Haute Route Ski Touring – Personal Equipment List

See also:
Ski programs overview
Valle Maira, Italy
Queyras, France
Albula, Switzerland
Ortler, Italy
Haute Route Verbier
Haute Route Plateau
Zermatt to Saas Fee
Silvretta
Berner Oberland
Vanoise Haute Route
Stubai
Chamonix off-piste
Private programs
Alps skiing advice


15% rental discount

Ski touring in the Alps is unique in that the extensive system of huts allows for travel with very light packs. The skiing is therefore easier and more fun. The light packs also allow us to travel in terrain that would be much too difficult and dangerous with heavy overnight gear. Therefore to make this high mountain traverse both more fun and safe we must travel light.

As you assemble your gear, “go light” whenever the opportunity presents itself. In the end your full pack should weigh no more than about 20 lbs. Take a pack of that weight out to your local ski area and you will instantly see the value of a light load.

Limiting the weight of your pack is especially important the less advanced your skiing skills are, or the less experience you have in variable, often challenging off-piste snow conditions. No one likes to be the person who struggles to keep up with the rest of the group, or whose limits determine what the entire group can achieve. The more extra weight you carry, the greater the chances that you might find yourself in this position.


In the spring, the weather in the mountains can be anything, from blazing hot sunshine to blizzard conditions. You need to prepare for the gamut of conditions.

Either Randonée or Telemark equipment is suitable for the this tour, though the vast majority of skiers will be happier on Randonée. Whatever type of gear you use you should be able to ski in difficult snow with good speed control in tight confines and steep slopes. The track we follow is occasionally exposed and solid side slipping skills are essential.

Virtually everything you need can either be rented or purchased in Chamonix. In fact, given the range of available models, it is not a bad idea to plan on equipping yourself entirely in France. The only exception to this might be if you have unusual requests, either in boot or ski size, or need particular gear. You need only allow the time to do it. We can help you with your shopping and rentals if you give us warning so we can set aside the time.

 

CLOTHING

Ski Boots - Randonnée or Telemark.

Randonnée - There are a range of good boots on the market. Generally, the lighter boots are more comfortable for walking, while the heavier boots are not quite so comfortable but provide better downhill skiing support.

In the US it can be difficult to compare fit from one brand or model to another as few shops carry more than one kind of randonnée boot, if they carry them at all. In Chamonix, you can try on a range of different boot types and sizes to get the best fit for you. Of all the pieces of gear that you might consider buying in France, this is perhaps the most logical, as fit can only really be determined by trying on the boot. The larger sports shops in Chamonix, such as Snell’s, typically stock at least a dozen different models of randonnée boots, a range of offerings you won’t find anywhere in the US.

Scott, Dynafit, Black Diamond, Scarpa and La Sportiva seem to be the most popular brands these days. Most, if not all, of these companies have models specifically designed to fit women.

Beware of touring boots that fit both touring bindings and regular alpine downhill bindings. These boots greatly compromise walking comfort in exchange for the ability to fit downhill bindings. Good touring boots have a rocker in the sole, and a tread with aggressive lugs for hiking. Avoid flat bottomed boots that lack a significant rocker. Unfortunately, these flat-soled boots are becoming more popular in the US, used especially by "side-country" skiers who don't really need to walk very far. However, for most European ski tours you'll be happier with a boot that allows some comfort on the hiking approaches.

Telemark - Scarpa, Black Diamond, and Scott all make excellent boots. Unlike Randonnée boots, you will probably find a better selection of telemark boots in the States than you will in Europe, though every year we see more and more tele boots on the shelves in France. If you use tele gear be sure your boot crampons can be securely fitted to your boots.

Boot liners - Many boot manufacturers offer some sort of 'thermo-fit" liner with boots as "standard equipment". This is great as it helps improve fit and warmth, while reducing weight. For those that don't, you might want to consider buying a custom liner. These liners are heated and then molded to your foot and boot for a perfect fit.

Custom footbeds - Custom foot beds, or simply higher quality replacements can help tremendously with fitting, comfort and ski control.

Socks - Generally you will want to fit your boots with one medium sock, or perhaps a liner sock and a medium sock. If your boots are too loose you will lose skiing control. Bring a spare change.

