Advice for Skiing in the Alps

On this page:

Before you leave home
Arriving in Europe
Equipment
Skiing with a guide
Rules
Guide's tools
Crevasses
Equipment for the day>
Packing your pack
Téléphérique etiquette
Touring tips
Hut living
Getting up in the morning

We have written these pages to help you with your ski trip to the Alps. Most of the information is applicable to ski touring in general and particularly to the hut-to-hut type trips we do in the Alps

Before you leave home

There are a few things you need to note before you leave home.

Our phone numbers in Europe

The best way to contact us in Europe is by email or by our various phone numbers there.

Try the Les Houches home phone first, then the mobile phone numbers.

We have different phone numbers for different countries. If you can't find us in one country, try the other. Often the phones can't get a signal when we are up in the hills, so you may need to leave a message on our voicemail.


Les Houches home phone +33 (0)45 021 2447
Kathy' mobile +33 (0)60 191 2477
Mark's mobile +33 (0)68 614 7058

  • If you don't catch us in one country, try the other.
  • If dialing in-country (eg. France to France) omit the + and the country code (33 or 41) but do dial the 0 in parentheses.
  • If dialing from out of country but within Europe, eg. (Switz to France) dial 0033 (the + is shorthand for 00) and omit the (0), then the last 9 digits.
  • If dialing from the US or Canada dial 011, country code (33 or 41) omit the (0), then the last 9 digits.

Using phones in Europe

Phones in Europe are really no more complicated than phones in the US or Canada. There are a few different conventions that you'll want to know. Most European countries have the same conventions, but there are a few odd-ball variations that we'll talk about after our initial discussion.

First, if you are in a hotel, you will need to dial something to get an "outside line" Often that something is "0" but it can vary. Ask reception to be sure. In phone booths, or on your own mobile you already have an outside line so nothing is needed.

If you are dialing to a number in a different country you need to dial the the country code. The code for the the USA and Canada is "001". For France it is "0033" for Switzerland it is "0041", and for Italy "0039". Often you will see the first two 0s abbreviated as a "+". For example France's country code might be written as "+33", or the US as "+1". Just dial "00" instead of the "+".

European phone numbers all start with a "0". For example if you are in Paris, in a phone booth, and are calling our Les Houches home phone (also in France) you would dial 04 50 21 24 47. Here's another example, if you are in Geneva, calling the Zermatt tourist office, you would dial 027 966 8100. Basically, when calling to a point in the same country, start with the "0".

However, if you are calling to a phone is another country, for example France to Switzerland, you omit the "0". But you add in the "00 country code" to start. So calling from Geneva (Switzerland) to our Les Houches home phone (France) you would dial 0033 4 50 21 24 47. This might be written as "+33 (0)4 50 21 24 47", with the "+" meaning "00" and the parenthetical "(0)" indicating that there is an "0" to dial if you are calling "in-country". If you are calling from Geneva to the USA or Canada, you would dial 001, then your 10-digit phone number.

There is one important exception to the above "omit the '0' rule, and that is Italy. Even if you are calling from out of country (Switzerland, for example) you leave in the "0". So calling from Geneva to the Courmayeur tourist office in Italy you would dial +39 0165 842 060. Also, some Italian phone numbers have 8 digits, some 9 and others 10. In all cases leave the "0" in, both when calling from out of country as well as from within Italy.

Europe uses a a GSM standard for mobile phones. This is different than the standard in the US and Canada, and most mobile phones from North America won't work in Europe. However, if you have a GSM compatible phone, they should function. Be aware, however, that calling from the States to your phone in Europe can carry some hefty per minute charges. And the roaming charges, if roam so far, are often rather high. It is possible to rent mobile phones for your stay in Europe. Most airports have shops in which you can do this. It ain't cheap however, but may be worth it.

Our address in France:

Kathy Cosley et Mark Houston
Chalet Altinou
151 Route de Lausenaz
74310 Les Houches
France

ATM cash machines

We get our cash from ATM machines. They work as in the US. The only difference is that the letters correspond to different numbers on the key pad, so memorize your PIN as numbers, not as letters.

You'll get Euros in all the Alpine countries except Switzerland, which is holding onto their venerable Swiss Franc. In July 2009 one Euro (€) was worth about $1.41 US dollars. The Swiss Franc (CHF) was worth about $0.92 US. In Switzerland Euros are often accepted, but Swiss francs are more difficult to use outside of Switzerland.

Credit cards are usually accepted everywhere with the exception of most of the mountain huts. Visa and Mastercard are more accepted than others.

Arriving in Europe

Most of the information in this section pertains to arriving in the Geneva airport. Geneva is your best point of arrival for trips that start in Chamonix If your trip begins in another location in Switzerland, Interlaken, for example, you can arrive in either Geneva or Zurich. Train connections to other destinations in Switzerland are relatively straightforward from these airports.

Shuttle, Geneva to Chamonix

Usually we take a shuttle service between the Geneva Airport and Chamonix.

