An introduction to ski touring in the Italian Dolomites
Our blogger in the Italian Dolomites, Beth Lloyd, tells us how she has picked up ski touring almost from scratch this season – with fantastic results.
I came to the Dolomites to get better at off piste skiing. Before this season I had one ski tour under my belt and practically no winter mountaineering experience. My previous off piste had never been all that far from the pistes and had mostly been accessed by lifts. This season in the Dollies seemed like the perfect chance to step up and push myself to new limits.
Skiing into the Canale Joel, March (Photo Cam Bevan)
Unfortunately the weather didn’t seem willing to help me on my quest for fresh powder. In fact it was remarkable that the pistes were kept going for the first half of the season. I was feeling down about my prospects of skiing the famous couloirs as they remained boulder-filled and the vast massifs were rocky and windswept. All the while the Austrian mountains were sat smugly on the horizon, often enveloped in overweight snow clouds. We got out here and there, going on short tours to find the best snow we could but came away with scarred skis from the thin base.
But when almost all hope was lost, March arrived with the best present any of us could have hoped for and within just a few days we were waist deep in fresh, light powder. To say that I’m tired now is an understatement because ever since, we have been out almost every day making the most of the excellent conditions. It’s been a learning curve this season, but what I have learnt about equipment, avalanche risk, personal fitness and mental limits has been invaluable.
Becks skiing the Val Mesdi in early March
The reward after a long and difficult tour. Fresh tracks and beautiful conditions (Photo James Rushforth)
Now firstly, with snow comes danger, anyone worth the skis on their feet should know that. A quote that always sticks with me that I once heard on a ski documentary was that we are the mountains’ guests. The moment we feel like we have the right to be there is the moment that we lose respect for the mountains and that’s when things get dangerous. Mountains should be treated like wild animals; they are beautiful and impressive but equally they are unpredictable and potentially dangerous. Avalanches and rock falls are common and other dangers like snow holes around trees and crevasses on glaciers should always be present in the mind.
One of my first steps this season was to get kitted out properly. Anyone skiing off piste should wear a transceiver and carry a shovel and probe. Not only that but you should be comfortable using them. Early in the season we spent a day taking it in turns to bury and then search out each other’s transceivers, timing how fast we could find them and dig them out. Even though it wasn’t a real situation, it was stressful because in the back of my head I knew that if it was real, it’d be my friends beneath the snow. The best thing you can do in those situations though is to not panic and remain calm. Thinking straight is important when time is of the essence.
Practicing with transceivers after an early season snowfall
I also carry an ABS backpack when I head into the backcountry. This is a rucksack kitted out with a canister and airbags that will inflate when the attached handle is pulled. The logic behind it is that the largest particles of snow tend to be brought to the surface in a travelling avalanche. The ABS pack expands and hopefully floats you to the top. They’re not cheap but their success rate it high!
Fat skis and avi rucksack, dropping in! (Photo Cam Bevan)
Much of the best off piste in the Dolomites can be accessed by ski touring. Touring is when the skier wears ‘skins’ on the bottom of their skis. They have a sticky underside that goes on the bottom of the ski, it then has a synthetic fabric side than stays in contact with the snow. The fabric slides in one direction but not in the other, allowing the skier to climb uphill. Tourers also have specialised ski bindings that have two modes. One is the usual downhill position for skiing with the heel clipped in. The other allows the heel to release so as to aid them to walk –similar to a cross country ski. The main aim when touring is to go as light as possible. Serious tourers will have special lightweight skis and reduced bindings. The boots are also a softer flex and lighter, making them more comfortable to walk in. This does however effect the ski back down. Small, light skis and soft boots might be enjoyable going uphill but when you finally reach the top and it’s time to ski that powder line it can be a handful! This is why I tour in regular alpine ski boots with a hike mode (marginally softens the boots flex for the ups but stiffens again for the downs!), and use some heavier, wider powder skis with a touring binding. It’s harder work getting to my line but so much more fun when I get there!
Jack making the ascent from the Pordoi lift to the top of the Val Mesdi on snowshoes and carrying his skis on his backpack
The best way to learn the mountains is by the experience of others. If you are new to an area, surround yourself with the people who know it and they will show you the best hidden spots and advise you in places where they may have made mistakes before. I am lucky enough this season to be in exactly that kind of social circle and we have been on some mega adventures this winter together! It’s always a good idea to ski in a group, three of four being the optimum number. Too many people and the risks become higher. Mistakes are easier to make when trying to keep track of more people, such as triggering avalanches above the group. You should also never ski off piste alone. There is little point in wearing all that safety gear if no one knows you’re there.
Matty skiing the trees down into Armentarola, wearing his Avi kit.
We have formed a great little crew and since the snow has arrived we’ve skied those couloirs, toured the massifs and navigated steep treelines in the perfect snow. There have been adventures and mis-adventures. At times I’ve been right at the edge of my comfort zone in terms of confidence and fitness but I have pushed myself beyond where I thought I could be too. What started as a potentially unfulfilled season is shaping up to be my best.
Cam in the narrow Canale Joel, Thursday 10th March. Grade 4.1