Pants - Finding the perfect pants combination can be a challenge. You need versatility, with layering options for additional warmth as well as good protection from bad weather. One combination that works well in a number of conditions, and which we use most of the time, is to start with a light stretch synthetic pant with a hard finish. Excellent examples of this type of pant are made by Patagonia, (Backcountry Guide Pant) as well as Marmot, Arc'teryx, Mammut, Schoffel and others. These pants can generally cover the tops of the boots (so you don’t need gaiters,) are not too warm when it's hot out (some even have short zipped vents), and have a good hard finish for wind resistance. When more protection is needed, combinging these pants with a pair of snow/wind pants (described next) will usually provide enough. Long underwear bottoms (optional, see below) complete a very warm combination for mid-winter or especially tough weather tours.

Snow/Wind Pants - You will need something for truly bad weather. A light-weight Gore-tex or other water resistant but breathable layer is your best bet. Be sure you can get them on over your ski boots. Full side zips are a great help. The lighter the better, as you may not need them at all. Avoid pants with suspenders as they are much more complicated to get into “on the fly”.

Long Underwear Bottoms - (optional) Light synthetic or wool for higher climbs in inclement weather. or as a luxury item some folks like to use in the huts. With the climbing pants described above and a shell, long underwear bottoms are rarely truly necessary.

Snow/Wind Jacket - For ski tours we have been moving away from truly water proof fabrics and using water repellent windproof finish fabrics commonly called "soft shell" in modern marketing parlance. Though you might get a bit wet in the rain, nearly all precipitation on ski tours comes as snow. Of course Gore-tex works well, but some of the more breathable fabrics have a larger comfort range. Again, go for extreme lightweight. Be sure your jacket has a good hood!

Long Underwear Tops - Very light synthetic or wool.

Light fleece shirt - Something about the weight of Polartec 100, (heavy synthetic underwear).

Light weight second layer - Light is right. Some of the new new, very light down sweaters (some even with hoods!) are perfect.

Light weight T-shirt - We like to bring a light and comfortable shirt to change once we get to the huts. It is nice to get out of your sweaty long underwear tops. Most of the huts sell their own T-shirts, usually with a nice drawing of the hut on it. If you what to save a bit of weight, buy a hut shirt!

Thin Gloves - Most of the time you will be comfortable with a pair of simple “WindStopper” gloves.

Warmer gloves - When the temperature drops you will want a somewhat warmer pair of gloves. The best solution is a very light pair of nylon insulated ski gloves. The Marmot Randonnée glove is a good example. Gloves made for climbing or with a lot of leather are generally too heavy. Mittens are not recommended.

Ear band - To keep the cold breezes off the ears, but avoid over heating.

Warm Hat or Balaclava -

Neck Gaiter - To cover the lower face and/or nose in icy winds. We use a “Buff” - a light stretchy tube you can wear in at least a dozen different ways. This can double as an ear band.

Sun hat - A baseball cap works well. This is also useful in keeping snow off your face when it is coming more or less straight down.

Around-town clothes and shoes - We won't carry these on the tour, buy you'll want them around town.

 

SKIING & CLIMBING GEAR

Skis - Despite the ever-increasing width of skis in today's market, there is a limit to how wide is sensible for a good touring ski. Unfortunately, one ski can't be good in all conditions. Fat skis (more than 100mm underfoot) don't do well on hard pack, are very poor for skinning on firm snow, and are heavy. And narrow skis (less than 80mm underfoot) while light and fun on firm, lose points in deep or difficult snow.

Choosing a ski is an act of compromising. Here is a breakdown of the deciding factors.

  • Ski weight. Lighter skis are much nicer on the uphill. Heavier skis are more fun on the downhill and in funky snow. Remember, on most tours, you'll spend 80% of your time on the uphill!

  • Turn radius. Generally a short turn radius gives a more "turny" ski, good for tight conditions or on steep ground where you need to get your skis through the fall line quickly. However, they are more "squirrely" at high speed and don't much like being run flat on firm packed trails (you'll want to keep them on edge, constantly carving). A high radius ski is more stable at speed. Some folks claim that a straighter edge (high radius) is better for skinning, but we don't think this is very significant.

