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Ski Touring

Article number three and we’re taking a bit of a side step away from the competitive, lactate producing, lung busting, pre season existence of the racer to more reserved, map studying, kit accumulating approach of the ski tourer.

The French have made ski-touring competitive and there are now events held from the Atlas to the Altai Mountains and on most ranges in between. Competitive mountaineering in teams is a great experience but I suspect few of you want to forgo the alpine panoramas, the powder fields or the ambience of the mountain huts for the sake of another trophy. Consequently we’re not concerned with the fine-tuning of your body for a record attempt at the Haute Route but we do want to ensure you’re fit enough to cope with long uphill climbs and the altitude. More importantly you must be strong enough and sufficiently skilled to get out of any trouble you get yourself into. The idea is to persuade those of you who usually go straight from your office desk to mountain peaks that a little bit of training is in order.

I will deal with only three aspects of preparation, fitness, skills, and safety. Fitness first. If you really want to enjoy the spectacle of the Alps or the Urals you have to make sure of two things, one, that your body won’t fall apart with the unaccustomed exercise, and two, that you’re not the weakest in the group. Forget the interval training and sprints, provided you’ve not been locked up all winter, two hill walks a week will give you sufficient cardio vascular capacity to cope. Take and use a pair of alpine ski poles, up and down the hills, and gradually increase the gradient and length of the climbs until you can cope with a four to five hour day. One short and fast outing mid-week, with a long steady walk at the week-end is ample. You also need strength and the a weekly session in the gym is the best option. You have to ‘overload’ the muscles if you’re going to get results in this area.

In the six weeks prior to your adventure you should focus on strengthening specific muscle groups to reduce chances of injury. Squash, running , or five a-sides will not help avoid the over-use injuries associated with touring. The number one offender is the group of muscles known as the hip flexors. A four hour climb in soft snow with touring equipment will leave most of us with inflamed flexors. Each stride becomes increasingly painful, shorter, and slower and ultimately you’ll struggle to climb the ladder up to the bunk that is already shaking from the snoring of the eight strangers you’re sharing with. The price you pay for arriving last. To avoid this either wear light (0.25-1.0 kg) ankle weights when you go walking or do specific exercises in the gym. Try and imitate the touring action where the recovery leg come through much straighter than in walking . In addition to this you should make sure your calves are strong and flexible, strengthen your triceps/lats by walking with ski poles, and prepare your thighs (quads) for those long downhill sections. Remember the quads work eccentrically when you link one tele turn after the other (i.e. the muscle gets longer as you work it) and you can improve this by controlled walking downhill or single leg squats on a step.

Strengthening stomach and back muscles will pay off when your buried up to your neck in powder and struggling to wriggle free. Rotating sit ups and back extensions plus some pilates will help you cope with the problem of downhilling with a pack. Arm and finger strength is vital should you find yourself playing any part in a crevasse rescue. Finally, if you’ve had an injury, knees, back, shoulders, get some advice on how to strengthen that particular body part for your trip.

On to skills. An Australian once said of a tour that “the uphill was the toughest thing he’d ever done, until it came to the downhill”. What a waste to spend hours climbing only to turn the downhill into a series of extended traverses as you live in fear of an icy fall line and next turn. Apart from practice on the dry slope and improving strength there are a few tips. Learn to identify the snow that makes life difficult (ice ,crust) and avoid it. Place heavy items in the bottom of your sack, keep the weight to a minimum, and tighten the straps. Use skis designed to turn! with medium stiffness and sufficient sidecut.

Another skill worth developing prior to your trip is that of the kick turn. Relatively easy on an alpine piste but unnerving on steep icy slopes as you glare into the mouth of a bottomless bergschrund. Confidence will come once you’ve established a routine and precise pole placement. You will attract some strange looks practising this off snow but it may well save you from getting a close look at the inside of the Arolla glacier.

Volumes of books have been written on the subject of mountain safety and ski touring. There’s also a wealth of information available on the internet so there are no excuses for not being informed or well equipped. The more you know about navigation, avalanche conditions, rescue techniques, survival, the better your chances. However, anyone whose been involved in an epic will know how different the real life situation is from the straightforward theory of a text book. Buying the transceiver and ropes is not enough. Your team have to practise crevasse rescue and avalanche search techniques and always consider the worst scenario when your plan the trip. Trouble is a lot easier to get into than out of!

Finally, a dram of malt can go a long way in exchange for advice or some skin glue, yours no doubt, is sitting on the office desk. Have fun.

author: Patrick Winterton
publish date: January 2005

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