Ski-touring on Nordic equipment - by Stephen Johns
We're grateful to club member Stephen Johns for providing this summary of ski-touring locations. You can also find Stephen's write-up on Nordic ski-touring equipment on this website's Equipment page.
If you find yourself nodding in agreement - this is your page.
You will already know that whilst arriving at your destination is important, it's the journey that counts and journeying in the mountains in winter is a wonderful, blissful and rewarding experience. It's also extremely dangerous and if you do it often enough you will be tested beyond your comfort zone both physically and mentally. Get it wrong and you will die.
This page does not purport to teach you anything about mountain safety. You have to take personal responsibility. You must seek out and take advice about awareness of mountain safety and equipment. Avalanche is a possibility in every mountain area. None are exempt. You can never learn enough about avalanches or about how to assess snow conditions and avalanche risk. Please ensure you have the correct equipment when embarking on a tour.
If you live in England, four areas with the easiest access in which to ski tour will most likely be Scotland, Scandinavia, the Alps, and the Rockies. All have mountains and snow but they're all different.
Scandinavia - The home of ski touring and where it all started thousands of years ago as prehistoric rock paintings found in Scandinavia depict. These folks were the first to discover that skis are the best and quickest way to get around in snow. Ski touring is a Scandinavian's birthright and they are fully geared up for it. As well as hundreds of kilometres of prepared tracks through the forests there are hundreds of kilometres of marked routes over the mountains.
In Norway the routes are marked simply by birch twigs stuck in the snow every twenty metres of so. In the more safety conscious Sweden you'll find big thick poles painted red and white with a large red cross on top every few metres. Scandinavia also has extensive mountainhut systems for ski tourers to use. In Sweden you'll find gleaming stainless steel and sparkling clean white surfaces. Norway is more homely with lovely old wooden huts.
Food and lodging is available at nearly all the huts and in Sweden all the huts that have food are manned. In Norway, as well as manned huts that provide meals and accommodation, there are many unmanned self service huts that stock food. You may follow the marked routes from one hut to another but there are countless opportunities to test your navigation skills and create your own routes. Whilst global warming has had some impact, it's still a long way north and you will always find snow covered areas to explore in winter. Scandinavia has some steep and sharp looking mountains but for the most part the mountains are nicely rounded and great for touring. As a consequence the most suitable skis will be metal edged and a bit wider than track skis.
The Alps - Ski touring in the Alps has traditionally been based on the use of heavier alpine skis used with heavier alpine ski boots. There's good reason for this. The ups and downs are a good deal steeper than in Scandinavia and because it's further south, the range of snows encountered will be very wide. On the same trip in different places you may get powder snow and boiler plate sastruggi. Ski touring in the Alps on alpine skis is often referred to as randonnee.
Until recently, alpine gear was the sensible choice. In the last few years, developments in boots but especially in bindings means that you can now use telemarking gear with the same confidence that was once reserved for alpine equipment. Climbing skills and glacier craft too will be desirable if not essential in the Alps because of the terrain you'll be crossing.
Several of the alpine countries have their own extensive hut systems with accommodation and food so that there's no need to have to descend to the valley. The huts in each country are all a little different in character, often reflecting the characteristics of the country you're in.
Scotland - This is bit of mixture of Scandinavia and the Alps but without the huts. Thanks to the Gulf Stream, global warming has had a rather more significant impact and snow cover is far from reliable. The maritime climate means that weather changes quickly and even in one day it could throw every type of condition at you.
Whilst a few tour in Scotland on alpine gear most prefer to use lighter Scandinavian style equipment. Blue sky and powder snow conditions are not unknown in Scotland but expect wet snow, ice or both. Unless you camp, you're restricted to day tours as there are no alpine or Scandinavian style huts. There are some stone bothies that you can use but they're not generally ones that you would want to take your mother to!
The Rockies - These are big mountains similar in many ways to the Alps. So far as touring is concerned the main differences are the snow conditions and the huts. In the Rockies trees grow up to altitudes of over 3000 metres. Trees are much better at holding the annual 13 metres of cold powdery snow so that big wide skis will be essential if you are not to sink out of sight. For the same reason modern, high tech snow shoes are very common. There is little tradition of using alpine touring equipment in the Rockies. In fact you can buy tee shirts that say "Randonnee = French word meaning can't Telemark". Don't forget that most of the modern Telemark equipment is developed in the Rockies so it's not surprising that most touring will be on modern tele gear.
There is a small system of huts which are quite minimal so far as amenities are concerned. The 10th Mountain Division Hut Association in Colorado is the most famous. Whereas in Scandinavia and the Alps you can roll up and expect accommodation as of right, the huts in the Rockies you'll need to book in advance. You'll also need to cart in all your own food.