  • Ski width. Fat skis simply SUCK for skinning on firm snow. The contact edge is so far out from under your foot that there is considerable leverage which puts a lot of uncomfortable pressure on various parts of your foot, and also makes it hard to engage that edge, particularly if you have the uppers of your boots loose, which you should while skinning. With fat skis, you'll find you need to use ski crampons sooner and more often, and on steep firm skinning, you'll be cursing them. However, in deep or heavy snow they are much easier to ski. Fat skis weigh more than skinny skis, which is great on the downhill, but burns calories on the uphill.

  • Ski stiffness. Stiff skis are faster and more predictable on firm snow at high speed. But they tend to feel more "dead" in deep snow and take more "umph" to make tighter turns. Generally, softer skis feel more forgiving, at least at low speeds, but they are less sure on steep firm snow. Unfortunately, there is no objective measurement of ski stiffness, so all you can do is go into the shop and bend a bunch of skis, using your highly calibrated arms. Less skilled skiers will be happier with a soft ski. More skilled skiers may prefer something more in the middle of the road. Our best advice here is to stay away from the extremes, especially very stiff skis. Bear in mind that fatter skis tend to be softer, as they are designed for skiing deep snow.

  • Straight, or turned up tail. This one is easy: get a straight-tailed ski. There are few real advantages to a twin-tip or tail-rockered ski, and plenty of disadvantages. The disadvantages include: harder kick turns because of the extra tail length; extra weight that is seldom put to any use; harder to attach ski tail clips; rooster tail effect that is annoying to those skiing behind you; and difficulty sticking the skis into the snow, as needed for some types of anchors, or simply putting them somewhere out of the way.

  • Tip and tail holes. We applaud K2 and Dynastar for continuing to put tip and tail holes in some of their models. Though not nearly as important as the other attributes above, they are nice to have. There is no significant disadvantage to holes.

  • Tail notch for skins. Most touring skis have a tail notch for skin attachment. But take a quick glance at the back end of anything you are considering buying to be sure skin attachment will be easy. Again, there is no downside to a notch.

For touring in the Alps, the Sierra Nevada, New England, or the Cascades, we recommend the following.

  • 85 to 90mm at the waist. We feel that this width gives good performance in difficult or deep snow, while still being reasonable for skinning on firm snow. Wide skis (over 90mm underfoot) are difficult and uncomfortable for skinning on hard snow. Remember, wider skis mean wider skins and ski crampons, adding weight and bulk to your pack.

    If you plan to do most of your touring in areas with very light snow, eg. Colorado, Utah, BC Interior, or early season in the Alps (typically before mid-March), then go a bit wider, up to about 100 mm underfoot.

    If your touring is going to be primarily in the Cascades, California or New England, or Spring tours in the Alps, then something with a waist of about 90 mm should be good.

  • Turn radius of less than 18 meters. (less in the shorter lengths, a bit more in the longer lengths, but try to keep it under 20). We like the maneuverability of a "turny" ski for most touring. Getting around quickly on steep or tight terrain can be important, and more often than not, speeds are kept to reasonable limits. A low-radius ski will have a wider tip which is better for soft snow, and a narrower waist, better for skinning, giving you the best of both worlds.

  • A rockered tip. This seems to be all the rage in new touring skis, and in skis with a tip width of over 120 mm, it is rare that a ski would not have a rockered tip.

  • Go light, but not too light! There are some crazy-light skis out there that meet our criteria for width and shape. Be aware, however, that you will sacrifice a small amount of ski performance in crud with so little mass on your foot, but you'll smile on the uphills. The main problem with some of these light skis is one of durability. Though technology is a wonderful thing, and advances every day, occasional ski breakages do happen. In general, if you don't weigh more than about 180 lbs (82 kg), you keep your pack weight to within reason, and generally avoid jumping off things, then you'll most likely be fine with the lightest of skis. But if you are a big fellow, or ski very aggressively, then be careful with some of the very light skis. These days, anything with the above dimensions that weighs about, or less than 3200 gm per pair at the 176mm length, is "light weight".

Here's an example of a ski that we like:

Dynastar Cham - The "Cham" line of skis from Dynastar includes 3 different widths (87mm, 97mm and 107mm). It also includes a women's version, the "Cham Woman", and a lightweight version for ski touring, called the "High Mountain".

