Heather absail

My first Ski Tour

A piece of writing written by Abina Wheeler about her first ski touring experience

Roe face 100 100

By Roeland Van Oss

April 24, 2012

What was I thinking agreeing to this ?

It's school Easter holiday, as a relative novice skier, I have been on the grand total of 0 ski tours but I am keen to try..

Ski touring is an activity where skiers travel away from the pistes and walk up on skis into the mountains. This affords the skier more isolation and stunning scenery, often you can be the first to ski down a slope, it's beautiful, exciting, physically challenging and for me terrifying.  A group of friends invite me to join them on a tour called Le Col De Beugent in the Aiguilles Rouges. I feel apprehensive, the guide book description I have found doesn't inspire confidence. The tour has some more advanced features and I have to question the sanity of the suggestion that my participation would be "no problem, a walk in the park" I am not sure what parks John was referring to, coming from London in my experience parks are peaceful green places with pretty gardens, children playing, maybe little cafe to get a nice cup of tea that sort of thing. Occasionally you come across an aggressive wild creature, I once encountered a swan named Hannibal who had a reputation for violence, but there isn't much else about park walking that resembles the dangerous environment a ski tour takes you too. I find myself, not for the first time,  in a state of indecision.  On the one hand I would hate to miss an opportunity to try another tour, on the other hand I know I am going to be a complete liability to my friends. Suppose we all have to turn back because of me. I would be black listed for life! 

I discussed the tour with Roeland, my dear friend who is a mountain guide. His comments were "that's a very interesting tour for you", translated,  "it's going to be really hard, really scary and your skills fall far short of what will be required". "Why don't I come along with you? " Roeland suggests, well that clinches it, I am going, I had better run out and hire touring kit!!

It's the morning of the tour and I am up early as we want to take the first lift, it's going to be a long day. I didn't sleep much, nervous about what will be required of me.
In the lift queue we see other friends out for the day, everyone seems excited but relaxed and happy. I am neither. I am in fact petrified and unusually quiet which gives me away, my friends chivvy me along “its going to be great today, you will love it, its an amazing route”. I distract myself by having a kit explosion in the queue(re packing my bag for the third time), shuffling myself and all my bits forward every few moments. Roeland says “ Anytime you are unhappy let me know, we can always turn back together and have a nice ski down to the piste and the others can go on” I like it, an option of dignified retreat. I feel a little better and concentrate on putting everything back in a sensible order suncream and peanut butter sandwiches at the top etc....

The start is a long skiing traverse around the bottom of a cliff band, it is narrow and icy in places. The path is just about wide enough for two skis if you're happy to have them a centimeter apart, I  am not. You can control speed a bit by thrusting one ski into the cruddy snow above the path, the down side of this technique is if you thrust too far or catch a harder bit of iced snow the ski can get stuck, while the other continues on at speed, you can be catapulted round. After about 20 mins in this position the side of my back associated with the higher of the two skis has worked considerably hard this results in a constant and increasing tightness and pain. 

Heather goes first, confidently, then Sam (bravely) and John and Roeland are behind me giving me helpful tips and encouragement. Roeland says “relax and bend your knees to absorb the bumps, I attempt to do as he says which causes me to lean forward like a pensioner with a zimmer frame.  We are overtaken by other skier " see you tonight granny ! “ My good friend Charlie, "yer thanks youth " I reply. The traverse track gets steeper and icier and  I see my companions struggling ahead, I feel my delicate grip on my confidence wane “whats coming up? “ Roeland spots the problem and skis past me to have a look. He suggests a different line which I gladly follow as do some other skiers. At the end of the traverse the snow runs out and we have to take our skis off and walked gingerly across some rocks carrying our skis, or  in my case Roland carried mine for me. 

Rejoining my friends we put skins on our ski to enable us to walk up hill and began to skin to the bottom of the Col. Once at the foot of the Col we stopped for lunch: peanut butter sandwiches. Then began the ascent which started gently but quickly steepened. We zigg zagged up the slope, I was pleased to demonstrate to anyone who was interested my new found skill of changing direction using kick turns that I had learned the week before. Having just got used to the concept that skis can be used to go uphill by attaching skins to the bottom. Skins are a furry strip of material( originally seal skins) which glide easily in one direction, uphill, and the little synthetic furs grip the snow in the downwards direction and thus can be used to ascend a snow slope or so I thought.  I was a little upset when my skis started to slip backwards. The skinning track was steep and icy and the skins and my technique were not providing enough friction. I quickly found myself on my bum sliding slowly downwards. Not a direction I was keen to go at this stage. Getting back on my feet was more than a little challenging as my skis were in touring mode so the heels were not attached, I flailed around like a beetle on its back for some time with little effectiveness apart from creating interesting patterns in the snow. I concluded that my new found skinning skills were not a match for this slope. Maybe I should give up and go back?. As this low point Roeland appeared "maybe you should put your ski crampons on?", "Excellent idea how do I do that?" I say. "You give me your skis", he says with a grin.  After a few  insightful  instructions on kick turn improvement and some propping up on steep turns:
Ski crampons 1 icy slope 0 !!  

