At this time of year, with snow around but before the ski lifts open, blogs & tweets are full of expeditions the local folk have made on their skins. It‘s the obvious thing to do for anyone out in the mountains for a ski season but I am sure some of our clients wonder what on earth it is all about!
For the really clueless: skins are pieces of fabric you attach to the bottom of your skis so that they will grip and this enables you to walk uphill without sliding back down or traversing. Standard alpine equipment does not allow a natural, comfortable, striding movement so you need touring skis & boots or telemark kit which are not fixed at the heel.
Why? At its simplest, skinning up a piste is excellent exercise in a fabulous environment. And unlike cross country skiing or snow shoeing there is the well earned reward of a ski back down the hill! But be careful, this form of skiing can be addictive because you are no longer confined to the ski area or a standard ski season. If you have a hill & snow you can go anywhere, suddenly you are an explorer!!
Ski touring is not for lightweights however, the principle is simple but that does not mean it is easy. Telemark and ski touring equipment are not as stable as standard alpine kit and are generally not designed with high performance in mind, so you will need to adapt. Off piste excursions also require a high level of fitness and a good knowledge of mountain craft – no piste means no ski patrol! There are plenty of places and people offering courses on avalanche awareness, navigation and the various aspects of mountain safety which are essential if you want to indulge this hobby.
I first started skinning many years ago when, on a budget, I worked out that a simple telemark rig and skins cost almost exactly the same as a season membership at the local gym. The gym was 6km away in the next town but the mountain was on my doorstep, it was a no brainer! So two or three evenings a week after six or seven hours of teaching, a friend and I would meet at the bottom of the mountain and walk back up to the ski school. We would normally turn back for home as twilight descended and see the spectacular sight of the sun setting below the distant mountains on our ski down. I was a newcomer to telemark, rigged out with leather boots and skinny skis, so the ski down was normally even more challenging than the walk up and suddenly I could relate to all the beginners I had taught that day! Alone except for Benson in that immense landscape, we felt very small and yet very brave at the same time. I still get that feeling each time I reach a summit on my skins, it doesn’t go away.