First, avoid the "heavy" version of the Cham line. They really are quite heavy and not suitable for touring. Get the "High Mountain" version. Note that the Cham Woman uses (we think) the same construction as the High Mountain version, so is reasonably lightweight as well.

We think the designers of these skis got the shape just about right. They have a long gradual rocker resulting in a big shovel which keeps you on top of soft snow. They use a very short turn radius (15 meters in the 178cm length, and only 12 meters in the Cham Woman 159cm). The short radius makes for a very easy turning, fun ski. Dynastar has also put a flat tail on these skis, which we applaud. And last, the High Mountain models (but not the Woman) have tip and tail holes, kudos here, as well.

The 87mm version is a good choice for Alps tours like the Chamonix to Zermatt Haute Route or Berner Oberland, where firm snow is not uncommon. Also for touring in the Sierra, New England or the Cascades, the 87mm is recommended.

If you ski in a softer snow climate, such as the Rockies, western Canada or the Alps in February and March, then you might like to go with either the 97mm or even the 107mm, though skinning on firm snow with a wide ski is much more difficult. We own the 97mm version and are quite happy with them, though we do switch to our narrower skis when we do the Haute Route.

Avoid the temptation to buy long with these skis. Anything longer than you are tall, is too long. Kick turns are much more difficult in an overly long ski, and the actual additional flotation is negligible.

Ski Bindings - Ever more major manufacturers seem to be joining the randonnée party. In addition to the old standards—such as Diamir/Fritschi, Dynafit, Marker and G3—Atomic, Salomon and Look also now have touring bindings.

The most popular bindings are the Diamir/Fritschi and the Dynafit.

Ski touring bindings can be divided into two general categories: "Tech" bindings which use pins at the toe to provide the pivot point–also called "pintech", and plate bindings in which the boot is attached to a hinged plate. Dynafit is the classic brand of Tech binding, and has the lion's share of the market, while Diamir is the leader in the plate category.

Recent improvements in Tech bindings (ease of entry, heel lift and such) have made made this style of binding the best choice for most ski touring. There are still some advantages to plate binding (more predictable release, ease of entry, ability to accommodate more boot types). But the weight advantage to Tech bindings overrides all these considerations when you have to spend hours skinning uphill.

For the kind of trips we offer, which involve mostly human powered uphill, the Tech style binding is the best choice. This fortunate fact simplifies our binding discussion immensely, as we can safely skip over the many, many versions of plate bindings on the market. Also, among the few manufacturers that produce Tech bindings, there are some fairly clear choices.

We'll start by simply saying that the Dynafit Radical ST is, at the moment, the best choice. But this may change with the winter 2014 introduction of the Diamir Vipec, or the G3 ION, more on this below.

Within the Dynafit line there are models that are both lighter (the "Speed") and heavier (the FT and the "Beast"). The Speed's lack of ski brakes is a big minus for us, and the heavier bindings don't offer enough advantages to be worth the cost in weight. The Radical ST is the best balance for general ski touring.

Diamir has just released their new Tech binding, the Vipec. With similar weight to the Radical ST, in addition to some other advantages, this binding could seriously threaten Dynafit's king-of-the-hill standing. However, if history is any guide, there will be some issues with the first iteration of any binding, meaning you might want to wait until the bugs get worked out. The Vipec could be a contender, however, and we are hoping for the best.

G3 has also developed a new Tech binding called the ION. Similar in weight to the Radical ST and the Diamir Vipec, it also has brakes. The binding is planned for release in winter of 2014-15. It certainly is prettier than either of the main contenders. Like the Vipec, it also looks very promising.

The ski brakes on the Dynafit bindings are woefully inadequate. If the new Diamir or the G3 bindings have better brakes, then this alone is worth the switch.

There are, of course several other Tech binding manufacturers out there, including Plum, ATK and others. Most of these are designed for the race market–ridiculously lightweight but at the expense of some useful features, such as ski brakes. Plum, however, makes a touring binding with optional brakes. Similar in weight to the ION, Radical and Vipec, it unfortunately lacks some of the newer features of the its main competition, such as easy heel lift engagement.

