There's something inherently exhilarating about exploring the backcountry on skis, immersing oneself in the pristine wilderness, and discovering hidden gems far from the beaten path. I yearned for a new skiing challenge that would push me beyond the boundaries of groomed slopes.
"Joe, you need to chill out or your legs will give up!" was the message from our ski guide Javier as we finished a 1,000 meter decent of untouched powder, 5-6 km away from the nearest piste or lift and no one else in sight. In this blog, I will share the thrills, the challenges, and every breathtaking view that unfolded . From the preparation, the gear and the physical demands, I'll guide you through the exhilarating journey of my first ski touring adventure.
"Am I ready for ski touring?"
Was the fist question I asked myself before researching ski touring options in Whistler. I am a confident skier with a background in ski racing and I really enjoy skiing powder. So I wasn't concerned about the 'going down' bit of ski touring or if I would enjoy that! I was intimidated however by the fiddly equipment worn and carried around. I was also unsure if I had the fitness/strength required for the uphill climbs at 2,000m altitude.
After a bit of research with the guiding company Extremely Canadian the ski entry level requirements were lower than I thought:
"Advanced intermediate to expert skier, comfortable skiing off piste, with little or no touring experience. You'll be expected to do ~1-2 hours of hiking, 400-600m of elevation "
Box ticked. Next was getting my head around what kit is required.
I had only my all-mountain skis, pole and stiff race ski boots with me in resort, which was not going to cut it for a ski tour. It turned out most of the equipment required I could rent in resort. From what Extremely Canadian recommended, here is what I had, and what I rented:
A non insulated shell jacket and pants (Norronna)
Long sleeve t shirt
Helmet (could also rent)
Ski gilet. (Although a light fleece or thin down jacket would have been better)
Alpine ski boots (but might recommend renting touring boots)
What I rented from Backcountry Evo, Whistler:
Touring skis, suitable for my alpine boots
Telescopic (extendable) ski poles with powder baskets
All of this cost $100 CAD (£60) to rent for the day.
With the knowledge I had the ski ability and could get my hands on the equipment, I booked into the 'Intro to backcountry touring' group course with Extremely Canadian in Whistler. The are a company a few of my ski servicing customers had recommended, so was confident I would be in good hands. The group day tour was $299 CAD (£175).
The packed lunch, the meet
I was up early on the morning of the tour to meet at the main gondola station in Whistler village ready for first lifts at 08.15. On inspection of the sky, it looked like a perfect bluebird conditions and temperatures around -5c. Taking the 'busmans holiday' approach I gave my rented skis, 'DPS Koala's', a hot wax and scrape in the hotel with two thoughts. 1. this will maximise the experience with fast skis on through the powder 2. this is a waste of time as I'll soon be slapping a sticky climbing skins on the base of these skis!
Next was a stop at the super market. The recommendation from the tour company was to pack enough food for lunch and snacks for the day and at
least 1lt of water. Once you are skiing off the back of a pisted mountain into the abiss, the huts with beers and the plates of pasta are pretty scarce! I loaded upon half a filled baguette, bananas, some kind of engery bars and a packet of haribo. The dilemma was, I definitely did not want to run out of food/energy and, to use a cycling term, "bonk", considering the calorie burns of climbing up mountains with skis on. I equally did not want to laden my backpack with necessary weight to lug up the climbs!
Next I headed up to the meet point by the Whistler Village gondolas. I was met by the guide Javier and an American couple who signed up to the tour. They, intimidatingly, had all their own kit, touring skis with pincer bindings, super light weight touring boots and helmet. Javier checked over our equipment, had a bit of small talk, then jumped on the Blackcomb gondola for some initial Avalanche training.
Avalanche training and climbing
After a quick toilet break, we pitched up on the side of a piste for some avalanche training. Javier mapped out a scenario is we were skiing in a group and one of us got caught up in an avalanche. He showed us how to use the trancievers, probes and how to dig out a buried person. "90% of people found within 15mins survive, but after 30mins, 70% of people die" was a message that stuck with me. You feel a much bigger sense of responsibility for those around you than your standard ski lesson! Another take away was to not wear the wrist loops on your ski poles, with the idea that you throw your poles in the air just before being impacted by an avalanche to help others locate you.
After another chair and pomma lift we made a traverse to the base of the first climbing section. We were shown how to unravel the climbing skins and attach them to the base of the skis and engage the bindings into climbing mode. I fumbled about with the skins and after 4 or 5 attempts managed to roughly stick the skins onto the base so they weren't hanging over the edges and gathering snow. I clipped in and immediately fell over the front of the skis, much to the amusement of the others. Our guide instructed us to effectively 'strip off', a strange request in -5c conditions. I packed away my jacket, gilet, gloves into the backpack and clipped my helmet and goggles onto it. Time for some exercise!
