Alpine touring is, in a nutshell, a terrible way to spend an hour or four. Instead of using the ski lift to reach the top of a mountain, like a sane person, you choose to hike up to the top of the mountain with your skis and boots still strapped to you feet. Which is where the phrase, “earning your turns” comes from. It takes exponentially longer than taking a lift, and you can ski significantly few runs per day. But for some people, earning your turns, is the only way they will ski.
How exactly are you supposed to hike uphill, with your skis on? For anyone’s whos tried to hike uphill in their downhill skis, even for a few feet, to retreive a ski pole or glove, knows how difficult it is. But fear not, alpine touring incorporates two specific pieces of gear that differ from regular, downhill skiing to make hiking uphill skiing possible. Those two pieces are pivoting bindings and climbing skins.
Pivoting Bindings: To preserve the hiking motion, while keeping your boots attached to your ski bindings, pivoting bindings allow you to free your heel as pick up your leg to move forward or uphill. The ski can maintain full contact with the snow, while you can take a full stride. The front of your boot, through a few different mechanism, will stay attached to the binding, which is conntected to your ski. The most common is a Dynafit (tech) binding which inserts two pins onto each side of the toe of the boot. The heel portion of the binding moves out of the way during the uphill climbs. When you want to ski downhill, you engage the heel piece with another set of pins that lock into the heel of the boot. Unfortunately, this requires tech-specific boots to work with these bindings. Most people start out with a frame binding. Which essentially is a normal ski binding that has the front of a normal binding hinged to allow for the hiking motion to occur. These bindings/boot combination are drastically heavier than a tech setup.
Climbing Skins: To give you traction in one direction, but allow you to slide in the other, you’ll need to attach skins to the bottom of your skis. They allow you to push off, during your stride, and propel you forward without sliding back down the hill. Skins are a cloth-like material that has its fibers oriented in one direction, similar to how seal skin grows, so it will slide forward smoothly in the snow and stop motion in the backward directions. Skins are made from nylon or mohair, and have a metal loop that attaches over the tip of your skis, and a hook to connect them to the tail. Additionally, the back side has an adhesive, sticky material to stay connected to the bottom of your skis. Climbing skins are intended to be put on for uphill motion and removed for downhill skiing.
Bonus Gear Tip: Though not required, alpine touring will require you to dress in layers differently than a normal ski day. On your hike up, depending on the temperatures, you could be sweating profusely if not layered properly. Not only is that uncomfortable, but also very dangerous. Cold temperatures can freeze your sweaty clothes and possibly sending you into a state of hypothermia. Make sure your pants & jacket are breathable enough or have venting zippers on them to ventilate the heat from your body. Additionally, wear base layers and bring thinner gloves to wear during the skin uphill. And bring a backpack to put the extra clothes in during the uphill (and the skins on the way down). Also, some people choose to clip their helmet and goggles to their packs because they trap too much heat on the way up, causing your hair to get too sweaty. This is all personal preference and temperature dependent.
Once you have the gear, now you’re ready to start heading uphill. Note: This is NOT an introduction for backcountry skiing, which involves skiing outside of ski boundaries and potentially in hazardous, avalanche prone areas. This is simply an introductory to alpine touring and how to do it.
However you’ve chosen to go about your setup, the basics are all the same. Strap your skins onto the bottom of your skis, making sure the “smooth” direction is oriented from tip-to-tail. Second, get your boots on, but don’t clip them as tight as you would normally for downhill skiing. This will make for a much more comfortable ascent. Click into your bindings, with the heel in the free, pivoting position. Then start your hike up.
At first, the motion will feel strange and unnatural. The most efficient motion is to slide your feet along the snow, rather than picking them up. At some point during your ascent, the pitch of the hill will grow steeper and steeper. This is where the heel risers come into play, which your bindings should have two of. First riser to be used for moderately steep terrain, and the second riser that flips down on top of the first one for much steeper terrain. This will reduce the distance your heel will drop when climbing the mountain, which reduces the strain on your legs.
Another important tip the height of your ski pole. If you have adjustable poles, extend them so that you have more leverage to push off of when climbing over uneven terrain.
Make your way up to the top of the line, run, or mountain and get ready to ski back down. Step out of your skis by releasing the toe portion of your pivoting bindings. Make sure that your skis are either connected to your boots or your skis have brakes on them to prevent them from sliding back down the mountain. One by one, pick your skis up and remove the skins from from the skis in a tail-to-tip direction. Don’t forget to store your skins properly before you put them away for your ski down. I prefer to either roll them up or fold each end into the middle and then roll up the folded skin. This makes it easier to get them back out, quickly, for your next skin up.
Flick your boots out of walk mode, click into your bindings. Don’t forget to put them back into ski mode by adjusting the toe piece and or heel piece. If you got hot during your skin and opened up zippers in your pants and jacket, don’t forget to close them back up. Now you’re all set to point those tips down and have one epic run.
Once you hit the bottom you can officially say that you’ve earned your turns. And I can promise you that there is no better feeling in skiing than skiing down a line that a you just worked your a$$ off to get to the top of. Plus, its addicting and makes you appreciate the sport even more.