Going back to basics

Would you climb up a mountain with skis on when you could simply catch the lift? Graham Duffill did just that when he joined Europe's growing band of ski tourers, who eschew comforts and tackle peaks on foot
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The Independent Travel

Walking up mountains was an ordeal endured by skiing's pioneers, and is thankfully a burden most of us no longer face. But head to the slopes late in the season and you will still see some die-hards insanely clamping on skis and heading up, rather than down, the slopes. And they are a growing, rather than diminishing, band.

Walking up mountains was an ordeal endured by skiing's pioneers, and is thankfully a burden most of us no longer face. But head to the slopes late in the season and you will still see some die-hards insanely clamping on skis and heading up, rather than down, the slopes. And they are a growing, rather than diminishing, band.

The period from now until early May is the ski touring season. Beds in mountain huts are booked up, guides are committed and spare places are rare. "It's been booming over the last few years,"says mountain guide Rob Collister. "But 20 years ago people were not interested in something that sounded like hard slog for not very much skiing."

The basics of ski touring are not that appetising: get up at 5.30am, walk uphill for around six hours a day and endure sleepless nights in mountain huts without running water, sharing communal bedrooms with all the appeal of a doss-house.

"People find it amazing that I haven't been ski touring," says Caroline Stuart-Taylor, chief executive of the Ski Club of Great Britain, which organises a large programme of tours. "I love skiing, but I also like my creature comforts. I will do day tours but I like to be in a hotel at night."

So do all sensible people, which is why there are two ski touring menus: the "menu touristique" and the "menu hardcore". The "menu touristique" involves meeting a guide at the lift station at 9am, riding to the top of the mountain, putting on skis and trekking for about two hours up and across gentle slopes. You carry only what you would take for a day's fell-walking: drinks, snacks, sandwiches and a few spare clothes.

Any trek of more than half an hour can be sufficient to put you far away from humanity and among trees, rocks, birds and acres of untouched snow. You will invariably ski down a "hidden valley" until you hit road, railway station or resort, from where you take a bus, train or taxi back home.

Some operators, like the Ski Club, offer "ski safaris" in which you can move from resort to resort. You can even have your luggage transferred each day by taxi.

The "menu hardcore" dispenses with the morning commute - after all, it usually takes a good hour and a half to get to the top of a 3,000m-high lift system, and, after your trek, it will be lunchtime before you start your descent. On south-facing slopes in April this is too late - the snow will have become wet and heavy.

Dedicated ski tourers don't waste time going down to town - once high they stay there, either making different day tours from a mountain hotel or travelling from hut to hut.

Mountain huts will be familiar to anyone who has stayed in a basic youth hostel. By linking them together, ski tourers can make epic journeys along the roof of the Alps. The most celebrated route connects two centres of ski touring, Chamonix in France and Zermatt in Switzerland.

The Haute Route is a six-day trek, and guides like Collister recommend tackling it only after some experience of day-touring. "It is strenuous, technical and you will spend a lot of your time struggling rather than enjoying it," he says.

Collister believes there are a number of reasons why the sport is booming. "Wider, shaped skis make it easier to ski off-piste, touring boots are getting much easier to ski in, and mountain huts are becoming more comfortable," he says. "More now have running water, even hot water and showers, and there is a trend towards smaller rooms with duvets rather than communal mattresses with itchy blankets."

Such is the appetite among normal holidaymakers to escape the confines of the pistes, mass-market operators like Inghams are beginning to offer tours as part of their programme. The company provides day tours in its high resorts, using lifts to access large tracts of terrain such as Austria's highest resort, Küthai, Klosters and Kandersteg in Switzerland and Val d'Isère in France.

Patrick Zimmer, who runs the Top Ski guiding school in Val d'Isère, says clients tend to fall into two categories of fitness. "One can walk up for up to two hours, a maximum vertical distance of 600m. The other can climb for more than four hours every day," he says. "You do not have to be in the latter category of fitness to enjoy ski touring. A walk of just half an hour is sufficient to take you out of the main lift system of Val d'Isère and from there you can enjoy four to five hours of skiing."

For those wanting the gentlest introduction, there are tours that involve no uphill walking. The most popular day tour in the Alps - the Vallée Blanche - takes participants up the lift system and down a glacier running from Chamonix in France to Courmayeur in Italy. Its gentle slopes between crevasses and huge walls of blue glacier ice can be navigated by any intermediate skier. The only way in which it fails to offer a true insight into ski touring is that it is so popular that you are likely to be part of a crowd.

I last skied the Vallée Blanche with one of Chamonix's premiere high mountain guides, Alain Géloen. Alain was killed last month in a fall in on the Italian side of the Vallée Blanche while guiding. A slab of windblown snow had broken away and he hit his head on a rock in the fall. He was the only casualty, but it is a reminder that skiing away from a prepared slope is a genuinely dangerous activity and should be approached with caution.

One of the most memorable day tours I ever had was with Alain. It encompassed four glaciers and two countries. From the 3,300m Grand Montets cable car in Chamonix, we crossed the Glacier d'Argentière then climbed 800m up the Glacier Chardonnet. We descended into Switzerland, climbed the Fenêtre du Tour and then skied a vertical distance of two kilometres down the Glacier du Tour, past frozen waterfalls and huge blue ice cliffs.

As we reached the ski area the lifts were still running. We descended into the throng like eagles soaring down from distant peaks. Swelled by pride and energy I felt very sorry for these people. What had they done all day but ski up and down beside a mechanical lift? Our much more strenuous trip seemed like progress.

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

Graham Duffill travelled as a guest of Inghams (020-8780 4433; www.inghams.co.uk). Ski holiday prices fall towards the end of the season and you can pick up some last-minute bargains. For example, . Inghams has some availability for departures on 10 April, to a catered chalet in the Trois Vallées; accommodation is allocated on arrival. Prices start at £329 per person for seven nights, half-board, including flights from Gatwick to Geneva; a few seats remain on the flight from Manchester.

The company can arrange ski touring in resort. Expect to pay €180 (£130) for a week to hire touring skis, boots and other equipment. Guiding rates vary by resort and the size of the group, but expect to pay around €80 (£55) per person per day.

The Ski Club of Great Britain (0845 458 0784; www.skiclub.co.uk) runs ski touring until May. It has places on its Haute Route tour from 24 April to 3 May for £715 per person including half board but excluding travel.

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