My current ski touring approach
Winter ski touring for me has generally been all about getting out into the backcountry, experiencing the solitude that the mountains afford. Armed with a fresh loaf of bread, some saucisson and cheese, I enjoy nothing more than big days out on skis.
Winter solitude in the Swiss Alps
What about racing?
Competitive ski touring has quite high barriers to entry, with a lot of emphases put on the weight of your setup. Lycra suits with ultra light skis, boots and bindings are de rigueur, with almost all consideration put into how quickly you can go ascend, as opposed to how much fun you can have skiing down. I’ve made the weight compromise myself, opting for a mid-weight package that allows me to enjoy the uphill, although not exactly fly up it (I love the downhill though). For that reason, I’ve shied away from jumping into the competitive scene, unlike trail running, where I love to race in the summer months.
That all changed last week as I heard about a unique triathlon that incorporated running, mountain biking, and skiing (It was a little bizarre to witness). With no mountain bike to my name, it was a case of borrowing what I could to get up to the snow line in the Jura mountains. Once on the snow though, I found the transition comfortable and I soon started to overtake people who had flown past me on the bike. It was around this moment that I started to consider the fitness benefits of a winter spent ski touring.
An early season ski race finishes at the summit of La Dôle, in -15c temperatures
Ski touring has always been tough to track through fitness apps like Strava (I would love to see a year-to-date profile on the dashboard). Running and cycling are easy to view your monthly progress, with each new exercise acting as a motivator to bigger goals. It wasn’t until after the triathlon last week that I wanted to try and see the numbers from this ski touring season. I found a rather long-winded hack of Strava that enabled me to manually add up the distances, giving my data curious mind what it was after.
Here’s what i got:
Distance: ⛷ 207km || Vertical Gain: 12,700m
What a great surprise! Just by being out on the weekends, and the occasional ski in the dark during the week, it’s possible to get an amount of vertical gain that you would be proud of during a 3-month running period. What surprised me the most is that this is only from touring for pleasure. As I said at the start, I’ve not really taken part in any competitive ski touring, although it is something I aspire to after documenting events like The Patrouille des Glaciers.
Maybe it’s worth getting that lighter setup after all?
Pippa Middleton, Bernie Shrosbree and Tarquin Cooper walk through the quiet streets of Zermatt, before taking on the Patrouille des Glaciers
A trail is illuminated as the Patrouille des Glaciers departs from Zermatt
Like all things, the Winter comes and goes, with a lot of ski tourers changing their focus to the Summer trail running circuit. It’s fair to say that here in Europe a large majority of the ski touring community excel at trail running. Even with my modest amount of skiing, I’ve accumulated nearly 13k of vert since January, with many of the competitive athletes multiplying that number over and over again (like the time Kilian Jornet said he put in 90,000m in one month).
There comes a point where the transition to running has to be made
Ski touring for summer training – Natalie & Robbie
Having finished my triathlon with a healthy amount of intrigue, I reached out to British runners Natalie White (@natsmountain) and Robbie Britton (@ultrabritton), to see if they wanted to join me for a ski tour and have a quick chat about the benefits of the skiing uphill. They seemed to me to be the perfect couple to reach out to, as they had made a strategic life change in moving to Chamonix 2 years ago, focusing on being present in the mountains on a year-round basis. For them, ski touring is absolutely used as preparation towards their summer running ambitions.
Ski touring at Le Tour always provides a beautiful backdrop
8am climbing the Grand Col Ferret during the 2015 UTMB (I’d enjoyed camping up there during the night)
Winter scheduling meant that this was the first time we had skied together and I was keen to get their thoughts on skiing, along with their running objectives for the year ahead. Of course, the benefit to training was immediately discussed.
Robbie – You can get a huge amount of vertical training in without the pounding impact of downhill,
so it’s great preparation for the mountain running season.
Not exactly the mountains, but the Lyon Urban Trail packs a punch
Natalie – It’s a great chance to get stronger on the uphill, whilst resting your legs from a busy running year.
No doubt. These guys run so many races, alongside personal projects throughout the year. During the busy summer months, it’s almost a weekly occurrence to be travelling across Europe in search of competitive races to test their ability.
And beyond the obvious training benefits?
I’ll step in here – The mountains are amazing. There is so much to explore
Robbie – It’s also opening up more of the mountains for exploring, turning them into a big playground. That helps maintain enthusiasm during the Winter too.
I couldn’t agree more. Trail running plays on the emotions of an athlete, with motivation, enthusiasm and level of enjoyment varying at different times. The rapid onset of Spring means that the desire to get out onto the trails right now is currently high. Despite the thousands of metres skied, legs feel fresh and the transition of sports provides the satisfaction needed to keep those goals at the front of their minds.
Good luck to Natalie and Robbie for their 2017 running objectives. Natalie finished 2016 on a high, completing the 338km Tour des Geants in 11th place, and will be focusing on racing the much shorter TDS (ahem, it’s actually a whole other beast at 120km) later in August. Robbie, on the other hand, has his eyes set on a slightly more repetitive goal of running around in circles for 24 hours at the World 24 hour running championships, due to be held in Belfast in June (last time he clocked up 261kms).
As for me, I still have some skiing days to look forward to. Saying that, the running trails are starting to look very tempting right now.