“Nothing beats the feeling of freedom it gives you,” she says. “The moment you turn your back on the lifts and pistes, and forge your own path through the snow – that’s when you get a proper sense of adventure in the Alps. I much prefer it to piste-skiing as a result.”
Legions of ski-touring fans would agree. Fixing the skins to the bottom of your skis, setting your own pace, assessing the terrain and the snow (or at least discussing the options with your guide): they all focus the mind and allow you to tune into your environment in a way no amount of piste-bashing could ever match.
Yes, the climb can be exhausting too. But in many ways, that’s the point. You’re using your own strength and skill to unlock the terrain. As a result, every turn you make on the way back down feels precious, and profoundly satisfying.
But if you’re new to ski touring, how do you get started? Well, you could do a lot worse than head to the Tirol: Zauner’s home. Here, in a region dominated by mountains, ski-touring’s popularity has mushroomed in recent years – and it’s become embedded in the local way of life. The Innsbruck resorts even operate a weekly rota of pistes that stay open at night, so Innsbruckers can go touring after work. For many, it’s as natural as heading to the gym.
Of course, during a week’s holiday, you’re not going to become an expert. But provided you’re fit, and you’re a confident piste skier (on all grades of piste), you can make satisfying start. If you’re already competent off-pister you can do a lot more than that.
Most skiers think you have to be an expert to go touring. You don’t. Increasingly, you can get a taste of it by walking up a waymarked trail within a ski resort, before you ski back down again on-piste.
Typical of this kind of taster session is the three-hour Slope Ski Touring lesson from the Ski School Fiss Ladis in Serfaus-Fiss-Ladis. You’ll need to rent your touring gear (these days, available in every decent ski hire centre in the Tirol), but the school provides an avalanche transceiver, as well as teaching you how to stick on your skins, how to work your touring bindings, and the art of the kick-turn. The cost is €72: and if you get a taste for it, there are several more courses to which you can progress.
You can also target the Tirol’s first ski-touring park in the Pitztal glacier ski area, where the easier routes (such as the Kogel) shadow the pistes and offer soothing descents on groomed snow. Tuesday afternoon beginner tours cost €60.
Meanwhile, those staying in the Innsbruck area can test themselves against a range of entirely on-piste ski tours. For example, the Patscherkofl tour starts in the village of Igls, and simply follows one of the pistes up to the top lift station.
To complete the tour, skiers need to follow a series of basic rules – for example, only ascending at the edge of the piste, in single file. They also need to be fighting fit: the route includes 952m of vertical ascent. But the descent afterwards is a piece of cake for confident, athletic piste-skiers. For more on Innsbruck’s piste-touring routes – such as the dedicated touring tracks on the Mutteralm, which link up with pistes – visit Innsbruck.info
Night-touring is one of the most distinctive features of the Tirol’s wintersports scene. Most of it is done on-piste, and usually involves friends donning head-torches and skinning up to a mountain hut that stays open for supper and drinks.
“My friends and I started night touring about 15 years ago,” says Astrid Zauner. “Back then, we were called ‘strange’. But then suddenly, about five years ago, night touring became popular and now it seems like everyone does it.” In fact, it’s now such a popular activity, that the resorts around Innsbruck have a rota of pistes that are open on particular nights. Most close between 10pm and midnight.
The rota is an important tool for anyone who fancies joining in the fun. Night touring on piste can be dangerous, because of risk of collisions with piste-grooming machines and their winch cables. As a result, only those pistes that are officially declared open can be skied. There’s a code of conduct to guide skiers, too.
The Innsbruck resorts aren’t the only ones offering night touring. In Kitzbuhel, for example, the piste up from the Wagstättbahn lift station is open on Friday nights, with the Jagawurz hut open to evening tourers. You can join a €50pp guided tour, or go it alone, but you have to ski back down before 9.45pm, when the Pistenbullies get to work.
Guided off-piste touring lessons
Of course, if you want to experience ski-touring in its purest form, then you need to leave the pistes behind altogether.
For that, you will need to be a more accomplished downhill skier – comfortable on all levels of piste – but still, not an expert. You don’t even need any off-piste experience, provided you’re prepared to take some lessons before you start touring. “It makes sense to have a couple of off-piste lessons first,” says Zauner, who teaches with the Ski und Snowboardschule Kühtai. Then it’s time to take a basic course. Ski touring ‘s popularity means tuition is available all sorts of shapes and sizes.
Kuhtai, for example, is something of a touring hub, and here you can try a Friday afternoon taster session (€60pp, not including equipment), or a more intense three-day course, which includes a cardiovascular fitness assessment, avalanche training and powder-skiing tips.
Other courses on offer include a four-day beginner’s touring course based in Mayrhofen, in the Zillertal from the Mountain Sports ski school (€750pp, including accommodation, guiding and avalanche safety equipment). Its requirement that clients “should be able to ski black slopes and do safe and confident parallel turns” is typical. Meanwhile, in Alpbach, the Alpbach-Aktiv ski school offers guided touring trips as well as taster sessions for beginners.
Once you’re really bitten by the touring bug, you may want to start touring on your own. In which case you’ll find lots of resources online, such as graded ski touring routes, and safety information. Top-quality avalanche-safety training is essential too, and accessed through the SAAC camps.