by Doug Evans
There seems to be an unwritten rule that British "nordic" skiers go to Scandinavia (mostly Norway) whilst their counterparts on "alpine" (AT or randonée) gear go to the Alps. A sweeping generalisation, but it seems to be mostly true. In 10 years I've never met another party of British nordic skiers in an alpine hut or on a ski de fond circuit although I've bumped into a few piste skiing at downhill resorts.
Is there any explanation for this? - I can only assume familiarity with Norway and a lack of knowledge of what's available in the Alps.
This article aims to fill that gap and give some indication of where more detailed information can be found. It mostly concentrates on ski-touring although I've included some information on track skiing.
With a little searching, ideal terrain can be found in the Alps for all forms of nordic skiing, from track skiing through to serious ski mountaineering. This is especially true if areas such as the Jura are considered as part of the Alps.
Categories of nordic skiing are always a little subjective but for the purposes of this article I've divided nordic skiing into 3 categories, (Track, classicXC & ski mountaineering) although in reality they all overlap. In suitable conditions track skis can be used for classic touring and when the high tops are stormbound heavy gear can be used for tours in the shelter of the forest.
Almost all Alpine downhill ski resorts offer some track skiing, I've even seen it advertised as an attraction for non-skiers in some British brochures. In many resorts its obviously very peripheral to the main business with only one or two fairly boring circuits which may be OK for a bit of exercise but not really much fun.
If you want a holiday to enjoy this form of skiing, which is difficult to find in the UK, its much better to go one of the many resorts which specialise in this activity, often with no downhill facilities at all, just many km of prepared tracks.
For example Les Rousses in the French Jura offers some 220 km of prepared tracks, including some nightskiing. This allows circuits from village to village with waymarked trails. Although the waymarking is usually good I find a 1:50 000 or 1 25 000 map useful. Expect to pay 2 - 5 GBP per day for use of the tracks.
A full list of resorts would take several pages, many French sites are listed at Planet Vercour with links for further information. Waymark holidays run organised parties for this style of skiing as do several continental companies.
As well as the standard ski races as occasionally seen on the TV, there are several mass participation long distance events, a sort of London Marathon on skis. Typical events are the Foulée blanche, the Engadine ski marathon or the Transjurrassiene.
The Alps and particularly the lower peripheral areas are ideal for this form of skiing but hardly anyone practices this style of skiing here. In France everyone either goes for 'ski de fond' or 'ski alpinism' and the middle ground is mostly ignored. Areas such as the Vercors give ideal terrain for this form of skiing, often in spectacular surroundings.
The Vercors is a plateau some 70 km north to south and 35km east to west near to Grenoble. The east of the massif has the highest hills but all the refuges are unwardened meaning relatively heavy sacs or day tours. Further west the hills are lower but there are many comfortable g”tes. There is a mix of open slopes and forests on undulating terrain, similar to the Cairngorm plateau's in some respects but on limestone.
In places the plateau end abruptly, giving way to steep cliffs and distant views. An unusual hazard is snowed in potholes as this is a well known area for caving.
The Jura are a range of hills up to 1 500m high along the French - Swiss border north of Lake Geneva with easy access by road or train from either country. The massif is popular for track skiing but offers many possibilities for classic XC style ski-touring.
There are 2 classic traverses, the Grande Traversée du Jura (GTJ) and the Haute Route du Jura (HRJ). The GTJ follows prepared tracks through the French Jura and would make a good introduction to nordic ski touring as route finding is easy,technical difficulties are minimal and accommodation is available in comfortable gîtes.
The HRJ is mostly in Switzerland, is "off piste" and requires some skill in map reading. The complete traverse takes 10 - 14 days and there is a guidebook in English (Jura -winter ski traverse/walking the High Jura route,Cicerone Press). This was published in 1989 and is now a bit dated.
An article in the Eagle Ski Club yearbook some years ago described a tour combining parts of both the GTJ and the HRJ as "All in all an excellent trip... very different from previous tours in Sweden & Norway. Although much less rugged & less of a "wilderness experience", this was well compensated for by excellent accommodation, great food and by the availability of hot showers every night".
