The Backcountry Experience First Timer Ski Blog


No lifts, no pistes, Also, no people and no other tracks. The backcountry can be daunting but it's an exhilarating experience as our highly-motivated first time ski tourer discovers.

I started skiing while still at school and from my mid 20s have skied a week or two most years with a couple of breaks due to the imminent arrival of children and the enforced COVID sabbatical.

A couple of years ago I retired and am now fortunate enough to spend three months of the season in the beautiful resort of Chantemerle in the Serre Chevalier valley. As a result, I consider myself a ‘relatively competent’ piste skier but have very limited off piste/backcountry experience, something I have always wanted to try since the days of the Greg Stump movies of the late 80s.

This all changed earlier in the week. Having bought the obligatory safety equipment (transceiver, shovel and probe) and undertaken basic avalanche training, I embarked upon my first backcountry tour with the eminently experienced STYLE ALTITUDE team. We met at 08.30 at the Route du Granon just outside the village and drove as high as permitted before donning our ski boots. This is where the adventure really began.

We walked up the road to the snow line where we bumped into a section of the French army just about to start an ascent carrying 40k bags on their backs. We put on our skis and skins. This is completely different to anything I have done previously and to say I was a little apprehensive is an understatement.

We set off to the summit of the Gardiole at an altitude of 2753m. This involved a vertical climb of approximately 900m and took just over three hours. Although not a particularly technical ascent it was physically demanding. I like to think I am relatively fit for my age but this was exhausting.

But boy, was it worth it. The views over the village during the initial part of the climb were wonderful but this paled into insignificance once we got higher with spectacular views over the surrounding mountain ranges and nothing I have experienced during all my years of resort skiing.

After a welcome stop for our packed lunch at the summit and the mandatory photograph to prove I actually made it to the top, we took off our skins and started the descent.

This isn’t a straightforward as you might think, no piste markers in the backcountry. You need to pick a route down between the rocks and gullies and it is essential you have a mountain guide or an experienced backcountry skier to ensure your safety at all times.

The snow conditions also varied dramatically during the descent dependent on the aspect of the slope. The weather was just about perfect but conditions can change in minutes and you really don’t want to be stuck in the middle of nowhere with poor visibility and not knowing which way to go.

The skiing was actually harder than I expected, mainly due to the snow conditions, which were far from perfect but in no way did this detract from the overall enjoyment. The sensation of skiing in the wilderness is so different from being on piste with no evidence of human existence and a general feeling of complete freedom and being at one with nature. A completely exhilarating experience.

In what seemed liked no time at all we arrived back at the start of our ascent, took off our skis and returned to the van.

This was my first backcountry skiing and I can see why people become addicted. It is the perfect mix of experiencing the wide-open spaces of the mountains combined with physical challenges and, last but not least, the opportunity to ski untracked snow. It goes without saying this will not be my last venture and I am hooked!

Many thanks to the STYLE ALTITUDE team of Gavin, Elaine and Ken who couldn’t have made me feel more welcome and ensured my safety throughout.

New to the backcountry? Check out Ski Touring For Beginners.