THE 7 SKI TOUR TRIBES
With so many heading up the hill under their own boot power because of closed lifts or the desire to avoid them thanks to COVID, there are distinct differences in ski tour modus operandi.
This winter we've seen hikers dragging their skis up with boots clipped into the bindings, snowshoers with skis on their backs and even one young guy from Paris on hired touring skis, half way up the mountain, who told us he'd never skied before. Lord knows how he got down in one piece.
So now ski touring is not only the sport of ski kings as in Ski Mountaineers, SkiMos and the UPPIES who can afford the best kit but, also, attracting the world, his wife and a whole bunch of Jerries......
TYPE 1: COMMANDOS
WHO: This is the A Team of ski touring. They are rock stars with the 'axe' factor as these ski tourers are also ski mountaineers. The turns they earn descending come at a high price but these ski tour Commandos like nothing more than to go further and higher, over ridges, up couloirs, climbing summits There are no vertical limits. Ascents are well over 1500m a day as they eat vertical metres for breakfast frequently touring above 3000m until transitioning to bootpacking mountaineer mode .
HOW TO SPOT THEM: They have that rock star charisma, their features often as chiselled as the mountains they climb, their hair as untamed as their spirit of adventure, their idea of a brush being one with danger. With ropes slung around their bodies, harnesses on their hips, jingling with carabiners and ice screws, ice axes dangling off their backpacks, Commandos are kitted for doing Mont Blanc even when dropping into a bar in Chamonix.
ESSENTIAL PIECE OF KIT: Hands down, an ice axe.
LEAST LIKELY TO SAY: "Let's stop here for a picnic".
MOST LIKELY TO SAY: "Let's not stop, I'm going for a world record".
Main image: Rock star Polish ski mountaineer Andrzej Bargiel who became the first to ascend K2 without oxygen and to click into his bindings at 8,611m and descend without removing his skis.
TYPE 2: SKINNIES
WHO: Known as SkiMos, short for ski mountaineers (not Eskimos) but could also be for skinny mountaineers as both they and their kit are lean mean climbing machines. Life is not a journey, it IS a race. Skinnies are always sprinting to do laps and/or uphill, racing to the top. These guys (and girls) can notch up to a breathtaking (literally) 1400m vertical an hour. Transitioning takes less than 30 seconds. Coming down is the biggest challenge with such lightweight narrow skis and flexible boots.
HOW TO SPOT THEM: First, they're in skintight Lycra rather than Gore-Tex. Often an all-in-one Lycra suit with a bib or number pinned on (they are always racing). All gear is as streamlined as can be to help forward and upward momentum. Sometimes they'll be wearing their skins around their necks, to save time stashing them on the way down.
ESSENTIAL PIECE OF KIT: Skinny skis (around 65mm), skins, skintight Lycra.
LEAST LIKELY TO SAY: "I'll wait for you at the top".
MOST LIKELY TO SAY: "See ya".
TYPE 3: SOLOISTS
WHO: They are the lone wolves of ski touring. They come out of nowhere, overtaking you on the uphill section with a nod of the head as they slide past at double your speed. Their uphill climbing is phew-nomenal, 500m an hour easy even when breaking trail. Blink and you'll miss that kickturn.
They tour all day, everyday covering kilometres in distance and vertical metres without breaking sweat (which is why Soloists are always alone as who can keep up?). Age-wise can be anywhere between 40 and 90, it's hard to tell as even the oldest climb the mountain like goats on steroids.
HOW TO SPOT THEM: Soloists are out at crack of dawn believing the early bird catches the worm (or untracked) so they're often packing their skis back in the van by the time you arrive to park up. Function beats fashion when it comes to gear. If it ain't broke why fix it - and if it is broke then there's always duct tape. Sometimes they'll be with a hardcore dog such as a Border Collie or German Shepherd bounding alongside enjoying extreme walkies.
NB. Not to be confused with the lone skier you spot on their own climbing dejectedly with shoulders hunched and sniffing back tears, who was promised a fun day 'walking' up the mountain and has been left behind by a faster, more experience, not-very-patient OH.
ESSENTIAL PIECE OF KIT: Duct tape and/or cable ties.
LEAST LIKELY TO SAY: "Hi. Do you want to join me?"
MOST LIKELY TO SAY: Nothing
TYPE 4: UPPIES
WHO: They are skiers who have moved on from piste skiing to sidecountry to backcountry. They regard ski touring as a natural progression and, like road cycling, kite surfing, running, is something you do if you're fit and on Strava. Like the YUPPIES of the 80s, UPPIES are often upwardly-mobile professionals who, as with every other sport they do, they do it well and want the best - and for ski touring this generally means the latest and lightest kit with maximum performance.
There are no limits to their ski touring adventures, north past the Arctic Circle, south to Antarctica, east to Furano, west to Chile and anywhere in between with snow. For UPPIES, the ski tour de force is the Patrouille des Glaciers, a 55.5km race for teams of three from Zermat to Verbier, a cult touring event run by the Swiss Army, with 4228m of ascent.
UPPIES will pay for mountain guides to lead the way in unfamiliar and remote areas, otherwise can mostly find their own way with downloaded ski tour routes and through word of mouth. (Sometimes an UPPIE may enjoy going his/her own way so much they break loose from their tour type and become an occasional Soloist.)
Together they are the Light Brigade charging ski touring like everything else sportive in their lives, at full gallop. They've mastered kickturns even on icy traverses and can transition with studied efficiency. Going up for them is a workout, 400m an hour no problem, with 3000m around their max height to transition for a recreational ski tour (ie when not going for a Strava vertical challenge). Then it's all downhill for those first tracks. Woohooooo.
