An Introduction to Ski Touring

The Inn at Riverwalk is a perfect place to stay for skiing both Vail and Beaver Creek’s ski resorts. However, in Edwards you are not limited to only resort skiing. Edwards is located near  some of Colorado’s best backcountry ski touring. The heavy snowfall, the well-known trails and the vast acreage of surrounding National Forest make the area a ski touring paradise. If you want to learn more about ski touring or how you can go on a ski adventure, we’ve broken down the details below.  

Before we dive in, it's important to note that ski touring has high risks of avalanche danger associated with it. Consult the friendly staff at the Inn at Riverwalk for professional guides and safety recommendations prior to embarking on a ski tour for the first time. Having the proper training and gear is highly recommended.

What is Ski Touring?

Ski touring has been known by many names, touring, skinning, alpine touring, AT, off-piste, ski mountaineering, randonnee, and backcountry skiing. Ski touring is essentially skiing in areas that don’t have chairlifts of any kind, where the skier has to climb/walk uphill on their skis or splitboard before enjoying their downhill lap. While this concept often seems crazy to anyone accustomed to using high speed lift chairs on a ski resort, there is a lot to love about ski touring that gets missed on crowded resorts. 

Ski touring starts at the base of a snow covered mountain or a trail. The skier usually has special equipment. A lighter style of boot with a “walk mode” that can articulate, a special kind of binding on their ski that allows their heel to be disconnected, and climbing skins. Climbing skins are thin carpets that temporarily adhere to the bottom of a ski. Since the carpet is usually the length of the ski it provides very good traction on the snow, and this combined with the heel being loose in the binding allows a skier to walk uphill with their skis on. Ski tourers will then slide their skis uphill until they have reached the top or their destination. Then they will remove the climbing skins from the skis, modify their binding so their heel clicks in, then ski down. 

The original ski touring equipment is referred to as telemarking gear. Telemark skis permanently have the heel removed, again to improve mobility for uphill and flat traverses. The main difference comes from Telemark skiers’ method of skiing downhill. As opposed to clipping their heel into their binding, telemark skiers use a lunge position to hold an edge on their downhill descent. There are always a few telemark skiers on resort and the visual effect of them lunging their way down the mountain can be intriguing. New equipment mirrors resort style bindings since your heel clicks into the binding and your foot is connected to the ski at the toe and the heel for your ski down hill. This is the main difference between an “AT” setup and a telemarking setup. 

Now that the picture of how ski touring is accomplished has been described, here’s why it is becoming so popular. 

“Earn Your Turns,” The Benefits of Ski Touring

Ski touring requires exertion. Every inch that you ski down hill first requires you to have “skinned” up that same amount of vertical distance. This concept alone deters thousands of skiers from even considering this form of skiing which is one of the main benefits. The increased difficulty combined with the ability to ski almost any snow-covered slope (whether it has chairlifts or not) reduces the amount of people you will encounter on a tour. For the most part, you are alone with your group. This solitude, the endorphins from the physical exertion, and the slower cadence all combine to create a magical effect. You’re able to look around more than you would on a resort groomed run where you have to worry about dodging other skiers. On the uphill portion of a tour you are able to hike through the trees and hear the quiet stillness of a snow packed forest. Additionally, there is a strong sense of exploration and adventure that comes from ski touring through Vail Valley’s National Forest. Ski tourers can almost traverse anywhere for the uphill portion of the experience. 

Ski touring has grown in popularity recently. Today’s multi-resort lift passes like the Epic Pass and the Ikon Pass are bringing record numbers of participants to all ski resorts. While ski resorts like Vail and Beaver Creek have enough terrain to support these large influxes, the quiet exploration of ski touring is a welcome break from the crowds found at resorts. 

How to Ski Tour as a First Timer

Ski Touring can be a daunting endeavor to jump into. In the Vail Valley, shops like Alpine Quest Sports and Cripple Creek has ski touring gear available for rent. Additionally, there are professional guide services like Paragon Guides that can take you on your first trip out and ensure safety. Otherwise, it's best to have your first outing with experienced friends or family who understand the risks of being in the backcountry. 

How Do I Stay Safe in the Backcountry?

Although backcountry skiing is fun and filled with adventure, there are many risks. Any outdoor activity involves some risk in being away from roads and vehicles, but ski touring comes with some even greater risks. Avalanches are unfortunately common in the backcountry and often are triggered by people ski touring. It is important to complete an avalanche safety course and bring the required safety gear of a beacon, shovel and a probe along when skiing in the backcountry. 

There are several areas in the Vail Valley that are deemed safe for skiers such as Meadow Mountain in Minturn. Mayflower Gulch is another popular and safe ski tour that follows a forest service road to a majestic bowl with old mining cabins. However, even on trails with a safe reputation, always consult with a safety professional before heading out on a ski tour if you haven’t taken any avalanche safety courses before. 

Snowboarders Can Ski Tour Too

Ski touring is not just limited to skiers, snowboarding has entered the space with specialized splitboards that are essentially skis that can connect to form a snowboard. This allows a user to walk uphill with the skis and skins on, but then snowboard for the downhill portion. 

Whether you are a skier or a snowboarder, the backcountry provides a welcome change from  typical resort skiing. The staff at the Inn at Riverwalk can help you coordinate a guided adventure or even point you to where to rent gear. We hope to see you out there!