Within the high Alps careful inspection of a map can usually provide suitable routes and in good snow conditions the easier ski mountaineering tours may be good options. Many hut approaches are along valleys and would be enjoyable outings on light gear. If you can find a copy, the now out of print 'Ski Nordique' by Marc Breuil describes several possible tours of this style in France (and further afield). His 'Balcons de la Durance" tour from Briançon to Gap along the southern edge of the Parc National des Ecrins sounds interesting.
Gear for Classic XC
Personally I prefer waxable skis, with skins for steeper uphills but many prefer waxless skis. Either way a relatively light, steel edged, nordic cambered ski is ideal.Traditionally leather boots would be worn but on a recent 3 day trip to the Vercors I used a pair of plastic boots (Scarpa T3s) and found them as comfortable as my old leather boots.
Often track skis can be used for this sort of skiing,particularly if the snow is soft and there are few steep slopes. Depending on the terrain consider whether you should be using an avalanche beacon, you maybe on a gentle slope but avalanches higher up (particular in steep sided valleys) may pose a risk.
Anything possible on alpine skis is possible on nordics - well maybe not for most of us but with modern skis and boots the easier alpine tours should present little problems to an intermediate skier. If you can ski Scottish hills, with careful route selection, you can ski alpine peaks and cols. Some summer alpine experience is helpful but not essential. As ski mountaineering is popular there is a lot of information available, although relatively little in English.
This is obviously subjective but most continental guidebooks and some maps use some form of grading. With a little experience you should be able to identify thegrade you feel confortable with. Sometimes grades are in 2 parts, with separate grades for seriousness and technical difficulty.
However grades should only be taken as an indication of what to expect. As every skier knows, a slope which may be very pleasant as powder or spring snow can feel very different with breakable crust or hard ice.
(see gear update below)
The trend seems to towards heavier gear, so that some nordic set ups weigh as much or more than the lighter alpine gear. Obviously choice of gear is a personnel decision and the following is just my opinion.
Alpine cambered, and relatively shorter and wider is the trend. Many nordic skiers use lighter alpine touring skis such as Tour Cap Lites or Altiplumes. Remember that control, in often difficult snow is required and that high speed skiing is unlikely. Shorter skis are also lighter skis which is an added bonus if they have to be carried.
Seem to be used by everyone, the new Skyhoys are far too heavy for touring although future versions may be lighter and become a good choice. Release is another personnel choice. I prefer to ski with Voilé release plates after some knee problems in the past, others prefer the simplicity and lighter weight of a non release binding. Whatever is chosen a heel bar/riser (also known as a climbing aid) is well worth having. Little extra weight and they reduce fatigue on long climbs.
Plastic boots seem to have become universal in the last couple of years although the stiffer leather boots are still OK with suitable skis, particularly for easier tours. Comfort is probably the most important consideration.
The rest ...
Most alpine skiers regard ski crampons (also known as Harschisen) as essential. They do give an additional sense of security on hard icy snow, so often experienced early morning in spring.
An avalanche beacon should be used by everyone ski-touring in the Alps. They are of limited use without a shovel and some practice They are expensive to buy but can be hired.
Depending on the terrain, ice-axe and crampons may be required. Any general purpose ice-axe will do but the lighter models are probably the best, although I would avoid the very light axes with aluminium heads.
For glacier travel, a rope, harness and prussiks may be required.
For navigation a compass is essential in bad visibility and an altimeter is almost essential. I use a Thommen but many of the combined watch/altimeters seem to work almost as well. All this stuff,together with food, drink and spare clothing needs to be carried so acomfortable rucksac is needed.
WHERE TO GO
Most of the Alps have areas suitable for ski touring, the following are just a few ideas.
Partly in Austria, partly in Switzerland, this area is well known to alpine ski tourersand would be suitable for a first trip to the Alps. The huts are mostly large and wardened, there are skiable summits and others that involve a short easy scramble with many possible tours. Access is fairly easy by train and bus from either country.
Queyras & the Haute Ubaye
This region of the southern French Alps to the SE of Briançon has no glaciers which makes it ideal for a party with no experience of glacier travel or for early in the season. There are a large number of g”tes and a few huts which make comfortable bases for a series of day trips or for traverses. There are also a number of relatively small downhill and ski de fond resorts for an alternative to touring everyday. The Tour de Brec de Chambeyron with its 3 cols was one of the best days I've ever had on skis.
