It sounds like the premise of a new TV show presented by Bear Grylls – a cross between The Jump and Big Brother entitled something like… Ski Survival. Five (non)celebrities, with emergency packs and rations, journey out into a stunning snowy mountain landscape on skis. They have to learn how to read the weather, snowpack and mountain to avoid danger from avalanches and hidden lakes. They must learn new skills to ‘skin up’ steep slopes and ski down everything from sheet ice to feet of champagne powder. They need to constantly be aware of the ever-changing elements, protecting themselves and each other from the extremes of freezing blizzards and beating sun. With no mobile phone signal the group bond quickly and in such an inspirational setting conversation turns from the superficial to the spiritual. Less an activity, more a life-affirming experience – that’s how I’d describe our guided ski touring trip.
Instead of Bear Grylls we were led by extremely experienced ski instructor and mountain guide Jocelyn Cockle (Floss) on her new FREEFLO Women’s Introduction To Ski Touring course. Her aim; to demonstrate that backcountry adventure is accessible to women – and doesn’t have to be the testosterone-fuelled, gung-ho activity they might imagine.
We were also joined by professional adventurer and TV presenter Squash Falconer, who is in fact a real candidate to fill the surprisingly (and shockingly) still-empty role of Female Bear Grylls Equivalent. Her qualifications include summiting Everest, being the first British woman to fly a paraglider from the top of Mont Blanc, Elliptigo Champion and World’s Highest Bum Boarder. Squash started her adventuring career with ski seasons but only discovered ski touring in Tignes on a trip with Floss this winter and is now keen to help get more women involved. Open-mouthed at the terrain that opened up just 10 minutes’ ski away from resort, she gasped; “How did I not know about this, what have I been doing all this time?!”
The reason this skier’s paradise has remained a secret is because getting there and out requires specialist touring gear – and ski touring (or splitboarding for snowboarders) is a sport that’s only just starting to gain mainstream popularity. Now, as more brands jump on the bandwagon, technology is developing in parallel with people’s growing need to adventure away from tracked out resorts to find fresh lines, peace and unspoilt scenery. More affordable, easy-to-use kit has even made it accessible to someone like me, who only started skiing last year. Of the five in our group, the others were all stronger skiers but the aim of a trip like this isn’t speed or showing off. It’s about enjoying the views and working as a team to conquer this wild environment.
We met at the draglift next to the popular Grattalu chairlift at 9.30am. At the top we traversed round to the back of the peak and there, stretching out immediately in front of us, were pristine white hills with the refuge we were to stay in overnight nestled in the distance. Time for some turns! The sun was out and the snow was untouched and perfect but ever-vigilant Floss, who seemed totally in tune with the environment, was already peering at some ominous cloud formations in the distance. The thin cloud hanging in lines over a peak meant there was high-level wind, and some thicker cloud further away was bringing snow, she told us. I wished I’d listened more closely in GCSE geography because out in the backcountry, Floss explained, reading the sky could help you avoid walking blindly into a whiteout and getting dangerously lost.
Snow texture can change from one minute to the next when you’re away from the reach of a helpful piste basher. As the slope became crusted over Floss demonstrated how much pressure it takes on one ski to crack the crust and sink, and showed us how to glide with slow, even turns to prevent tripping up.
At the bottom of the valley we stopped and got ready to start our ascent. This is where we get into the specialist kit, it starts to sound technical and people get put off. Later, another guest at the refuge would be impressed by our tales of touring and insist that although she was a strong skier she wouldn’t be good enough to try it. So, before we start, I’ll let you in on this secret: Touring is EASY. Basically, it’s just walking. Having only recently started skiing I’m always at the back of any group – but when I first anxiously gave touring a go I was elated to find this was something I could do pretty much as well as the rest of them. Not only is touring a way to access amazing skiing you would never reach otherwise without a helicopter, it’s a great leveller. You just need the right kit.
Fortunately for us it was warm and sunny as we knelt down to switch our gear into touring mode (fiddling about with freezing fingers in a blizzard is not as much fun). First, you dry off the bottoms of the skis ready to stick on the ‘skins’. Soft and hairy, made out of goat or synthetic hair, they give you the traction to climb up a slope without sliding back down. Once the skins are stuck and clipped down at both ends you need to switch your bindings.
Touring bindings come in two varieties – pin or frame. I have the entry level frame bindings, which are easy to use and cheaper because you don’t have to buy special boots – you can use your normal ski boots. It takes just one swift flick to detach the back end of the binding so it comes loose from the ski allowing you to lift your heel and walk. Done! If you have ski boots that have a touring mode, which allows you to flex your ankle, flick that switch and off you go. The bindings also have a small metal stand you can flick down to create ‘high heels’ allowing you to help your calves hoist you up steeper sections.
Pin bindings are the next level up and require special boots – a much more lightweight set up so you can go further, faster. Out in the backcountry you need extendable poles with large baskets less likely to sink into all that fresh powder. Plus, of course, carry your avalanche safety gear (transceiver, shovel and probe) in your backpack.
Intrepid explorers, we set out to discover new territory with not another soul in sight. Our strategy was to keep up a steady pace so we could still get a good chat going and take in the incredible views.
The best way to save on energy, Floss told us, is to walk toe-heel as if you were dragging your feet so that the ski glides along the snow and is not lifted off the ground. Trusting the skis not to slide back takes some getting used to, but the skins are incredibly grippy even on steep icy slopes. Squash, an experienced trekker, advised us to stop as soon as we felt a ‘hot spot’, or potential blister, and tape or plaster it up (preventing sore feet is much easier than walking on them for hours). My tip is to get rid of a layer or two before you start your ascent – you’ll get very warm very quickly.