HOW TO SPOT THEM: UPPIES ride the lightest skis, bindings, tech boots and wear the lightest avy bag, gilets and puffa jackets. Touring skis under 100mm wide are old school for them; they'll climb up on touring skis over 102 that are designed to be lightweight for the ascent but with optimum performance coming down especially in powder.
UPPIES actually consider what goes with what, which is quite a feat considering how many layers a ski tourer can wear or pack. Norrona, Elevenate, Jottnar, Ortovox are all favourite UPPIE brands. But their style has to appear effortless.The only time these ski tourers want to look like they're making an effort is when they're sweating on the traverse of a steep icy ridge.
You can't miss them on social media. If you're a friend or follower, you'll be bombarded with their ski tour vlogs, especially featuring those powder descents, filmed via the latest drone or GoPro Max 360.
ESSENTIAL PIECE OF KIT: Toss up between the latest DPS Pagoda Tour skis or a Garmin fēnix® 6 Pro. Actually both, why not?
LEAST LIKELY TO SAY: "Phew I'm hot".
MOST LIKELY TO SAY: "Just gonna take a layer off and unzip my vents".
TYPE 5: TOUR-ISTS
WHO: What do you call a group of ski tourers? A flock? A herd? Maybe a murmuration. These ski Tour-ists migrate together in a group up the mountain so they are often members of the CAF or similar. They'll follow the leader (tour guide) blindly uphill so you can only hope that the 'leader' is actually a mountain guide or similar and not just someone who can slide faster than the rest.
Ultimately speed is not of their essence, 350m an hour is a good result. A kickturn is more of a shuffle around the bend.
Coming down, if there's no guide, they'll follow their skinning tracks even if it's crap windblown crud oblivious to the glorious cold powder that's over there on the north-facing slope. But skiing style is not their forte - and is often old school with much waving of ski poles. Many have been ski touring for years seemingly before lifts were invented - and their kit looks as ancient as they are. But, hey, they're in the mountains and having fun.
HOW TO SPOT THEM: First, there is the tour bus aka coach at the side of the road. Then there is the zigzag line as Tour-ists traverse uphill. Murmuration? These guys don't murmur, they chatter like magpies. Even if you can't see them you can hear them on the picnic rock a mile away. Two miles if they're Italian.
ESSENTIAL PIECE OF KIT: Cork screw.
LEAST LIKELY TO SAY: "Would you like to share my energy bar?".
MOST LIKELY TO SAY: "Would you like to share my bottle of Bordeaux with lunch?".
TYPE 6: SKINTERNS
WHO: Ski Interns, Skinterns, are new to ski touring, especially post Covid apocalypse winter 2020 - 2021 when, in Europe, there were no ski lifts and, in North America, a desire to avoid them. Many have started by heading uphill in ski resorts where there is the relative safety of marked pistes for going up and coming down.
Significantly there's a new generation of younger skiers and, also, snowboarders heading into the backcountry under their own climbing power. For some millennials this is voting with their feet against the machinery of ski resorts and the green future they see for skiing/snowboarding - and the planet. For others, it's just a cool alternative, swapping tricks in the park for first tracks in the powder. And, it's also a whole lot cheaper than buying a lift pass (unless you count essential kit they need to buy such as touring boots or splitboard).
Certainly these fledgling ski tourers or splitboarders cannot afford a mountain guide (much as they are worth every cent) and so look for seasoned uphillers such as any of the UPPIES to take them under their wing. They have boundless energy for going uphill (it's the age thing) so expect at least 400m an hour but limited attention so don't expect them to listen to lectures about snowpack (again, an age thing).
HOW TO SPOT THEM: They usually cannot afford the whole ski touring kit shebang especially if they're seaonaires. Much is hired, borrowed or begged (another good reason for being adopted by UPPIES with spare kit to lend). They still dress for the park with baggy pants and helmets worn East Coast style over their beanies. They ski as they did in the park with shorter poles and knees bent ready for that switch up or double cork, which quickly transforms to a freeride style, with wide powder turns, hucking bumps and pillows to make older ski tourers feel, er, old.
ESSENTIAL PIECE OF KIT: iPhone 12 Pro.
LEAST LIKELY TO SAY: "Just need to take a break".
MOST LIKELY TO SAY: "Just need to take a selfie".
TYPE 7: JERRIES
WHO: This Ski Tour tribe has grown over winter 2020-2021 thanks to COVID restrictions for ski lifts opening. Before the COVID apocalypse many didn't realise there is another way to get up the hill in order to ski. But with ski lifts closed what's a Jerry to do? As they say necessity is the mother of invention. And this tribe has been very inventive over the winter, in order to get up the hill and not buy or hire any new kit.
So they've come up with new ways to ski tour. How come ski mountaineers never thought of dragging their skis up the mountain with their boots clipped in? Jerries, also, bring their unique insight to touring. Skins on back to front, why not? Ski down with touring boots in walk mode. Great idea.
HOW TO SPOT THEM: How not to? They'll always make you do a double take to check out that they really do have their goggles on upside down. If you don't happen to spot them someone else will - and they'll be on Jerry of the Day before sundown. They have jackets tied around their waist going up as who needs a backpack? So massive eyeroll as, of course Jerry has no idea about safety gear and carrying probes and shovel for backcountry rescue. Thank goodness, then, that most stick to the pistes but not necessarily the edges and so become human slalom poles for skiers on the way down.
ESSENTIAL PIECE OF KIT: A helmet as they're going to need it on the descent But, hey, not a motorcycle one.
LEAST LIKELY TO SAY: "I'm getting the hang of kickturns".
MOST LIKELY TO SAY: "What's a kickturn?".