The most popular area is on and around Koncordia. This glaciated basin is surrounded by 4 000m peaks, most of them skiable. Access is easy, if expensive, via the Jungfraujoch railway. A combined ticket is available from Spiez, with a succession of ever smaller trains to the Jungfraujoch with a return by bus and rail from Blaten. The descent down the Lotschental to Blaten is some 10 km of continual, mostly gentle, downhill. A trip based around 2 nights in each of the Finsteraahornhutte, Koncordiahutte & Hollandiahutte would give the chance to ski a few summits and see a fair bit of this impressive area. A good choice for later in the season due to the altitude and glaciated terrain which keeps skiable snow till May or beyond. Further east and west are other areas less popular with British skiers. Once the road to the Hotel Steingletscher (1865m) below the Sustenpass is opened (March or April) it makes a good base for touring on hills such as the Sustenhorn or the Giglistock. There is a dortoir attached to the hotel.
My first ski tour in the Alps was here, vaguely following the route described in Peter Cliff's book from Termignon into the heart of the national park. The glaciers are all fairly easy, and although there is very some steep skiing such as the north face of the Grande Casse for anyone looking for that sort of thing, most of the area is relatively gentle. As well as some CAF huts, there are some huts run by the national park. These are unwardened in winter but are well equipped (wood burning stove, gas cooker, cutlery, pots & pans, etc) and stocked with wood and gas.
The Haute Route (Chamonix -Zermatt)
THE classic ski tour and therefore often busy, Peter Cliff's guide has all the information you could need. Many companies offer guided trips along this route although many mountain guides are still wary of including nordic skiers in their parties. Such trips offer a good introduction to ski mountaineering. Many of the areas that the Haute Route passes through are worthwhile destinations, especially if you do not have time to do the whole traverse. Trips such as 'Les Trois Cols' (Col du Chardonnet, Fenetre de Saleina & Col du Tour) are classics in their own right.
WHERE TO STAY (HUTS, GITES, ETC)
There is an extensive network of huts (variously known as refuge, cabane, hutte, etc) which allow the skitourer to stay high in the mountains for several days without having to carry camping gear. Many huts are wardened and, especially in Austria, are more like high altitude hotels. Smaller huts are usually unwardened, may be open or locked (with a key available by post or in a nearby village) and vary in facilities. Out of season, wardened huts usually have asection left open, or sometimes the whole hut (refuge d'hiver, winterraum).
Most huts are owned by the various national alpine clubs but some are privately owned. Membership of one of these clubs (or a BMC reciprocal rights card) gets a 50% reduction in the cost of an overnight stay.This money goes to the club. The warden makes his or her living from meals, drinks, etc. which is why they are not keen on visitors doing their owncooking.
In France & Switzerland there is usually a 'menu du jour'consisting of soup, a main course and a dessert. Alternatives are sometimes possible but it can be difficult for vegetarians, particularly if they cannot speak the local language. In Austria there is usually a menu, but it always contains a 'Bergsteigeressen'(mountaineers dish). Note that some Austrian huts are actually owned by the DAV (German Alpine Club). Some of the Italian huts in the Tyrol appear more German than Italian for historical reasons.
Wardened huts can be booked in advance by phone and this is recommended at weekends or during holiday periods such as Easter. Expect to pay about 20 GBP per night demi pension.
There is a definite 'hut etiquette' which should be followed. Most of it is commonsense and makes life easier for all, especially if a hut is busy. Skis, ice-axes, crampons, etc should be left outside or in the storage areas provided. Boots (or at least shells) should be left on the boot racks;- slippers or clogs are provided. Often baskets or similar are provided to store food & gear and should be used.
Gîtes d'étapes are the French equivalent of a bunkhouse, many provide meals, most often a fixed menu with large portions and sometimes with wine included in the price. Sometimes small (2 - 4 bed) rooms are available. Expect to pay 15 - 20GBP per night demi pension.
Other options are hotels (usually cheaper than in the UK), chambre d'hôte (B&B) or camping for the hardy. Camping could be a good option as a valley base in spring time once the low lying snow has melted, especially if you are travelling by car.
Many of the more remote hotels in Switzerland offer dormitory accommodation which is cheaper than hotel rooms (dortoir, matrezenlager).
