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Why on earth do people walk uphill to ski?
Wednesday February 18, 2015 - Email this article to a friend

It is becoming increasingly popular as people shun the lifts. In part it is fitness, also to access areas the lifts do not go and to reconnect with the environment. PlanetSKI reporter, Jane Peel, tries it out in Tignes.

I always thought skiing was all about going from the top of the mountain to the bottom.

In that order.

If you ski in the cold depths of winter in Tignes, you are very likely to encounter lines of French soldiers undergoing their alpine training, zig-zagging uphill in their skis.

If you are unfortunate, you might happen to spot them while you are sitting next to me on a chairlift. 

As my skiing buddies will attest, my reaction to this sight is depressingly predictable: "What are they doing?  They're going the wrong way".

Yep, it is not even funny. 

But for a very long time, that was my attitude. 

Skiing for me is all about travelling downhill.  

Why would I walk up when I pay the lift company a lot of money to get me up the mountain?

But gradually more and more of my friends began getting into what they called "ski touring". 

Not only was I unable to join them, I no longer understood their conversations. 

They spoke in a strange language, and made plans to go "skinning".

Once I realised this didn't mean killing animals to survive in the frozen wasteland, I decided to find out what the fuss was about.

I booked a lesson and hired some kit:  fat off-piste skis with special touring bindings and some "skins".

My instructor is a Brit who has lived in Tignes for 21 years. 

Kev Herbert is a backcountry specialist and off-piste manager for the Evolution 2 Ski School in the resort. 

Kev HerbertKev Herbert













Before we go anywhere, we check our kit is fit for purpose. We do a transceiver check. 

We won't be going far into the back-country today but off-piste is off-piste and Kev will not take anyone there without transceiver, shovel and probe and the knowledge to use them.

"I would say 90 per cent of people who come and ask us to guide them off-piste don't know how to use a transceiver to search for an avalanche victim," he says, "and as many as 60 per cent don't even know what a transceiver is."

I know what a transceiver is and how to use it, but "skins" are another matter.

Putting skins onPutting skins on













Kev explains that originally they were strips of seal skin, cut to fit the skis. 

Like the fur of the seal, modern synthetic skins have a nap which allows the skis to slide forward effortlessly but which grips the snow to prevent them sliding backwards.

Fixing the skins to the skis proves to be a fiddly affair for this novice, even on a windless sunny day. 

I imagine what it must be like in exposed conditions.

First I have to dry the bottom of the skis with my hand or glove so the adhesive that is pre-applied to one side of the skins will stick to them. 

The skins must be carefully applied, ensuring they are properly aligned down the middle of the ski, away from the metal edges. 

Air bubbles and gaps that could let in snow are a definite no-no.

Putting skins onPutting skins on












With the skins on, it's a relatively simple process to change the ski bindings from downhill to touring position. 

This releases the heel of the boot from the ski so I can walk uphill.

I click in.  I'm ready to go.  Kev raises the camera.  The next thing I know I'm on my knees.  He laughs. 

Beginners errorBeginners error













It is the classic beginner's error - the face plant before even taking a step. 

I have failed to adjust my balance and as I lift my heels..... oops.

Once back on my feet, we set off and Kev talks me through the basics. 

Slide forward, don't lift the skis.  Don't overstretch.

Too big a gait will make it harder work. 

Plant your poles not in front, but behind your feet.  Use them as an anchor. 

He shows me how to do a basic step-turn to change direction, and the more ungainly kick-turn for the steeper slopes. 

Practicing a turnPracticing a turn













He looks surprised that I manage both, after a fashion, without another close encounter with the snow. 

But Kev has a cunning plan to ensure I'm soon back on my knees.

We've reached a ridge where I'm alarmed to see there is a small downhill section.

"Do everything you've been told you should never do," Kev advises.  "Sit right back on your heels so your toes are pushed to the front of the boot."

However much I think I am sitting back, it is not enough.  I am face down over the front of my skis again. 

First attempt at downhill on skinsFirst attempt at downhill on skins













My pride somewhat damaged, we continue for a short while before reaching the top. 














The skins come off, the bindings are snapped back into downhill mode. 

Taking the skins offTaking the skins off













Our reward is a little bit of off-piste to ourselves.

"Now you just have to remember how to ski," Kev says as he leads the way. 

Sit back on your heelsSit back on your heels













Later over a coffee and a chocolate éclair (well, it was hard work), we talk about the growing popularity of ski touring.

"With the better equipment and fatter skis more people have access to the back-country," Kev says, "but there's a problem associated with that. A lot of them don't have the mountain awareness and safety knowledge to be there and some don't have the technical ability to cope with the difficult terrain.  Some can't even get down a black run".

He is, nevertheless, passionate about the advantages of ski touring away from the crowds in the mountains around Tignes that are his home. 

"It is a magnificent area," he says.  "You can spend a week just circling the broader domain.  You can keep going.  You can walk to Turin, to Milan, to Geneva".

Steady on.  I don't think I'm ready for that just yet.

Under wayUnder way














Jane's skis and skins were provided by Mountain Attitude in Tignes le Lac. Equipment is available to rent for 35 Euros a day.

Evolution 2 offers ski touring for groups (maximum 6 people) for 99 Euros per person.

Jane stayed with Inghams in the 4* Chalet Camille.  Prices start from £659 per person for 7 nights with half board chalet catering, including return flights to Geneva or Chambery and transfers.

For the spirit of the mountains

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