisfaction like no other.