When I reach the top the others had made me a nice bucket seat in the snow and an ice axe bely to secure myself to. I set about trying to pull my skins off the bottom of my skis without dropping, skis, poles crampons, bags or anything else down the hill. Remarkably I didn't loose anything and I did have a bit of help, John showed me how to tie my skis to my backpack as Roeland set up a rope for the next section.

The next part of the day was an easy scramble up rock and a bit of snow, Now I have done this before, often with a backpack, but never with two 170cm planks sticking up from my back forming a kind of tee-pee well above my head. A Cat has wiskers from birth and knows the dimensions of these extensions to its person, I did not have this level of awareness and got myself into some interesting positions between a rock and a hard place. Still I had a rope and Roeland at the end of it shouting encouragement so I found it quite funny. 

At the top there was a small gap through which we would abseil down the other side. I was the last one up and the belay was crowded. I had no view of what was coming next. The others periodically peered through the gap and made positive sounding noises “ you'll love this ski Abs” “it really nice” Urrrrm I sometimes find that my idea of nice and my companions ideas don't entirely coincide. I wait on tenterhooks for my turn to look. Roeland lowered the others down and I edged closer until it was my turn. I looked down to John and Sam who were waiting for me at the bottom and Heather had already started skiing. It looked steep with deep powder and quite chopped up. Roeland lowered me down   initially over rock with a dusting of snow and then deep powder which my feet and lower leg  disappear into, sometimes so deep I though they might get stuck and I would end up upside down  - I alway imagine the worst! This didn't happen and I arrived with John and Sam, not feeling that a ski from that point was a fun prospect. I shouted up to Roeland “ can  I be lowered again to that nice less steep bit? “ “yes no problem” came the answer. Roleand came down and built another belay with his skis and pole buried in the deep snow. Pretty soon I was another rope length lower but still out of my depth, so I waited for Roeland to ski down and give me some tips. 

We set off, predictably I wasn't keen to put a turn in, pointing my skis down this gradient seem to go against all sanity and while I told my self to turn my body simply refused, I looked at Roeland, this could be a long afternoon, he remained patient. “ill put in a outward facing kick turn “ I said pretending that is what I had planned to do all along. Problem was this was another trick I had learned the week before, on much less steep ground, if i sounded confident, I wasn't. I kicked myself a platform in the snow and tentatively pickup my downhill ski, balanced precariously on one ski staring down the slope I twisted my knee and placed my ski down pointing the opposite way. Now I was stood in an awkward and twisted position. I tentatively weighted the lower ski and spun the other ski to join it in the opposite direction. Then I was able to traverse down again  without having to ski a turn. I did a few of these until the ground became less steep. Eventually with a lot of coaxing from Roeland I did my first turn, the powder was deep and My skis took an age to respond to the turn. Once I Had done a few I begin to settle down and enjoy the skiing. As we continued to descend I began to enjoy myself more and more. The snow was deep and fluffy and I was making fresh tracks. I stopped to look back at the line I had skied, stretching out behind me were curved s snapped tracks reaching as far as I could see, we had descended a long way in a short time - I am sold ski descents are way better than walking down. Slight problem - my legs have become like jelly. My thighs burn every time I ski and the gap between me needing to rest is getting shorter and the final part of the ski down was by far the most challenging.

At the bottom of the slope was a little forest. Pretty in summer, treacherous in winter on skis. Skiing down through the trees wasn't easy. It requires you to turn on demand and at speed. Slowing or stopping options are limited if not non existent.  Your a bit like a ball rolling down a hill gaining momentum and your direction is dictated by the features of the slope rather than your will. Trees are a  hazard and need to be avoided. Needless to say the only way I could get through the forest was to follow Roeland exactly, go where he goes, stop where he stops ( without crashing into him) and use his massive snow plow technique to maintain some kind of control on my speed. 

Eventually we emerge out of the trees and see the road   - what an adventure, what a seance of achievement I need to buy you a pint Roeland only you don't drink  - a Majito maybe ? 

Please Feel Free To Share: