Well, you can ski down hill, across and along them. But you can also ski up them. This means that you can go on long journeys away from the lifts, through untracked snow to some of the most amazing mountainscapes on the planet!
This post is for those who have not previously come across 'ski touring' or 'ski mountaineering'.
There's quite a lot to it. As you move away from the patrolled resorts you must rely on fitness, skill and self sufficency, but for winter mountain walkers or skiers it's possible to gain the necessary skills without too much fuss.
First off, how do you ski uphill?
You use 'climbing skins'. These are strips of material which attach to the base of your skis. They are covered in short, dense synthetic hairs resembling seal skin which allow the ski to be pushed uphill but grip the snow against the grain of the fibres allowing you to step up. When you get to the top and want to ski down you simply remove the skins and away you go!
Skinning up Mont Blanc.
What skills do you need?
As I mentioned earlier you need to be self sufficent, so the basic skills of winter walking and mountaineering, plus of course skiing are important. For example navigation, using ice axe and crampons, the ability to cope on variable terrain and conditions on foot and ski. Competence on a pisted red run is widely suggested as acceptable for embarking on ski touring. Beyond that experience of variable snow conditions is really good because away from the lifts the snow will be completely 'au naturel'. Think icy, crusty and lumpy! Sometimes it's glorious untracked powder, so it's not all hardship and endurance.
Avalanche avoidance is a really big deal here because as skiers we actively seek out slopes with lots of snow, therefore we need to understand the influence of weather, conditions, terrain and people on snow packs. We need to understand avalanche forecasts and be able to plan itineraries and pick safe lines of travel through avalanche terrain.
In the glaciated regions of the Alps the ability to manage cravassed areas and effect a rescue is crucial.
Scottish ski touring.
What kit do I need?
This list is non-exhaustive bit provides a fair idea.
Ski touring boots
Ski crampons (harscheisen)
The usual winter mountain clothing, food, fluids, safety and emergency equipment
And for glaciated terrain:
Crevasse rescue kit
Applying climbing skins.
What's the difference between ski touring and ski mountaineering?
Think of the difference between winter walking and mountaineering. The latter often means steeper ground, more exposure, scrambling and perhaps the use of a rope for protection – with skis stapped to rucksack.
Where to go?
Just about anywhere on the planet with snowy slopes, from the downs of England, Scottish Highlands, the European Alps to the Himalaya!
Ski touring in Scotland can be awesome, but the conditions can be fickle, so opportuntistic planning pays dividends. In the Alps many (not all) areas are glaciated and this means another battery of knowledge and skill is required.
You can go out on day trips, or embark on alpine hut to hut tours over several days – this can be a bit more costly, but you don't have to carry bivvy gear and you can have a luxurious afternoon, post powder, eating strudel, drinking coffee and psyching up for a big dinner and wine before bed and another day sliding around the amazing mountains!
Skiing powder in the Austrian Stubai.
How do I learn this stuff?
As I said there's quite a lot to it, but people can still learn from friends and by joining clubs. One of the mosty effective way (albeit with a cost) is to go on a course or guided trip where the descision making stress is removed and there is immersion in a good learning environment. To supplement this there is loads of information about the equipment and tehniques available on the internet.
Skiing Zermatt 4000'ers. Matterhorn in the background.
Is it awesome?
Absolutely. On an average ski touring day you can cover two or more times the distance comfortably travelled on foot. You get the satisfaction of earning your turns by plodding uphill followed by the instant gratification of the run down!
Booting up to a col, Ecrins, France.
Any useful links?
The UK's largest ski touring club.
Ski performance for mountaineers.
Guided ski touring in the Alps and beyond.
Quick guide to skinning uphill from Dynafit.