Telemark skiers can use any number of good quality bindings. Some bindings, such as the Karhu 7TM, or the G3 Targa have options for a comfortable hinged touring mode, as well as brakes and ski crampons (though the whole kit is quite heavy). Remember, you must be able to equip your skis with ski crampons, listed below. This may effect your binding choice.

Ski Crampons - Required for both randonnée and telemark systems. You will need to equip your skis with removable crampons, also known as harscheisen or couteaux. For some telemark setups these may be difficult to find. All modern randonnée bindings have ski crampons designed specifically for that binding.

Telemark skiers! - You MUST equip your skis with ski crampons, they are required for this trip. Telemark binding manufacturers have been depressingly slow to offer an optional crampon. Shame on them!

There are several models of telemark binding that now include a ski crampon option. If your current binding does not have a designated crampon option, you probably can find after-market crampons that can be fitted. B & D Ski Gear offers one alternative. Also, Voile has a fixed crampon that my fit some skis. In our opinion, the B & D option is generally better. Try it out before you come.

Contact B & D Ski Gear directly, or Martin Volken of Pro Ski Service in Seattle for help with this challenge. Give yourself plenty of advance time to find this essential piece of gear!

Ski brakes - We recommend ski brakes as opposed to run-away straps. Brakes are quicker to use than straps, are somewhat safer in avalanche terrain, and reduce the odds of a ski getting away from you when putting them on or taking off on steep terrain.

Ski Skins - We especially like the Colltex Mix skins.Skins must be shaped to fit shaped skis, narrow in the middle and wider at the tips and tails. Many skin manufacturers are selling skins already cut to fit shaped skis.

If your skins are not shaped, it is high time you went shopping!

Ski Poles - A two section pole can be useful for touring, allowing you to shorten them for downhill skiing and lengthen them for long sections of poling or skating.

Ski Strap - A simple strap to hold your skis together when carried on your pack or over a shoulder can be handy. Get it long enough to go around your poles as well. We like the stretchy polyurethane straps you can find at Voile.com. Get the 18 inch length.

Ice Axe - Light is most definitely right! We have a pair of Camp "Corsa" axes, extremely light at something around 8 ounces each. Mark’s is 50 cm and Kathy’s 45cm.. These tools have aluminum heads and are well suited for ski touring. They are, however not good for summer climbing. For a more versatile axe consider the 52 cm Petzl Sum-Tec, or the 53 cm Grivel Air-Tech Evolution.

No wrist loop is needed! You are better off without one. Also do not bring rubber pick or spike protectors. These sorts of protectors are meant for use in planes, trains, cars and subways. Leave them in the hotel when you go into the mountains.

Boot Crampons - Needed for everyone. You will need boot crampons for some of the steeper ascents we make. The best crampons for this type of use are made of aluminum. Aluminum crampons are not as durable as steel, and they are not great on real ice climbing, but the weight savings are considerable. They are perfectly adapted to ski mountaineering. We strongly recommend purchasing aluminum crampons.

The C.A.M.P. model XLC-390 seems to fit just about any AT boot. (Beware, the XLC-470 and XLC-490 models have fitting problems with many boots. Avoid these models)

Carry your crampons deep inside your pack. Don’t bring rubber point protectors. We use very simple and light nylon bags for our crampons We think most crampon bags are too big, bulky and heavy.

Climbing Harness - A lightweight simple harness is ideal. A belay loop is a good idea, as are adjustable leg loops. The Black Diamond Couloir Harness is a great choice.

Locking Carabiner - Bring a single locking carabiner. The Petzl Attache 3D is a great carabiner.

 

MISCELLANEOUS

Avalanche Transceiver - If you are considering buying a new beacon, there are a number of good options. The latest, most advance beacons have 3 antennas. A few good models include the the Barryvox Element or Pulse, the Ortovox S1+, or 3+, the Pieps DSP Pro or Sport, or the Arva Neo.

We can supply you with a transceiver if you don't own one.

Shovel - We can also supply shovels, but again, if you own a very lightweight shovel, you should bring it as well.

Probe - We can also supply probes, but if you have one, bring it with.