Rather than try to battle straight up steep slopes, Floss advised us to trace a flatter zig zag path and to do this required learning ‘kick turns’. At the end of your zig, lift up your uphill ski, swing it right round and put it down facing the way you’re going to zag. Now place both poles over the front of your zag ski, lean on them and lift up your downhill leg as high as you can. Wait for the tip of the ski that’s in the air to come up so it doesn’t dig into the snow, then swivel so it’s in line with your zag and lower to the ground. When done right these look like yoga-ballet on snow. When they go wrong you can end up writhing on the floor with your legs at some very funny angles. Either way they’re great fun.
After a climb of 1 hour 17 mins to the top of the Col de Grassez we sat for lunch. Floss had prepared an Etixxsports energy drink and made it into a slush puppy by adding snow – a genius idea worthy of Bear himself. Our sandwich munching was the only sound, and the only sight was rolling mountains. But the intermittent mist was coming thicker and we needed to get back to the refuge. Floss reckoned we were all doing well enough to take the longer circuitous route and make the most of the good weather while it lasted. I took off my skins and packed them away, clipped my bindings back to the ski and set off confidently. But we were on the south side and the sun had turned the snow into several feet of slush, making skiing almost impossible for me and staying upright hard work. Any thoughts of ballet and elegance went right out the window. Floss coaxed us down telling us to keep our feet together, weight even and balanced with a little edge.
Our final 2 hour climb was the hardest. Floss made each of us lead the group in turn, working out the best paths, potential dangers and possible escape routes to get us thinking about safety in our surroundings. We learned to climb up a ridge rather than in a gully – the natural path of any avalanche – and to check above us for cornices that might look unstable. A few little slides had gone over our intended path but Floss talked us through the potential risks, taking into account factors like the time of day, weather and size of the previous slides, and we decided it was safe to continue. Next we had a traverse under 3 cornices so we went one at a time, leaving a safety gap.
Finally we were left with a choice. An easy traverse and small climb, or a kick turn-tastic hike over a steep peak to get back to the refuge. Floss decided we should all turn away from each other and on the count of 3 spin round with our hand either in a fist, indicating we chose the hard way, or flat, indicating the easy way. Five decisive fists meant we took the challenge. Late in the day the snow was soft so traversing was hard work as skis slipped off the tracks and we were forced to dig in hard. But the feeling when we finally summited was more than worth the effort. By this time the light was flat and it was cloudy, but a few nice turns took us to the refuge with faces glowing from the sense of achievement and pride as well as the exercise (plus I’d forgotten to put sun cream on my neck and ears – ouch!).
Below is an entertaining video blog of our journey, recorded by Squash
The Refuge du Palet has two friendly, dedicated staff working 24-hour shifts to provide clean beds and surprisingly good food for weary travellers. It’s the ultimate in eco accommodation, even equipped with a fuel cell that runs on hydrogen – a world first in such harsh conditions. The exterior is covered in solar panels, the toilet is a composter and the log burner heats the place.
A short touring trip, for lunch at the refuge and straight back to resort, can be done in a single day but we stayed for a 3-course dinner, lodging and breakfast – very reasonably priced at €45. We hung our wet gear near the log burner to dry, ordered some wines, beers and teas, and made ourselves comfortable on the lounge chairs. By the time our food arrived (vegetable soup with cheese and soda bread, lasagna and pana cotta) the only other girl staying the night had joined our group and we were deep in animated conversation about the meaning of life. What’s said in the refuge stays in the refuge so I can’t divulge the details but, in that isolated hut with no phone signal or laptops, we found out more about each other – and ourselves – than we would have given dozens of boozy nights in resort. Without any modern day methods of communication available, we found ourselves actually communicating. If it’s a spot of friendly bonding or team building you’re looking for, you couldn’t find a better place. It was just a shame none of us could play the guitar that hung hopefully on the wall.
We woke up to a complete whiteout. Perfect conditions for some exercises in mountain safety – practice at finding a buried avalanche transceiver, and a look at the snow layers in a dugout pit. “Is anyone thinking cake?” Squash asked as Floss got out her knife and ran it down the metre depth of the pit to show which layers were harder, softer, wetter and icier. About 5 layers down was evidence of the Saharan sand storm that made Tignes look brown and dirty a few weeks back. We could see how the sand had prevented the snow from bonding to the lower layer, making it easy to understand how it could pose a slab avalanche danger on steep slopes with a certain amount of pressure applied.
We could hardly see our hands in front of our faces so, checking the map and compass, Floss decided to tour straight back up the hill that would take us back to our starting point in resort. On the way we learned how to pick out rock features for navigation.
It was almost a culture shock, seeing all the lifts, clutter and people as we skied back down towards home just over 24 hours after setting off. Our mobile phones were beeping away as they finally found a signal but we weren’t ready to go back to normal life just yet. We hugged goodbye and after such a shared experience the usually tongue-in-cheek phrase “it’s been emotional” was actually justified. We’d taken on the untamed mountain and won. Bear Grylls would have been proud.
For more information on ski touring courses and guided trips contact FREEFLO – specialists in progressive on and off piste skiing, backcountry ski touring and women specific ski courses in Tignes, Val d’Isere, Sainte Foy and La Grave.
By Katie Cooksey