If you’ve never tried it, then you’ve definitely heard people around the mountain talking about it. ‘AT’ skiing, or maybe ‘backcountry,’ ‘randonee,’ ‘skimo,’ or a host of other terms that are all attempting to describe specific offshoots of one broad category – alpine touring. So what exactly is it? And is it right for you?
Alpine touring is the catch-all phrase for a brand of skiing that allows you to travel not just down, but also up and across pretty much whatever snowy terrain you come upon. Thanks to the (sometimes inaccurate) efficiencies of modern language, AT skiing often gets lumped in, or confused with some of the categories above. As such, you may be under the impression that alpine touring is only for the most expert skiers. This is categorically false. Alpine touring, and for that matter, all of the other terms mentioned in the previous paragraph, do not necessarily indicate a difficulty level and in the correct circumstances are right for anyone with the energy and willingness to try them out. If you love walking in the snow, experiencing solitude in a remote snowy paradise, working on your cardio, or putting down fresh tracks on untouched powder, then alpine touring is definitely for you. But before we talk more about it, let’s define those other terms for clarity.
Backcountry skiing/riding is simply, skiing or snowboarding on terrain that is not maintained or monitored by safety personnel. Technically, skiing out of bounds at your local resort is backcountry skiing. Carrying your gear up the hill in the woods behind your house and skiing or riding down is too. For many, the eventual goal of getting into the backcountry is to send some serious stuff – cliff drops, fluted ridgelines, or narrow couloirs – but backcountry terrain could just as easily be a gradual descent in an open bowl with no standout difficulty beyond variable snow conditions.
Randonee is French for ‘excursion.’ This is how you refer to alpine touring in the Alps. There’s a good chance that an American who uses this phrase also refers to soccer as football.
SkiMo is short for ski mountaineering and is pretty much exactly what it sounds like. Weighted a bit more toward the uphill part of the experience, rather than the the down, ski mountaineers use their specialized alpine touring equipment to access remote powder stashes, intimidating lines, and craggy summits. While a beginner may have no problem climbing and descending a straightforward and safe peak, generally, skimo references more dangerous and demanding terrain.
What Equipment Do You Need?
Now that you know basic vocab, let’s get back to alpine touring and what it takes to try it out for yourself. The ability to ski uphill obviously doesn’t come without some special equipment. We’ll get into specific gear in part 3 of this series, but we’ll cover the basics here. Alpine touring requires skis (duh), AT bindings, AT boots, skins, and poles. Your skis can be just like the ones you use at the resort, though most people opt for a fatter ski when they head into the backcountry because more surface area means you don’t sink so far into soft snow (on the way down or on the way up).
There are a number of different types of AT bindings but they all perform the same basic function – allowing you to move (somewhat) effortlessly uphill. The heel of an AT binding detaches from the ski, greatly improving your mobility. AT boots also come in a number of different styles, but generally, they are not quite as stiff as the boots you’d wear for a day at the resort – most have more flex in the ankle and are lighter weight. This is so your feet are comfortable while you’re travelling cross country or uphill. Skins are magic strips of fuzzy nylon that adhere to the bottom of your skis. Because of the arrangement of the nylon fibers, the skins catch the snow and stop you from moving backwards, but still allow you to slide forwards. And finally poles. Most people opt for adjustable length poles when touring due to the need for different lengths when climbing uphill vs. skiing downhill. For the uninitiated, the first time in all this equipment brings on unsteadiness first, and then a sense of freedom never before felt on skis.
Why Alpine Touring?
The real reason to get into alpine touring is because of all the places it allows you to go. And I don’t just mean to wind-whipped summits and remote powdery cirques, though with good preparation and enough experience, it certainly does help you seek out those places. Proficiency in alpine touring can allow you to glide through woods or meadows, even on flat land when the whole world is under inches or feet of snow. When a hike would mean struggling through waist deep drifts and quickly succumbing to numb feet, AT gear will have you skimming right along the top of the snow. And of course, when you’re done going uphill, you simply pull off your skins, clip down your bindings and ski on home.
Last, But Not Least
We’ll cover more of the dangers in Part 2, but it is worth mentioning here: alpine touring, and all forms of backcountry skiing can be hazardous and difficult. Before going into potentially dangerous terrain, it is important to learn about snow conditions, avalanche safety, and to have a clear understanding of your safety equipment. It is also important to remember that you should never travel into the backcountry without a partner. While it may be easier for an experienced skier to tackle the challenges of alpine touring, remember, there are plenty of beginner touring opportunities out there for the taking. So if you want to seek those beautiful places, get an amazing workout, or just be the haughty guy/gal on the ski lift who says things like, “I’d way rather be laying fresh tracks on some backcountry pow, today,” then alpine touring is the sport for you.