Pack - A simple and lightweight pack with a capacity of about 35 liters (2100 cubic inches) is recommended. Ski attachments are very useful. We strongly advise against bring a pack larger than 40 liters. The large size weighs more, but perhaps more important does not keep the packs weight close to the body as well as a smaller pack, making skiing much harder. A good 35 liter pack weighs about 2 lbs.

Food - Breakfasts and dinners are eaten in town or in the huts. You can have the hut make you a sack lunch as well (they will charge you for it). If you have a special snack food you can’t live without, you most definitely should bring some of that with you though remember to keep it light. We recommend getting lunches from the huts. Some of the huts cater to vegetarians (the normal dinner usually includes some meat). If you would like to go veggie, please tell us so we can make our request to the guardian.

Water bottle or Thermos - A pint Thermos is a nice luxury on a stormy day. For most folks, on cold days, one liter of fluid is enough for the trail, but when the weather is hot you may want a second liter. We believe in doing most of our hydrating in the huts, at the beginning and end of the day.

Head lamp - For a tour such as this we like to use a lightweight Petzl Tikka. Any of the new models in the Petzl Tikka or Zipka lines are good. These headlamps use very efficient LED technology that gets many hours of light from a single set of batteries. If you bring one of these lights one new set of batteries at the start will last the entire tour. Be careful it does not turn on inside your pack!

Pocket knife - Keep it simple and light. The Victorinox Spartan model is our favorite.

Repair kit - If your ski setup, boots or bindings require any particular odds and ends. Don’t bother bringing a Leatherman or complicated repair materials. We carry a repair kit as well. A small amount of duct tape (rolled onto a very short pencil is usually all that is needed). Nordic skiers with cable binding need to bring an extra cable and the tools necessary to change it.

Blister kit - Moleskin, athletic tape. Spenco Second Skin or Compeed is well worth the price.

Sun Glasses - With 100% UV protection. We like to bring sunglasses that permit us to switch from amber lenses (better for flat light) to darker lenses for sunny days. Cébé or Julbo both make good models.

Ski Goggles - For nasty weather. Goggles for poor weather have high light transmission.

Sunscreen - Look for as small a container as possible, or decant into a smaller container. There is no point in carrying a month’s worth of cream on a 7 day trip. We try to use sun screen of at least an SPF of 60.

Lip Protection -

Toiletries - Here again, try to minimize, for instance look for those small tubes of toothpaste. If you like bring 4 or 5 “handi-wipes” or similar.

Ear Plugs - For noisy huts.

Sleeping Sacks - Swiss Alpine Club huts now require users to have their own light sleeping sacks. Usually these are very light simple silk bags.

We have loaners you are welcome to use (we wash them after every trip). Or you can bring your own, or purchase one from the first hut.

Camera and film/memory - (optional, of course) It is very helpful to have a camera that can be hung around the neck, attached to the pack, or stuffed in a pocket so that it is handy, but doesn't’t interfere with your skiing. Please don’t carry your camera inside you pack. Getting it out every time you want pictures not only discourages taking them but also makes the whole group have to wait extra time for you.

Very small digital cameras are great, but you might want to consider bringing an extra battery and a large-capacity memory card.

Duffel - Small duffel for leaving gear in hotels, etc.

Passport, or photocopy - We prefer to leave our passports, plane tickets, etc. safely in the lowlands and carry only a photocopy on the tour. But some folks feel naked without it, and for them it is best to carry it.

Money - Most hotels, shops and restaurants readily accept credit cards, though the huts typically do not. Bring about 50 Swiss francs per night for drinks and other treats in the huts. If you plan on buying lunch, throw a bit more in.

Maps - optional. We, of course, will carry the necessary maps, but if you are the sort of person who likes to learn as much as you can before visiting an area we recommend the following:

Guidebook ; The Haute Route, Chamonix - Zermatt, by Peter Cliff. Don’t bring the whole guide book. If you must bring some info, photocopy the appropriate pages and bring only them, though, you really don’t need any of it.

Maps : French IGN 1:25,000 Chamonix
Swiss 1:50,000 Martigny 282 (S) “S” indicates ski routes marked)
1:50,000 Arolla 283 (S)
1:50,000 Mischabel 284 (S)


Kathy Cosley & Mark Houston
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