I got used to the climbing movement pretty quickly as we followed our guide single file, as he created a track through the deep snow. The legs and arms work in unison with each step and pull up the trail ski. Javier raced off in front and after a few minutes he turns to us "You need to find a pace that works for you. We have a long day ahead and so don't use up all of your strength and energy trying to keep up with the person in front of you".
We climbed for around 40mins, zig-zagging up to a peak and getting further and further away from any other skiers as they descended into the valley pistes below. Once we hit the first peak, we took a break to soak up the views and get ready for a decent. What I found strange is the use of different muscles in the climb. I really felt like I was using the bigger leg muscles at the back of the legs, the glutes and hamstrings, where typically after a big piste ski day I'd feel it in the quads and adductors at the front of the legs.
The best picnic stop
We then rolled off the peak towards Decker mountain, leaving the comforts of chairlifts and restaurants of Blackcomb behind us. I was excited to get stuck into our first untouched powder field. We skied the first section one by one and I followed Javier's line for 500m, my excitment got the better of me, skiing as fast as possible trying to slash turns and spray snow. It was exhilarating.
"Joe, you need to chill out or your legs will give up!".
Javier explained touring is a marathon and not a sprint. We had a lot more climbing and descending to do, so I had to manage my legs and energy accordingly. This was difficult for me to compute given I had spent my skiing life trying to ski as fast as possible. But I took the message on board and tried to channel my 'zen' state moving forward.
Along the way Javier would occasionally pick up snow in his hands to inspect it or karate chop into a slope and view the layers of snow beneath it.
"How does the snow look?" one of the Americans asked.
Javier responded "It looks good, you get a feel for the snow over the years. But honestly, when it comes to understanding snow packs, the more you know, the more you don't know!"
He explained that you can never be 100% on the risk of an avalanche, but can only give levels of certainty based on all the information you can receive. He said before any tour he would study weather forecasts, how much sunlight slopes would get, and would get together with other guides and discuss the snow pack of certain areas of the range. I realised how little I knew about the stuff I had been skiing on for 30 yrs.
We skied down to a frozen lake, Circle Lake, a perfectly flat surface about 400m across. Here is where we pitched up for the best lunch spot ever!
We fueled up and had a chat while taking in the view of untouched mountains and occasionally spotting other ski tourers hundreds of meters away in the distance. It turned out After lunch we took another short hike out of the lake before desceding down to another frozen lake 'Daker Lake'. None of the descents were too challenging, the gradients were probably equivalent run pisted run, but obviously all untouched power. Great for controlling speed and bouncing from turn to turn. My touring skis were super light making the transition from turn to turn pretty effortless. A canvas of undulating slopes and hidden gullies, beckoning me to explore its secrets. I followed the contours of the mountain. The silence of the backcountry enveloped me, broken only by the faint sound of my skis slicing through the powder. There was something more satisfying with each turn knowing you had worked for it, like the early pioneers of skiing had.
Once we reached Daker lake, we packed up our layers again, applied our skins, of which I was semi-competent by now, and made the long climb back to a new peak. It was another 300m vertical climb over around 1.2k in length to the peak which took about an hour. Again the focus was really on finding a rhythm I was comfortable with and sticking to it. I love cycling, and the mentality to climbing in skiing is similar to that on a bike, find a rhythm that wont kill you and focus on that next step (or pedal stroke). As the day grew longer, I was concerned about running out of energy, so took the approach of eating and drinking 'little and often'. "Eat before your hungry and drink before your thirsty" was some good advice I received when it comes to endurance event sports.
Although the legs were heavy, I found a nice pace and stayed close with Javier occasionally taking break to let the American's catch up. We crested 'Spearhead's Traverse' ready for the final descent. "This is called 'Body Bag Bowl'!". The descent would give us 2.5km of untouched powder before hitting the Blackcomb piste and giving a run all the way to the village. As we hit the pistes again, Javier turned round to me "You've done well today in those stiff alpine boots. You would be able to climb 40% further with some light-weight touring boots on". Food for thought!
Will you be back?
We probably covered 20km of skiing in the tour, including s chunk of that on piste, rather than say 30-40km in a big alpine day. But it's the quality of those km's covered which is what will bring me back to ski touring. There is something so raw, exciting and peaceful about being at one with the mountain and nature, offering views so few get to experience.
It is physically demanding, so I would like to build up to doing two consecutive days touring. My glutes and hamstrings felt like they had a workout the next day! I burned 1,600 calories over the course of the day but it was all about finding that rhythm and pace that suits you which is key for survival and enjoyment. The equipment was pretty easy to get used to and feels natural after an hour or so. I am a real covert and will be back to touring!
Get in touch if you want to discuss touring for the first time as i am happy to share my expereince and advice.