Learning to skin in Verbier

4th January 2015, by Abi Butcher

A cloudy, overcast day was a perfect time to put skins on my skis and climb upwards

A cloudy, overcast day was a perfect time to put skins on my skis and climb upwards

This week in the Swiss ski resort of Verbier I have learnt a new skill — ski touring up the piste or “skinning”. Seen those mad people walking up the side of the piste on their skis, stripped off to the waist with only a thermal on while you are cosied up in six different layers to keep out the cold? That was me, yesterday (Sunday).

I have wanted to start ski touring for quite some time. But one knee being involved in two accidents over the course of the past five or so years has put paid to any aspirations to extend my enjoyment of the mountains — until now.

A year and a half after having an ACL reconstruction, however, plenty of rehab and work on my knee and it is strong enough to ski with no support while feeling better than ever before. My general fitness level is ok, but I need to train at altitude for an event in Aspen this March called Battle in the Bowls, which will involve around eight hours of hiking and off-piste skiing.

Ski touring kit is a huge investment so, knowing this is the direction I wanted to go with my skiing, I have been gradually buying the kit over a few years. Last year I invested in some new, all-mountain, super-light Zag skis and a pair of Marker touring bindings, carefully chosen to be stable enough to use for everyday alpine (downhill) but also good for day touring. Just before Christmas I treated myself to some skins — sticky felt pads that are cut to fit the entire length of your skis, that attach to the bottom and allow you to grip the snow. They are not cheap — mine cost £135 from Snow & Rock — but for me they have added an entirely new dimension to the sport I so love.

Skins fixed to the bottom of my skis

Next I need to buy some touring boots which are lighter than normal boots, and have a walk mode to make the whole process more comfortable. I’d planned this investment for next season but after one day of skinning I love it so much I might have to splash out sooner — after two hours of walking/climbing/sliding uphill my beloved Atomic Hawx felt very heavy and cumbersome!

Yesterday was a day of cloud, flat light and warm temperatures meaning the snow conditions were not at their best. A perfect day to try something different, and with some game friends who have plenty of touring under their belt, started my journey at Le Carrefour restaurant (1750m). My friend Sophie, who is a Swiss-qualified ski instructor, showed me how to work the bindings — which have three settings for walking up the flat, slight gradients and then steep gradients — and how to slide my toe along the snow, lifting my heel up but trying not to lift the ski off the snow which expends unnecessary energy.

My first few tentative steps up the Etierces piste above Le Carrefour

And off we went, up the blue Etierces piste, winding through the trees. Within about two minutes I stopped to take off a layer, skinning up the rest of the way in thermals and just my Rab/Polartec shell jacket and pants. Soon we crossed the black Fis piste that runs down from Les Ruinettes and, for an extra aerobic workout, took that route up instead, ratcheting up our bindings for a steep gradient and being careful to stick to the side. At times, when it became icy, I slipped and my other friend Lizzie advised taking little steps.

From Les Ruinettes we then took the cross-country path round to La Chaux at 2260m, where we enjoyed a well-deserved lunch in the excellent Le Dahu restaurant before skinning back to Les Ruinettes, clicking our bindings into downhill mode and skiing back home down to Le Carrefour.

In the US, skinning is causing some controversy. Some resorts ban uphill skiers during lift operation hours, and during the day one person shouted at us as we climbed up the side of a pathway — I think it was “get off the pistes” or similar, making me feel rather like a cyclist on the pavement. But as long as you stick to the very side I can’t see the inconvenience to people.

What might have been an otherwise mediocre day on the slopes was turned into one of exercise, mountain air and a real sense of achievement, and I’m totally hooked. Next it will be time to book up a proper mountain hut ski tour and take to the wilds, but for now skinning up the side of the pistes is a great addition to my training before battling the bowls in Aspen.

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