There are a number of companies that compete in this lucrative business.For all of these companies, you should book in advance, preferably at least 2 weeks in advance. many you can book online, others you need to fax or call. Virtually all have english speaking drivers (the Brits are the primary clientele). None have booths at the airport. For any of them, be sure you have with you an emergency phone number in case there is some confusion and you need to get in touch with them, for example, you arrive late, or your ride simply does not show up.

With all of them, a representative of the service will meet you as you exit customs in the Geneva airport. If you don't see them just hang out more or less in front of the customs exit and wait, keeping an eye out for someone with a sign with your name. Occasionally they are late, so be patient. If they don't show up, give them a call. The trip to Chamonix takes a little over an hour. The shuttle will drop you wherever you like (normally your hotel).

Most of these services cost about 40 Euros for one person, one way in a shared ride van. If you can't get in a shared ride (perhaps you booked too late) they will also do private shuttles, thought the price is more like 200 Euros. All of them have online booking options.

  • Mountain Drop-Offs. We especially like the name. http://www.mountaindropoffs.com. Phone is 00 33 450 47 17 73.
  • Chamonix Shuttles http://www.chamonixshuttles.com was started by Lucy Turner. She and her crew offer shuttle service to several resorts, including the Chamonix Valley. The phone number is 0033 680 90 75 06.
  • Transfer 2theAlps is yet another new business. http://www.transfer2thealps.com phone is 00 33 608 52 64 26.
  • Cham Express is run by The Skier's Lodge in Les Houches. Their web site is at http://chamexpress.com. Phone number: 0033 450 54 73 72.
  • ACT, Andy Cleaver Transport, is perhaps the oldest of the various shared van transfer services in the Chamonix Valley. His web site http://www.act-chamonix.com. Please note that you need to book at least 3 days in advance if you book on-line. Phone is 00 33 450 34 40 87.
  • Chamonix Valley Transfers is a booking agent that works with a number of different transfer providers. They can help you find pricing and schedules to fit your needs. http://chamonix-valley-transfers.com.

You can also take the train from the Geneva Airport to Chamonix, but connections are complex, the trip take a while, and you still have to take a taxi (or walk) to the hotel from the Chamonix train station.

If you are going to a location in Switzerland, such as Zermatt or Grindelwald from the Geneva Airport, then the train makes much more sense and is highly recommended. The Swiss Federal Railways has a great web site wherein you can view schedules, fares and other info for all trips within Switzerland and some outside as well: http://www.sbb.ch/en/index.htm

Meeting in Chamonix

We usually meet with the group in the late afternoon the day before the trip starts. Usually this is at our hotel. We'll let you know the exact where and when. Be sure you have this info with you.

ATMs in Chamonix

We normally get our cash from ATM machines, which are plentiful and don't charge the annoying fee you see these days in the US. Be sure you have enough cash in your home account! And remember your PIN. Please note that the letters on the ATM keyboard do not necessarily match up to the same numbers as in the US. You should remember your PIN as a series of numbers, not letters.

Rentals in Chamonix

Much ski gear can be rented in Chamonix. Snell's Sports usually has a good selection. They offer a "Haute Route" kit for 7 days, which includes skis, skins, boots, poles, and ski crampons. The skis are usually equipped with Fritschi Diamir bindings. If you need ski or boot sizes unusually large or small, finding gear is harder and you may prefer to purchase gear or find your particular item in the States before your trip.

Buying gear in Chamonix is great fun. Selection is wonderful, and prices are typically about 80% of what you would pay in the States.

On most trips we are available to help you with purchases and rentals the late afternoon or evening preceding your trip. Please let us know if you need help with this. Stores usually close at 19:30 pm (that's 7:30 pm, for us foreigners).

Out to eat

We normally go out to eat with the group after we have discussed gear needs, and what to expect. Dining out with the group is, of course, optional. It is your vacation! But we do hope you'll join us.

Equipment selection

This section offers a few very general guidelines. For more specific discussions of equipment selection please see the lists we create for each trip we do.

Skiing with a light pack (or none) is much more fun, uses less precious energy, and is safer than skiing with a heavy pack. Do your best to minimize weight. Here are a few areas you might want to think about:

Crampons

Use aluminum crampons. Steel weighs nearly twice as much. Some very light crampons are made by Camp, as well as other manufacturers.

Ice Axe

If your trip calls for an ice axe, go light. If we were to buy a ski touring axe it would have an aluminum head, be about 45 to 50 cm long, and weigh only a few ounces. For example the Camp XLA210 or the Cassin Ghost axes weigh only about 8 ounces each.

If you also want to use your axe for summer mountaineering where you might have to climb ice or hard, steep snow with the pick, then a steel head may be appropriate. But again, go as light as you can. The Grivel Air Tech Evolution in the 53 cm length is a good example of a steel-headed lightweight axe.

Pack

About 30 liters is the right size. Avoid packs larger than about 40 liters. A big pack carries poorly, impacts your skiing more and saps energy. You should be able to find a good pack of the correct size that weighs no more than about 2 pounds.

"Extras"

Try to avoid bringing a lot of extras. Food can be purchased in the huts. While skiing we can usually stay quite warm. The huts are warm.

