Enjoy staying in lines much? Sitting comfortably while being transported to the top of the hill in a warm gondola lift? If you do, stop reading here. Ski touring is not for you. This discipline demands iron constitution, fitness, considerable skills, and a dash of crazy. All of this just to enjoy the mountains a little bit differently.
Ski touring (alpine touring, ski mountaineering) is the most dangerous method of navigating mountains in the winter. You can witness it in the Alps, Pyrenees or even Slovak Tatra Mountains, where winter ski hiking enthusiasts move through the white expanses. Every year, ski touring is becoming more and more popular in the Polish Tatras as well.
The game is simple. Instead of holding the line to the lift – whoever tried skiing in Białka Tatrzańska or on Polana Szymoszkowa in Zakopane knows what I’m talking about – you scramble up the slope yourself. Climbing is made possible by the so-called skins, which are nylon or mohair strips attached to your skis, and special bindings. And so you roam the valleys and ridges for hours, without lift tickets, far from the lines and all the crowds. Peace and quiet, vast whiteness, beautiful slights, wild satisfaction, and pure bliss are all associated with ski touring.
Ski touring fundamental principles
Climbing is not that difficult in terms of the technique. Skis are not angled out, meaning you do not use the herringbone technique, or the duck-walk, but you slide the skis on the snow without lifting them. Your level of fitness determines your pace. When climbing longer distances and going uphill, you attach special skins to your ski base, which prevents you from slipping back.
- Going downhill
Off-piste riding, or freeriding, is a much more important ability. This type of riding is a challenge even for advanced skiers. They believe that off-piste skiing is the true essence of skiing. You need to be ready to ride in deep powder.
- Other essential abilities
A ski tourer must also be able to use a harness, ropes, an ice axe, crampons, an avalanche transceiver, a snow probe, and an avalanche shovel. You can learn all this by attending special courses that are easy to find in winter.
But not everybody is cut out for ski touring, we have to establish this from the get-go. And it is not just about the effort you need to put in to get to the summit, sometimes you really have to work up a good sweat to earn your turns. The climbing part is not that difficult in terms of the technique. The skis are not angled out, meaning you do not use the herringbone technique, or the duck-walk, but you slide the skis on the snow without lifting them. Your level of fitness determines your pace. The cable lift from Kuźnice arrives at Kasprowy Wierch in about 20 minutes, the record time for climbing with skins is about 59 minutes, but beginners might take up to three hours.
But it is skiing off-piste that is the vital ability here. You will not find any snow groomers here, there are no ski runs, safety nets, lighting or any other facilities. So before you start skinning uphill, learn the ropes on well-marked ski runs. A ski tourer must also be able to use a harness, ropes, an ice axe, crampons, an avalanche transceiver, a snow probe, and an avalanche shovel. You can learn all this by attending special courses that are easy to find in winter. Regardless of your experience, it is a good idea to organize a simulated rescue action to remember the rules of using the avalanche equipment before the season.
Another element is proper equipment, slightly different from alpine skiing equipment. You also need to take a couple more accessories with you. It is best to start by buying comfortable boots (Dynafit, La Sportiva, Scarpa), you can rent the remaining equipment from a ski tour rental centre. You can check it, test it, and if you like it – both the equipment and ski touring –
you will know what to buy. The most important factor is the weight of the kit, skis and bindings. You can choose heavy equipment for reliable skiing in all conditions or – if you value comfortable climbing – lighter equipment, which requires better skiing abilities and experience with the special light bindings, however. Regular downhill or freeride skis are good for ski touring, but the bindings must allow climbing with a free heel pivot, and then they must be secured to allow riding downhill. Light bindings can be purchased from e.g. Dynafit and ATK, while heavier ones are manufactured by Diamir, Silvretta, Marker, and others. Dynafit is particularly popular in Poland. The company offers a broad range of models for men and women, at various prices and for various applications, but the following brands are worth recommending as well: Ski Trab, Dynastar, Atomic, and Hagan. To make your kit complete, add the skins (e.g. Pomoca) and poles (Black Diamond, Dynafit or telescopic Kohla poles), and crampons (special ski crampons) necessary when the snow is hard and icy, used always when the skins start slipping. When you hit the mountains, always remember about the avalanche kit (Ortovox, Mammut, Pieps). Consult your sales assistant to receive all the assistance you may need.
In Poland, you can skin in the Tatra, Karkonosze, Bieszczady, Gorce, and Beskidy mountains. The Tatras will obviously provide the most thrills, but they are the most demanding and dangerous mountains of the above ranges, where precipices and avalanches await brash skiers. Winter trails are open for ski tourers, which means that the winter course of summer trails can be navigated on skins and descents are legal. There are special trails marked off for climbing on skis in the Kasprowy Wierch area. Weekend mountain trips with mountain hostels on the way are highly recommended.
Zawrat and Kozi Wierch
Start from Kuźnice and reach Hala Gąsienicowa, carry on to Zawrat (2,158 m), ride down to Dolina Pięciu Stawów Polskich. Be sure to try the famous apple pie at the mountain hostel there. Next, there is one more long climb to the Kozi Wierch summit (2,291 m), from where you can enjoy the ride down the Szeroki Żleb to Dolina Pięciu Stawów Polskich.
Travel time: 12 hours.
Through Grześ, Rakoń and Wołowiec
Start from Siwa Polana and reach the mountain hostel in Dolina Chochołowska. Climb Grześ (1,653 m), then carry on to Rakoń (1,879 m), and – for particularly persistent tourers – to Wołowiec (2,064 m). Ride down to Dolina Wyżnia Chochołowska and return to the hostel. For ski touring beginners.
Travel time: about 7-9 hours.
Take a bus from the centre of Zakopane to Palenica Białczańska, from where it will take you about an hour and a half to arrive at Morskie Oko. Climb Szpiglasowa Przełęcz towering at 2,110 m and ride down to Dolina Pięciu Stawów Polskich. The trail continues to Zawrat, 2,158 m, from which you can enjoy a log ride down to Dolina Gąsienicowa. The last ascent is Kasprowy Wierch, 1,987 m. Take the ski run and ski down to Kuźnice. This is classic ski touring – amazing descents and beautiful views.
Travel time: about 10 hours
Ski resorts in Beskid Sądecki offer great ski touring solutions. Enthusiasts are spoiled for choice at the following ski resorts: Ryterski Raj, located in the picturesque valley of the river Poprad, and Dwie Doliny Muszyna-Wierchomla with a five kilometre section for ski tourers at various levels of advancement. You can also enjoy ski touring in the Sucha Dolina or Tylicz resorts, which allow ski touring on two runs. The Beskid’s resorts offer extensive services ranging from ski equipment rental, through ski servicing to ski schools. Breathtaking views make the picture complete.
By: Marcin Kijowski