Ski touring is a hugely popular activity in Austria, but one not widely embraced by the British skier. Understandable really, as with access to white mountains generally limited to a mere weeks’ holiday per year, most Brits prefer to stick to straight downhill skiing. As such, it’s a sport not particularly well understood and with a reputation for being physically demanding. I wanted to find out if this reputation was deserved – by testing it out with my 12-year-old daughter.
Ski touring is basically walking up the mountain on skis, ideally in beautiful off piste or backcountry terrain. First off we needed to hire some specialist equipment. Most notably all mountain skis with bindings can switch from the traditional fixed setting, where both the toe and heel are held firm, to “walk mode,” where the heel is released to make walking uphill possible. Once that pleasant discovery was made, we discovered that we also needed flexible plastic “skins” that slipped over the bottom of our skis to enable them to grip the snow.
Avalanche transceivers were handed over – thankfully with a platinum guarantee that we wouldn’t need to use them
There’s more kit to help you on your way too: adjustable ski poles to cater for the different gradients as well as the ominous-sounding but very necessary avalanche transceivers – thankfully handed over with a platinum guarantee that we wouldn’t need to use them. The 12-year-old and I went touring in Lech, an up-market ski resort in the Vorarlberg region of western Austria. Lech is a breezy two-hour plane ride from London and famous for its handsome pistes and top draw facilities, from cute hideaway hotels to reliable lifts.
Our plan had been to do a hut-to-hut tour, walking with backpacks and staying in the basic but welcoming overnight refuge cabins strategically scattered across the Alps. It’s stating the obvious, but by staying in huts on a multi-day tour rather than descending each afternoon to a valley based hotel, you start the next day at altitude and thus don’t have to slog uphill to your start point. It also never gets old waking up amid the mountains, a leg stretch away from passing skiers. The word “hut” doesn’t do justice to these formidable structures. Built to withstand harsh, high alpine conditions they vary in size – some are hardly huts and more like traditional hotels, and some can even accommodate well over a 100 people per night.
In the evenings, don’t expect haute cuisine. Rather it is good, honest, hearty food shared amongst all those who have made the effort to get themselves to one of these very special places. But luck was not on our side. A particularly warm and dry season meant the snow was sparse, and there wasn’t enough powder to enable hut-to-hut walking. With the buildings inaccessible on skis, we would be restricted to day walks. In hindsight, we dodged a bullet. A week’s touring, laden with a backpack may have been too much for the 12 year old, certainly without a nice hotel to retreat to in the evening for some much needed R&R.
We were then asked to forget everything we had ever learnt in ski school
Instead, we treated ourselves to a stay at the wonderful Knappaboda Apartments. The Knappaboda was a revelation – swish, spacious and relaxed interiors with a communal honesty deli well stocked with fresh, pre-prepared ready meals waiting to be heated up in our apartment. Such an obviously good idea, it’s a wonder it’s not standard practice in more resorts for ski holidays. The first morning out and our guide (fully qualified mountain guides are a must for backcountry ski touring) took us through the basics of ski touring. We were shown how to skin our skis correctly and adjust our bindings to “walk mode”. We were then asked to forget everything we had ever learnt in ski school in favour of a new movement – a slow, smooth, slightly louche slide that conserves energy when going uphill.
Mastering the “kick turns” proved a lot trickier, but we persevered having been told that a poorly executed turn would have us sliding down our hard earned altitude. We also got a lesson in mountain safety, cutting snow profiles to determine if slopes were safe to ski or likely to avalanche and practiced using our avalanche transceivers with myself playing the “victim”, relying on the 12 year old’s expert use of her probe and shovel to rescue me. (Let’s call it a ‘bonding’ activity, because there’s nothing like the threat of an avalance to make a father and daughter team work together.) And then we were off on our first tour.
A few hours of gentle skinning up through fresh snow and forests. It was magical – blue skies above, the deep green from the pine trees set against virgin white snow and away from the main pistes, a comforting silence broken only by the shrieks of the 12 year old when we spotted deer in the woods. It really was a get-away-from-itall mountain experience, totally different from the usual freneticism of the ski slopes. Back in Lech that evening, we considered the options for the next day. Due to the snow conditions, the menu of possible tours was restricted. Our guide suggested a half-day trip that would culminate at the Alpele restaurant, home of the best fondue in the Vorarlberg region. Who were we to argue with an experienced mountain guide?
So how does ski touring compare to traditional ski holidays? Having consulted with the 12 year old, we both agreed that nothing could ever compete with the thrill of a classic downhill day. But we also agreed that we had thoroughly enjoyed our time ski touring for all of its freshness and slowness and the opportunities it presents to see the environment ina totally different way. There is something therapeutic about moving slowly in the mountains, about having the time to truly absorb the scenery, about leaving the pistes behind and really going deep into the solitude of the all-white panoramas.
Yes, ski touring was tiring, but it wasn’t as physically challenging as I had expected and while it certainly helps having skied before, one doesn’t need to be a particularly good skier to enjoy it. That said, I have a sneaky suspicion that if we had toured as planned for a week carrying big backpacks, this review might read rather differently.
Do it yourself: Ski holidays in Lech
Ski holidays with ski touring in Lech are available via Lechzuers.com and the skischule-lech.com. British Airways fly from London to Zurich from around £100 from London Heathrow. It’s an hour-and-a-half in a cab from Innsbruck to Lech. Simon stayed at the Knappa Boda Hotel and the Lindsauer Huette. Visit their websites to book at Knappaboda.com and Lindauerhuette.com
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