Skiing with a guide

Skiing with a guide is (or should be) a lot of fun. A few things are a bit different than tearing it up at the local area with your buddies, and we thought it might be helpful to discuss a few of them here.

Guide's job

The guide's job is basically to help you have fun and to help you avoid the many hazards of the wild mountain environment. Usually these two things don't get in the way of each other. In fact, with the guide watching out for problems such as avalanches or crevasses, you can relax a bit more and concentrate on the fun part.

Fun

The guide looks for the best snow and the best skiing within the constraints of managing risk. In a group of varying abilities what defines the "best skiing" will vary from skier to skier. When we have a varied group we will often give more options for the better skiers, while helping those not so skilled find easy-to-ski lines. Hopefully we can make everyone happy.

Safety

The guide also must help you to manage risk. One of the main ways they do this is to control where the group skis and how they ski a particular pitch. When it matters, the guide will use techniques that increase their control. Where hazard is minimal, the guide will ease up on the reins a bit. But group control, and the guide's ability to maintain it, is a central need of the guide for risk management. There are a few things worth mentioning.

Understanding what the guide says

The guide may give instructions about how they want you to ski a particular pitch, or where they want folks to go, or not go. Be sure you understand these instructions! Speak up if you don't. Keep a constant ear out for critical info, and where you hear it, pay attention.

Rules

There are only a few "rules" you need to follow;

Listen

Listen to your guide when they give instructions.

Understand

Understand those instructions, and follow them.

Take responsibility for yourself

The guide cannot fully control how or where you ski, even though they may try. You need to help the guide by skiing in control and keeping an eye out for hazards. This is particularly important with crevasses!

Normally the guide goes first

Most of the time the guide will ski first. They need to do this to check out hazards and snow conditions. Usually you can ski a few turns behind one another. If you are following the guide, be prepared to stop suddenly and unexpectedly as the guide may need to stop as hazards and obstacles appear. Give the guide at least 30 feet of space. Sometimes, the guide may choose to go last, giving the guests first tracks. This happens more frequently on non-glaciated terrain, and rarely in crevassed areas.

Don't ski below the guide

If there is one rule above all, Don't ski below the guide! Stop above the guide, close by. The reason is that the guide may stop just short of a hazard, a hidden crevasse, for example. Skiing past the guide, or below, exposes you to that hazard.

One skier at a time, occasionally

Occasionally we prefer to ski a slope one skier at a time. Usually this is in response to avalanche hazard where we want to avoid loading the slope with a group of skiers or exposing more than one of us at a time to the hazard. We'll let you know when this is the case.

Signals

We often use signals to indicate when we want you to ski, if you should stop, or keep to the right or left.

Occasionally the guide will want to ski a slope first, to check it out, before the group skis it. When the guide reaches the bottom he or she will indicate that it is OK to come down with a wave of a ski pole overhead in a circular motion. If the guide has asked the group to ski one at a time he will indicate that the next skier can start with this same motion.

When the guide crosses poles overhead, stop immediately and wait for instructions or a signal to continue.

If the guide wants you to keep to either the right or left (facing downhill) the guide will hold the poles overhead, indicating this with a right angle facing either to your right or left.

Signals from the guide
STOP!!! This means STOP RIGHT WHERE YOU ARE! It usually means the guide has gone too low or there is a hazard between you and the guide.
Ski to your left of a line drawn between you and the guide.
Ski to your right of a line drawn between you and the guide.
     
Move to your left.
   

 

Guide uses "tools" to control a group

The guide uses various management strategies to control the skiing group. One such strategy is to ski either the far right or left line, establishing a "fence" on the run. The guide will say "stay to the right (or left) of my tracks". When he says this, do not cross his tracks, even for half a turn!

Another strategy is to do a gentle traverse at the end of a pitch. This forces all skiers to traverse above or in his tracks. He will do this to avoid a hazard. Skiing below the tracks will expose you to the hazard. Because of the traverse and the need to end up no lower than the guide (remember the rule above) you'll end up staying clear of the hazard.

There are other tools and tricks as well. The main thing is to listen and understand the guide's instructions. Most of the time things are obvious and you'll feel completely free to ski as you please. But at other times, particularly in crevassed or avalanche terrain, the guide may be quite picky.

Using the rope

Sometimes the guide will want to belay steep sections. He'll let you know. You might ski these sections with a belay from above, side-slip, or even be lowered.

At other times the guide may wish to tie in to you, quite close. They will do this to help protect you on steep, typically traversing terrain. Also, when we are on foot, and the ground is steep or icy, we may rope up.

Any time we are traveling on a crevassed glacier, and we don't have our skis on, we almost always will rope up. Walking around unroped on a crevassed glacier with bare boots is not recommended.

If you would like to be belayed or have the guide tie in, please say so. Usually we belay where you are likely to want a belay. But sometimes the psychological security of being roped up, helps to relax and enjoy the skiing.

 

Skiing in crevassed terrain

Skiing in heavily crevassed terrain is one of the most exhilarating and hazardous parts of Alpine touring. Group control is critical.

Ski in control

Loss of control and skiing into an open crevasse is all too common. When there are holes about, take it easy!