There are good maps at 1:50 000 and 1:25 000 available for most of the Alps. I find smaller scale maps useful for route planning and the Michelin road maps of Austria & Switzerland show alpine huts which is useful. Maps can bedifficult to obtain in the UK although many mountaineering shops have a selection of the more popular sheets. Cordée and Stamfords can also supply maps. The alternative is to order maps from continental shops such as Télémark Pyrénées or FNAC.
The most useful maps are the IGN 1:25 000 TOP 25 series, suggested ski routes, and sometimes track skiing pistes, are shown in blue. Around £5 per sheet and on weak paper. Further details, including a catalogue at the IGN website. There is also a series 1:50 000 maps published by Didier & Richard which show ski routes. I find them difficult to use whilst touring but they are useful for route planning as they cover a larger area than the TOP 25 sheets.
The Federal Office of Topography publish very good maps at a variety of scales. The 1:50 000 maps are available in 3 versions, the blue covered maps are the winter editions and show ski routes. The back of the map has useful information on huts and very brief details of each of the ski routes. Expensive at about £10but on tough paper. There is also a series of maps at 1:25 000 which are veryaccurate but best used in conjunction with the 1:50 000 maps as they do not indicate ski routes. There is an online catalogue (in English).
Winter editions of the Alpenvereinskarte (marked "skirouten') at 1:25 000 showing ski routes are published jointly by the Austrian & German Alpine Clubs and are very good. Printed on very tough paper and around £8 per sheet. There is a list of available sheets on the OAV website (select 'Alpininfo' then 'Karten').
The official maps are published by IGC, everyone I know who has used them has found them dreadful. Wherever possible use a French, Swiss or Austrian map, these often extend a considerable way into Italy. Richard Klappert in his book describes one sheet as "mediocre, the representation of the glaciers is completely surrealistic", other authors are just as damming.
Books and Magazines
There are a few very useful books written in English, although some are out of print you may be able to find them second hand or in a library.
'SkiMountaineering' by Peter Cliff (1987, now out of print) is a good introduction and has a section on possible tours throughout the world. The section on equipment is a bit dated and ignores nordic skiing completely.
The same author's 'The Haute Route' (1993) is the best guide available to this classic tour, so good its even been translated into French. 'Alpine Ski-touring & Ski-mountaineering' edited by Jeremy Whitehead (1990, still available) has a lot of useful information, and includes sections on navigation, ropework, assessing snow conditions, huts, etc. The presentation is a bit 'dry' with line drawings and poorly reproduced B&W photos, some information (particularly telephone numbers) is now out of date.
British climbing and hillwalking magazines occasionally publish articles on skitouring, but not as often as their continental equivalents. The only British journal I know entirely devoted to ski touring is the Eagle Ski Club yearbook.The ESC is the UK based club for ski tourers (alpine & nordic) and membership is open to all. The club organises many tours each year, in the Alps, Scotland and further afield.
There are many more books available in French, German and Italian, particularly guidebooks to particular areas. The following is a very brief selection. '260Sommets des Alpes - randonées' ski by Richard Klapert (1991) describes a selection of tours in France, Italy & Switzerland including many of the better known classics. Many of the routes are shown on B&W photos and there is a selection of colour photos. It is also available in German.
Olizane publish a series of guides to the French & western Swiss alps, mostly written by Francois Labande. These mostly describe single day tours but some longer tours are described. As well as classic tours, these books describe many more recent, more difficult tours. Titles include Ouest Suisse, HauteSavoie-Mont Blanc, Haute Valais & Isère.
The Swiss Alpine Club publish an excellent, but expensive, series of guides. These describe all the ski routes shown on the OFT winter maps with routes drawn onto aerial photos. In French or German depending on the region.
Denoël published a series of "coffee table" books on ski touring in the late 1980s and early 1990s with titles such as "Les Alpes du Nord -les 100 plus belles descentes ˆ ski". Each book has a series of suggested tours, with photos, sketch map and a description. Unfortunately they are now all out of print but well worth trying to find in a library.
(Since this article was first published Bill O'Connor has published a two volume English guide to ski mountaineering in the Alps and Jeremy Whitehead has privately published two volumes of tours in the French Alps - see list of guidebooks .)