Ski touring: the trend for ski-hiking uphill continues to climb

Ski touring is a trend that keeps on climbing. Crans-Montana in Switzerland has launched 15 new ski touring routes specifically aimed at the growing number of skiers who prefer to go uphill.Sunday, 13 October 2019

Skiers going uphill under their own power, following the Cappuccino Route, Pitztal, before enjoying the descent.
Skiers going uphill under their own power, following the Cappuccino Route, Pitztal, before enjoying the descent.
photo by Martin Klotz

It’s late afternoon and the sky across the valley is orange; the mountain tops are grey and crisp against the waning sun. What was a blazing hot afternoon is fast turning cold — I stop not only to enjoy the view, but to pull a snack bar out of my backpack, take a glug of water and layer up. Years of experience in the mountains have taught me to catch the first signs of a chill before temperatures plummet — once you’re cold, it’s hard to get warm. Sheltered behind a rock, I feel utterly mesmerised by the view across the Rhone Valley towards the busy resorts of Verbier and Nendaz. Mont Blanc stands majestic in the distance, looking over us all. There’s not a soul around; I feel totally alone yet completely content — as I always do on touring skis, far away from the madding crowd.

I’m in Crans-Montana in Switzerland, which last winter launched 15 new ski touring routes — across 40km — specifically aimed at the growing number of skiers who prefer to go uphill under their own power before enjoying the descent. Since I discovered ski touring about five years ago, I’ve become increasingly addicted. While some think you’re mad to climb a mountain when perfectly good chair lifts will do the job for you, I love the challenge. It’s thinking time away from the pistes and there’s nothing better than breathing in the crystal-clear air of the mountains, feeling their silent might surround you: it’s mindfulness as its absolute best. 

Ski touring involves using specialist equipment to ‘ski’ uphill. The boots are softer, with a ‘walk mode’ that allows your ankles to flex, and the skis are lighter — you attach mohair ‘skins’ to the bottom to stick to the snow. Walking uphill, rather than relying on a lift, allows you to venture into quieter, untapped areas of the mountains. While Crans-Montana has some brilliant lift-served skiing, there are plenty of quieter spaces to be found. And on its new ski touring routes, designated safely away from avalanche terrain, you can ski uphill to your heart’s content without having to shell out for a mountain guide that will cost at least CHF250/£200 for just half a day. 

We set off from Aminona, along the road from Crans and Montana — separate villages handily linked by a free bus. The trails wind slowly through remote farming hamlets, our path only very occasionally crossed by other mountain users. It’s hard not to keep exclaiming over the views, which are magical: on the south-facing side of the Rhône Valley, mountains stretch as far as the eye can see. Bathed in sunshine all day long, even though it’s only January, it’s a pleasure to spend the afternoon climbing, the chill only setting in at sundown. 

I’m in a group of five, but we spread out after setting off, each taking the uphill climb at our own pace while lost in our own thoughts. From 3,510ft we climb for 4,265ft, until we reach the summit under the cover of nightfall. After four hours on the mountain, the last few 300ft or so are achieved by the light of a head torch. We remove our skins in the shelter of an old lift station on the peak of Petit Mont Bonvin at 7,874ft and slug some hot tea from our packs before heading downhill. We ski to the Mayen de la Cure restaurant to warm ourselves beside the fire and enjoy a hearty supper of raclette and red wine followed by cheesecake with Abricotine, an apricot brandy made with local Valaisan apricots. Without lifts, fresh tracks are easy to find on the descent. Refuelled, running through the dark, the soft, powdery snow makes my skis float as if on air. And still, there’s not a soul in sight.

The resort of La Clusaz, in France, has new ski touring routes for beginners and advanced skiers.
The resort of La Clusaz, in France, has new ski touring routes for beginners and advanced skiers.
photo by Marc Andre Verpaelst

Ski touring: beginner’s terrain

Serre Chevalier, France
This resort of towns and villages across a valley has two new marked ski touring routes that launched last winter and gives skiers easier access to pristine terrain.
Stay: Seven nights half-board for up to 12 people occupying a whole chalet from £8,000. chezbear.com 

Kimberley, Canada
Most ski touring takes place beyond the resort area in North America, but Kimberley Alpine Resort has launched what it calls an ‘uptracking route’ within the boundary limits.
Stay: Seven nights’ self-catering at Trickle Creek Lodge, including return flights and transfers, from £937 per person. inghams.co.uk

Chamonix, France
The Chamonix Valley has three new marked ski touring routes for all abilities spread across the valley from Le Tour to Argentière and over in Les Houches too.
Stay: Seven nights from €420 (£377) per person, B&B. chalet-in-chamonix.co.uk

Pitztal, Austria
If you can’t wait until winter to get your ski touring fix, then perhaps the Pitztal Glacier in Austria’s Tyrol region is the answer. From mid-December onwards, there’s a special beginners ski touring session every Tuesday.
Stay: Seven nights’ half-board at Hotel Piz from £670 (excludes flights; EasyJet offers one-way fares to Innsbruck from £70). zenithholidays.co.uk

La Clusaz, France
The resort of La Clusaz is great for families and freeride skiers and has two new ski touring routes: one for beginners, another for advanced skiers.
Stay: Seven nights’ in the new Hotel St-Alban, B&B, costs from £869 per person including flights and transfers. inghams.co.uk

ESSENTIALS

Crans-Montana is easy to reach by train from Geneva Airport: a two-hour journey to Sierre then a funicular ride up to the resort. Kit can be hired from Rando Shop on Rue Centrale. Generally, touring doesn’t require a ski pass but make sure you have relevant travel insurance.

Ski Solutions offers seven nights’ B&B in Hotel Splendide from £1,170 per person, including flights and rail transfer.

Further info: crans-montana.ch/en

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