Follow the guides line

Pay close attention to where the guide skis. Ski where and how they ski.

Cross crevasses at right angles

Occasionally crevasses need to be crossed. The safest way is to ski straight across them with the skis at right angles to the crevasse. The guide will ski this way or ask you to if necessary. Ski in the guide's tracks.

Taking breaks on the glacier

Often our breaks will occur on crevassed glaciers. (Most of the ski touring in the Alps is in such terrain.) At these times, try to avoid walking around without skis on. Skis greatly decrease the odds of popping into a hole. If you need to walk a short ways from the group to use the "WC" or to get a good angle for a photo, keep your skis on. If there are crevasses nearby, ask the guide if wandering a short way is OK, before you take off.

Keep and eye out for hazards

Even though guides are trained to see crevasses and are sensitive to their subtle signs, we can't see them all. You, too, need to watch out. Be especially wary of depressions in the snow, especially so if they run parallel to other visible slots. Do not stop or turn in or on these depressions.

Equipment for the day

Most days are similar to one another. Gear needs don't change much. Here are a few gear comments that might help you to prepare.

Avalanche Beacons

Whenever we ski the backcountry, we wear transceivers. They should be worn under your outer layers or in a secure zipped and dedicated pocket. We usually put them on as we get dressed for the day. Most often we wear them just over our thinnest layer of synthetic lightweight underwear. If possible avoid wearing them on the outside of your clothing.

Turn them on when you put them on, and leave them on all day.

We'll do a check at the start of every day, and occasionally in the course of the day. But you need to be sure yours is worn properly, turned on and that the batteries are OK. Alert your guide if the battery level indicator shows less than 25%.

Harnesses

Much of the high alpine touring in the Alps is on glaciers. We always wear harnesses when skiing on a glacier. Harnesses greatly simplify roping up and even crevasse extraction if it should come to that. On the Haute Route, for example, there is only one day of skiing where you can delay putting on the harness until later in the day. On all other days the harness goes on first thing and is worn all day. Assume that we want everyone to wear their harness from the start. We'll let you know if this is not the case.

Packing your pack

There really is not much in your pack, so packing is easy. Here, however, are a few tips.

Seldom used items on bottom

There are a few things you are not likely to need much and can be stowed at the bottom of your pack. For us, these include our wind pants, our first aid materials, extra food (not much of this), our warmest layer, extra socks, a "hut shirt", boot crampons, and a few other odds and ends. Heavy items, such as water and lunch should be carried close to your back.

Shovel/crampons inside

We always carry our boot crampons inside our pack, in a nylon protective bag. We also carry our shovels, shovel handles and avalanche probes inside our packs. The only thing strapped to the outside of the pack is the ice axe. And in fact, we sometimes pack even these inside the pack.

Usually, only about half the group carries shovels and probes. We'll let you know if we want you to bring or carry these items.

Skins and ski crampons

Keep these handy, fairly close to the top of your pack.

Téléphérique etiquette

There is an established etiquette for behavior on téléphériques. They are often crowded and good behavior helps us all to get along in these very packed confines.

You may need to readjust your notion of "personal space". To queue up in crowded conditions means to allow yourself to enter a stream of bodies and be carried along with it. It is not always an orderly process, but ultimately it works. Try not to hold things up, but also not to shove ahead of others. Most of all, try to keep your cool, knowing that you will get to your destination and a bit of crowding is worth not climbing thousands of meters of elevation.

Packs off

As you get in the cabin, put your pack down. You want it on the floor. If the lift is going to be very packed, consider buckling your waist belt buckle around your pack to help keep it out from underfoot.

Be careful with your ice axe

When we expect a ride on a téléphérique, we try to pack our axe inside the pack, or at a minimum keep the pointy parts tucked out of the way and safe from the damaging effects of human flesh.

Crampons inside pack

As stated above, crampons should be inside the pack. We have light, little crampon bags to protect the other things in our packs.

Getting on the lift

As we get in line for the lift, we get partitioned into groups of however many folks can fit on the lift at one time. So when it finally comes time to board, everyone in the group will get on. There is no need to rush to be sure there is room. On a crowded lift you will often see the guides and ski instructors hold back to be the last on, backing their way in. It may be tight, but relax, everyone is in the same boat.

Touring Tips

Touring is really very much like walking. There are a few differences however, and we'll discuss them below.

Uphill Spacing

While skinning uphill, we naturally tend to clump up. This is fine, makes for a social occasion and helps us all to keep track of one another, and maintain a relaxed and comfortable pace.

We like to stay close enough together so that we can communicate if necessary with the group and so no one feels left behind. But we all like our freedom too, and sometimes you may like a bit of separation. This is fine. If the guide wants to convey important info or keep the group together, they will wait for everyone to catch up.

Don't kick the ski tails of those ahead of you

One thing to avoid is being too close to the person in front of you, and hitting the tails of their skis with the tips of yours. Keep about a meter or two between tips and tails.

