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Season Diary - Day 12: Touring Time

We had lined Wednesday up long before it had arrived. Even the long term weather forecasts had been certain of this fact; the weather would be stunning, with clear bluebird skies and mild temperatures to boot.


To this end, the preceding evening I had wound my way across town and collected a pair of boots and skis ready for this morning.


For this was our annual touring pilgrimage day.

 



 

What is Ski Touring?

Okay, so what exactly is ski touring? Quite simply, it's hiking up a mountain only on skis instead of just your own two feet, to then ski down the other side (or maybe the same side).


The skis you need to do this have special bindings, meaning you need special boots too. The boots connect to the ski via a pair of pins mounted on a C-shaped clamp that locks into receptacles on the very toe edge of your boots, allowing the ski to pivot around the toe of your boots.


Going up hill, you also attach a skin to the bottom of your skis. This skin has a layer of fur - either synthetic or mohair, a blend of different goat hairs - all pointing in one direction, allowing the ski to slide forward but grip and brake going backwards, stopping you sliding back down the hill.

 



 

Why Would You Ski Tour?

You would ski tour for exactly the same reasons that you would hike up a hill or mountain: for the exercise; for the sake of nature; and to escape from every day life. All these can be achieved with ski touring, giving you the chance to get away from the pain of the lift queue and disappearing into the stunning scenery of the mountains.


There's another reason, however, that is very specific to skiing. As a result of global warming and sheer bad luck with our week's skiing each year, we've never had amazing snow. This is set to continue and get worse, as changing climates force the snow line higher, make snowfall less predictable, and reduce the overall volume of snow. By ski touring, we can access higher elevation slopes that fewer people have skied, opening up wonderful new opportunities to ski untouched powder.


Our previous touring days over the last couple of years had scored us just that, especially last year. In a long drought in the middle of February we still managed to find bountiful untouched powder on two tours up the Balme de l'ours glacier and then over the Col de Fours.


This year, we decided to repeat the Col de Fours, only include the full tour which kicked off from the top of the Pisalles Glacier, rather than the Col d'Iseran as we had done before.

 



 

"A Lack of Strategic Direction"

We set off from the top of the glacier and struck out across the open powder fields that lay before us. The snow was crusty, having frozen overnight and not yet thawed in the morning sun.


Our route across and down from the glacier was hampered by an overall lack of direction. Our initial aim had been to tour as far south as we could, but the appearance of a few rocks and cliff edges made us second guess ourselves.


As a result, we played it safe and cut this first half short, almost repeating a run which we had done earlier in the week.


After a quick transition (removing skins and clipping the heel of our boots into bindings) we cut away from civilisation and headed down the valley to the start point for the second half.

 



 

Up and Over

The Col de Fours is really good tour for all abilities. It involves roughly two hours and 500m elevation gain, starting from below the Col d'Iseran and finishing at a hair shy of 3,000m elevation. The way out, from memory, was also spectacular, with a west facing leeward slope that hoarded snow and offered a million options to score powder turns.


We transitioned again - this time disengaging the heel and attaching skins - and set off. A word of warning, you can be the fittest soul possible, hiking at between 2,500m and 3,000m elevation will leave you very short of breath very quickly.


Like hiking, however, it's a case of putting one foot in front of the other and just keeping going. Slower over the steeper gradients but making hay on the flatter sections. Bathed in sun, we made sure to regularly apply sunscreen as we went!


The final bit of the tour is the gnarliest. All of a sudden, the track drops away from you and down a nearly sheer icey face to your left hand side. It took all our mental strength to keep ourselves fro, looking down this face and focusing on the skin track in front of us, barely only wide enough for our skis.


But we made it. A little over two hours and some serious stints in dangerously high heart rate zones later, and we had made it.


And boy was it worth it. The ski down the other side was fabulous as we filled our cups with powder turn after powder turn from top to bottom.

 

Of course, this hasn't been the only day we've scored powder this holiday. In fact, the first two days were some of the most powder filled of the entire holiday! But the extra effort we put in to score this powder, plus the sense of isolation you feel looking back at Val d'Isere fading away into the distance, is a feeling that can't be beaten.


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