Keep in sight

As we mentioned above, we like to keep everyone in sight of the guide. If you need to stop for a moment to take a photo, just step out of line to let others pass. For a longer stop, such as a significant water or clothing change let the guide know and he or she can plan a good stopping point. We prefer to stop in level, crevasse free areas with good views. Sometimes we need to make an equipment transition, such as putting on ski crampons, and we will often target our stops to coincide with such changes. This may require that you wait a few minutes, or plan ahead to anticipate such needs.

Blisters and hot spots

Ski touring can be hard on the feet. Blisters and boot bang (on the shin) are not uncommon, especially with new or rental boots. As they say, "an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure". Deal with potential problems early and you can avoid them later.

We recommend you carry a bit of tape, some moleskin as well as some of the new-fangled blister remedies such as Spenco Second Skin or Compeed.

Trail etiquette

There are lots of skiers in the Alps and often we'll be sharing the "road" with others. Even within our own group it is polite to follow a few simple suggestions.

  • Avoid tailgating, where the tips of your skis occasionally hit the tails of the skis in front of you. Put about a meter or so between your tips and the their tails.
  • When we stop for breaks we should step completely off the trail so that others can pass easily.
  • If you stop for more than a few seconds step to the side so that whoever is behind you can pass.
  • Normally, if another party is going a bit faster than ours, the convention is that they need to go around ours. The slower party can stay in the track, going their slow pace. There is no expectation that the slow party should step out of the track to let the faster party go by. But again, if you need to stop, step aside.

Kick turns

Kick turns are common when touring in steep terrain. Though we try to make rounded walk-through turns when we can, we sometimes need to zigzag up a steep slope, using kick turns at the corners.

There are three kinds of kick turns we use.

Regular uphill kickturn

This is the most common for going uphill, and is the one you are most likely to be familiar with. Here are a few helpful pointers;

At the corner, move your skis into a level position, perpendicular to the fall-line, before you start your turn.

Pick up your uphill ski and turn it to the new direction. Try to get your feet fairly close together, with the ski more or less flat across the slope. A bit of flexibility is needed here. In soft snow, you may be able to bury the tail of the uphill ski underneath the downhill ski, making it easier to get the skis close together.

Once you have the uphill ski in position, and can balance on it, pick up the downhill ski and "clack" the heel to bring the tip in close to you. Do this by tapping your heel on the ski. This pushes the tail down and brings the tip up. You need to do the "clack" with your foot behind you and your ski still pointing in the original direction. The "clack" is much harder in tele gear. Tele skiers should set their bindings more for a "touring mode" (easy heel lift) and less for a downhill mode (harder heel lift).

Regular uphill kickturn photos
Step 1. I'm going to turn uphill to the left. With skis level on the platform, I allow room above me for the turn.
Step 2. Position the poles as shown.
Step 3. Move the uphill ski forward, lift the tip and rotate it into the new direction.
     
Step 4. The uphill ski continues rotating to the new direction.
Step 5. I have moved my uphill pole to allow the ski to have room.
Step 6. Critical step, here. Move the feet close together! Be sure the uphill ski is nearly level.
     
Step 7. Reposition the outside pole for better stability, leaving enough room for the next ski to come around. Transfer weight to the uphill ski.
Step 8. Lift the downhill ski from the snow. Notice it is parallel to the snow surface!
Step 9. In one continuous motion, "clack" your heel against the ski to bring the tip up, while pivoting the ski into the new direction.
     
Step 10. Slide the ski into the track and off you go.
   

Upside-down turn

The "upside-down kick turn" as we call it is a variation of the regular kick turn described above. Like the regular turn it is used when going uphill, and like the regular turn you face into the hill.

The upside down turn is useful on very steep slopes, or when there is an obstacle above you at the turn, which makes it hard to get that first ski around in the new direction. Sometimes the snow above you is just such an obstacle

This is a great turn in tricky terrain and one that is worth learning. It is relatively little known among American ski tourers.

Start the upside down turn by leveling the skis on the turn platform. Step far to the inside of the platform.

Lift the uphill ski and swing it back, behind you, turning it 180 into the new direction, and place it below your other ski. Transfer weight to your new downhill ski, the one pointing in the new direction.

Pick up your uphill ski, clear the tail past your other boot, then "clack" and follow through as per the regular kick turn. Practice this one at home a few times, in order to get the movements down.

Upside-down kick turn photos
Step 1. Setting up for a turn to the left.
Step 2. Both poles on the uphill slope. The uphill foot slides back.
Step 3. Pivot the tail downhill as the ski tip clears the downhill ski boot.
     
Step 4. Turn the ski to face in the new direction, below what was originally the downhill ski.
Step 5. Get the ski level and close to the now uphill ski.
Step 6. Transfer your weight to the now downhill ski. Stomp it a time or two to be sure it won't move.
     
Step 7. The poles are moved slightly for better balance as the the right foot (uphill ski) is unweighted.
Step 8. The uphill ski slides forward.
Step 9. Clear the tail of the ski around the uphill boot to get it on the downhill side of your leg.
     
Step 10. Once clear of your leg you can position the ski for the "clack" as in the normal kick turn.
Step 11. "Clack" the tail down, pivot the tip in close and in the new direction.
Step 12. The new uphill ski slides into position and you are ready to go.

Downhill kickturn

The downhill kickturn is used when going downhill and you want to change directions. This one is fairly intuitive and most skiers know it. A couple of comments; Because you are skiing downhill, you are most likely to not have skins on. Skinless skis are slippery. Be sure your skis are level before starting this turn.

Some skiers use a downhill kickturn when trying to go uphill on steep slopes. We feel it is far better to learn and use the upside down kickturn in such a situation than the downhill turn. Facing out on a steep slope, as the downhill turn requires, is discomforting and often leads to slips. Facing into the slope is easier, at least once you have mastered the upside down turn. Learn to use the best technique for the job at hand.

Downhill kickturn photos
Step 1. Here, I am going to face out and turn to my right. Get those skis level!
Step 2. Position the poles behind you on the uphill slope. If you like, create a "tripod" for stability.
Step 3. Lift the downhill ski, and begin to rotate it into the new direction.
     
Step 4. Turn the ski into the new direction.
Step 5. Move the ski in close. Once in position, weight it. Stomp it a time or two to "set" it in the snow.
Step 6. Move the uphill ski into the new direction. Point the tip downhill (toes down) to help the tail clear the uphill snow.
     
Step 7. Place the new downhill ski in the new direction and there you are!
   

 

Poling

We spend a fair bit of time walking along in skins, often on gentle ground. Efficient use of your ski poles helps to propel you along, saves significant amounts of energy, and shows you are an experienced and skilled ski tourer.

Wrist straps

Over the years, we have pretty much stopped using our wrist straps, both for the uphills and the downhills. Even when we downhill ski at Mammoth Mountain, our local area, we don't bother with our straps. There are a number of reasons for this.

Traverses

On uphill traverses (our most common uphill position) we choke up on the uphill pole holding it by the shaft below the handle. The lower hand and arm position is more comfortable, restful and gets better blood supply to the hand. Obviously we can't use the strap in this position. Also, on the downhill pole we often put our hand over the top, again a position in which the strap is useless.

Faster with no straps

When zigzagging up a slope where we are likely to want to choke up on the uphill pole, with every turn the wrist strap user needs to take one hand out and put the other in. Though this may not seem like much, it happens many, many times each day. It adds up. Also, for every stop or adjustment the strap user needs just a few more seconds to do whatever they're doing. Once you stop using straps, you'll notice the difference. With no straps you'll enjoy a strong sense of freedom.

Tree skiing

Whenever we ski in the trees, we make a point of not using straps. This is a safety consideration, greatly reducing the chance of a shoulder injury when a basket snags on a snag. Whether or not you normally use straps when you tour, you should avoid them in the trees. Many Canadian heliski operations give out poles with no straps at all, avoiding even the possibility that someone might use them in the trees.

Walking uphill

Arms close to side

When walking uphill in skins keep your arms and hands fairly close to your sides. Avoid using arms wide, like outriggers for balance.

Arms near straight

When you reach forward for a pole plant your arms should be more straight than bent. Watch your arms as you pole, if they are as bent as 90 you are not maximizing your efficiency. Try to keep them a bit straighter.

Poles tilted forward

With your arms straightish your poles will naturally tilt forward a bit. This is good. That forward tilt directs the pressure you put on them behind you, as opposed to straight down into the snow. This propels you forward, directing your energies to moving uphill, not side to side.

The baskets of the ski poles should plant near the middle of your back foot, no further forward than this. You'll see what I mean if you take a few steps. With arms more straight and baskets back, the poles tilt forward, a good combination for efficient walking.

Poling photos
Poling. Arm nearly straight. The pole basket is placed about the middle of the opposite foot. Notice the decided forward lean to the pole. This directs force back, pushing me forward.
The view from the front. The arms are in close.
Choking up on the uphill ski pole on a traverse.

 

Heel lift

When skiing uphill, we occasionally use our heel lifts to ease the strain on our calves and to maintain a more neutral and comfortable position in our boots. Most ski bindings have a number of different positions of lift. We can adjust this to suit the steepness of the track.

Most folks are quick to raise their heel, but often slow to lower them once the angle of the track decreases. Be sensitive to the slope and don't hesitate to lower them as angle decreases.

Be quick and efficient

Learn to adjust your heel lift quickly. If one person stops in front of you for a height adjustment, you might as well take advantage of the pause to alter your own in anticipation of the change in slope.

Heel lift on steep traverses

On a steep traverse with firm snow, we often have to let our knees move to the outside to maintain skin contact with the snow. Heel lift makes this more difficult. Keep the heels low in these conditions

Using ski crampons with heel lift

With the Fritschi Diamir or the Silvretta bindings the crampons come up off the snow when you raise your heel. Because of this you get minimal crampon penetration when you are using heel lifts. When on steep hard snow, consider lowering your heel lifts to improve crampon contact.

Using the heel lift photos
The lowest setting, good for level terrain.
The "simmer" setting. Versatile. This one is good for level to moderately uphill angles. This is the one we use most of the time.
The "medium high" setting. For steeper uphills. Note that there is one additional higher setting but we very seldom use it, only in the steepest tracks.
     
Popping the heel lift up. Insert the pole tip in the hole and pry forward. Remember to lift he heel!
Moving up to the "medium high" setting
Pushing the heel lift down, is quick and easy with the ski pole grip. You can also do this with the pole tip, but more accurate aim is needed.

 

Rounded turns

When turning corners, we prefer to avoid kickturns and instead use rounded walking turns. If the slope has much of an angle you'll need to keep your skins flat on the snow in order to increase their grip. Stand square in the center of the ski, and step with a bit of aggression. A gentle stomp may help. The main thing, however is to keep the skis flat.

Traversing with skins

In hard snow we need to be careful to keep the skins on the snow. Try to avoid standing on your edges, as there is little skin there. You'll need to experiment a bit, balancing the need for edge engagement to keep from sliding sideways, with the need to keep the skins on the snow to prevent backwards sliding. Ski crampons may help in these situations.

Hut living

One of the main attractions of ski touring in the Alps are the huts. They enable us to wander through the big mountains with only light packs, covering lots of ground, and enjoying the great downhill sections. In fine weather the huts can be quite busy, and living in such close proximity to others can be a bit trying. If you know the ins and outs of hut living, the whole thing is a bit less mysterious, and easier to manage.

Hut guardians have a tough job. They have to cook, clean, check in and check out a new crop of tired (but happy) skiers every day. There are certain "rules" and procedures that make their job easier for them. Understanding these improves international relations and makes our stay more pleasant.

Arriving at the hut

Storing the skis and poles

Almost always the skis and poles are left outside the hut. Keep them all together to prevent loss. Stow them in such a way that the wind can't blow them over or, even worse, down the hill. Some huts, especially the Dix and Vignettes huts are very exposed to strong winds. Generally you will want to take your skins off your skis, especially if it is windy. Put your ski bases together, pole straps around both skis and place them in a secure spot.

In the foyer

Huts have a foyer in which you can get suited up if the weather outside is poor, and also to store certain items that the hut keepers don't want inside. Leave your boot shells and you ice axe in the foyer. Place your boot shells low on the rack, so melting snow won't drip into another person's boots. Also watch that another's boots don't drip on yours. We usually bring boot liners into the warmer part of the hut to dry. If your boot crampons are on the outside of your pack, take them off and leave them with your ice axe. If you keep your crampons inside your pack, in a protective sack, it is OK to bring them into the hut.

Hut shoes

Find a pair of hut shoes that more or less fit you and change into these (the huts supply them). You can wear your boot liners inside the hut, but we prefer to try and dry them out.

In the morning you may see skiers putting their boots on inside the hut. This is generally considered OK. But at any other time of day, avoid wearing your boot shells in the hut. They are never permitted in the dormitory rooms. Leave them in the foyer.

Beacons off

Once inside the hut you can turn your avalanche beacon off and bring it inside with you. Be sure not to misplace it.

Storage baskets

Most huts have little storage baskets you can use to help keep track of and organize your gear. Look around and see if you can find one. If the hut is busy, limit yourself to one basket, leaving some for other skiers. The baskets can be carried into the dorm rooms or kept in the main dining room.

In general, we try to keep our gear confined to one basket and our packs. In most huts we can take our packs up to the dorm rooms and place them by our bunks. Remember ice axes and crampons must be ether hidden deep within your pack or left in the foyer.

Hanging gear up to dry

Folks often hang stuff up to dry, usually in the main dining room, which is often heated. Boot liners, skins, and other articles of clothing can be seen hanging from many places. Try not to get too spread out or to hog too much space. Keep track of what you hang up so you don't lose it. Label your gear with markers before you leave home.

Assigning of bunks

Your guide will check in with the guardian. The guardian will assign bunks to everyone. If we arrive early at the hut, they may not be ready to assign bunks, and we'll need to wait a bit.

We'll be assigned a room and everyone a bunk number. Once we receive our assignments we like to put an article of clothing on our bunk and perhaps spread out the blankets a bit, indicating that the spot is occupied. This decreases the chance that someone will "borrow" your blankets or your pillow, or encroach on your personal space.

Keep your pack near your bunk. You can use your bunk space to help you organize.

Getting organized

You'll need to organize your gear a bit. We often put on out "hut shirt" getting out of our damp and smelly "touring shirt". We hang up wet gear to dry, and we pull out of our pack whatever gear we need for our night's stay. This is the stuff we want to have handy in the evening. Usually this includes;

  • Any clothes we need (to go outside to the WC if necessary)
  • A headlamp
  • Our thermos or water bottle
  • Maps or other reading material
  • Our earplugs for the night
  • Money for drinks and snacks
  • And whatever else you feel you need.

Quiet and lights in sleeping rooms

In the afternoon and evening, and especially at bed time, folks will be trying to sleep in the dorm rooms. Try to be quiet if anyone is resting in the room. Keep talk to a minimum. Avoid using the room lights if possible—use your headlamp and avoid shining it in sleeper's eyes. Minimize thrashing around in your pack or fiddling with gear.

If you are trying to nap or sleep and folks are talking loudly, it is OK to "shhhhhh" them, especially between 10 pm and the wake-up hour.

Paying for drinks and extra food

Normally your guide will pay for the fixed dinner and breakfast, as well as your overnight stay. For other menu items and all drinks you'll need to pay for these yourself. You can most easily do this at the time you order your drinks.

Sometimes we may run a tab, usually in the guides name. Tabs are paid when we pay up for meals and lodging, normally just after dinner. If we use a tab, keep track of what you order. Generally it is easier if everyone pays for things as they order them.

All of the bottled drinks in the huts, as well as the food, are flown in by helicopter. This makes them rather expensive. A liter and a half bottle of water can cost as much as $7 or $8 US, so if you like to buy bottled water be prepared. Tea, which the hut keepers melt from nearby snow is much cheaper. You can also order bottles of hot water melted from snow. They will not, however, sell cold water melted from snow, as there are health concerns with this.

During lunch time, you can order hot food. Find a menu or see the list of offerings on the wall. Rösti (Swiss hash browns) are good, and when served with cheese, or bacon (lardons or speck in French or German, respectively) provide plenty of calories.

Thé de marche (tea for walking)

Marche thé is tea sold for the day's trip—marching tea. Different huts dispense this in different ways, but in general, they will gather bottles and thermoses the evening before and fill them the following morning. We'll pick up the bottles in the morning before we leave. Marche thé is added to the bill before we pay it in the evening. Bring your bottles to dinner and we can in turn give them to the guardian after dinner for morning filling.

Dinner table assignments

In most huts, especially if they are crowded, we will be assigned a table for eating. This may not be the table we happen to be sitting at before dinner, and we may have to move. The hut keepers do this in order to seat everyone. Often they will put a note on the table indicating which party are to sit at that table, and the number in the party.

Cleaning up table

After dinner, we are expected to carry dirty dishes back to the counter by the kitchen. Usually the guide does this, but we can all pitch in if it seems appropriate. When we are done with dessert we need to wipe down the table with the cloth provided near the kitchen. We need to clean up the table, remove garbage, and personal items, and finally wipe it down before we go to bed. If you are the last of our group to leave the table (the guides, in their exhaustion, have gone to bed early!) be sure it is clean and clear when you turn in.

Usually there is a recycling receptacle for aluminum cans, and often one for the clear "PET" plastic bottles many drinks come in.

Hut keepers dinner time

After the skiers in the hut eat, the hut keepers take their dinner. Usually you can ask for more drinks during this time, but keep your requests simple so as not to too greatly interrupt their dinner.

Paying the bill

After the hut keepers finish eating their dinner and cleaning up the kitchen your guide will settle up the bill for the night. This is when the tab gets closed. Anything you want to buy after that time you need to pay for with cash, at the time of purchase.

Ordering breakfast and lunch

At some point in the evening your guide needs to tell the hut keeper what sort of drink you will want in the morning. The options usually are coffee, tea or chocolate. Also, if you would like to order a packed lunch for the day, we need to do this the evening before, before we close out the tab. We often order a lunch if the next day is particularly long, but otherwise a couple of candy bars (sold in all the huts) are generally enough.

Getting up in the morning

Departing in the morning is often a rather hectic affair. This is especially so when an early start is called for.

Usually, the entire hut will get up at once. If some of the occupants of your room choose to sleep in, try to be quiet when you get up.

The trick in departing is to be ready with your pack already packed as much as is possible before you go to bed. Be organized in the morning and everything will go more easily.

The first thing we do is to change into the clothes we will most likely use that day (except for our outer shell jacket which we put on just before we go outside. Keep these handy, by your bunk, so that you can get dressed quickly.

After we get out of the bunk, we fold the blankets. Some huts even post directions as to exactly how they like you to fold your blankets. In any case, fold them neatly and stack them and your pillow as you found them.

Do a last check of your sleeping area to be sure you have not left anything under a pillow, etc.

Put your avalanche beacon on as you dress. Usually we wear it just on top of whatever layer is next to our skin. Turn on your beacon when you put it on. Check the battery indicator level.

Stuff your belongings in your pack (you will be able to organize them better after breakfast) and bring it and your basket (if you have one) downstairs to the dining room. Find a place to stash your pack out of everyone's way, and find your way to the breakfast table.

If you need a bathroom stop, try to do this early, as the WC lines seem to get longer as it gets later.

After breakfast and the ritual wiping down and clearing of the table, we pack up our packs, put on our boots and head outside.

Remember that the vast majority of the time we will be wearing our harnesses all day long so consider the donning your harness to be part of getting ready for the day. Make your last bathroom stop before you put on your harness.

Also remember to pick up your ice axe, crampons, and anything else you left in the foyer. Think about whatever you left in various parts of the hut, and be sure you have them with you. If you left something up in the dorm room you will need to take off your boot shells to go looking for it. The hut keepers don't like guests to wear boot shells in the dorms or upstairs.

Skins may or may not go on the skis, depending on whether or not we are starting with an uphill. Your guide will advise you. The guides will do a quick transceiver check to be sure everyone is transmitting before we start.