Ski touring: Going up in the world

Ski touring takes the sport back to its roots – off piste and away from the crowds – and it can be a real test of endurance. Leslie Woit tries it out in Switzerland

Once upon a time, skiing took place in a shimmering world of beauty and calm, without a gondola or bleeping piste basher in sight. These days, of course, the slopes are often crowded with people; the chairlifts equally packed. But if you're a parallel skier with a decent level of fitness, it is still possible to ski the old-fashioned way – and experience that old-fashioned tranquillity. However, it does involve skiing up a mountain.

The technique is known as ski touring, and my attempt involved a mountain guide, eight Swiss-Germans and me. As well as spending the day following our leader down slopes, we would be spending some time heading in the other direction.

The idea is that you attach special grippy skins to your skis in order to prevent yourself sliding backwards. When you eventually reach the top of your mountain, you take them off and ski down. Our journey would lead us over untracked, unpopulated off-piste routes that penetrate the Alpine mountainscape as no purpose-built ski area could. It's skiing as nature intended – elevating, sustainable and a great calorie burner.

The Lötschenlücke is one of the Alps' classic ski touring day trips. The tour begins at the top of the Jungfraujoch, slides on to the longest glacier in the Alps, climbs up the Aletschfirn, and culminates in a rewardingly long 7km descent to Blatten, in the Canton of Valais. The trip's popularity is boosted by spectacular scenery and easy railway access.

Of course, popularity is relative: Andreas Abegglen, our guide, reckoned around 200 people were skiing on the Aletsch glacier that day. "This may get up to 500 at Easter," he said. By way of comparison, some 20,000 will be in Courchevel on the same day.

The next morning, I tore myself away from my feather bed at the Hotel Bellevue to catch a cog train from Grindelwald's Kleine Scheidegg, en route to the highest train station in Europe.

Getting to the top by train isn't cheating, it's just Swiss. Completed in 1912, the miracle of engineering bores through the bulk of the fearsome Eiger to its 3,454m summit. More than 600,000 people disembark at the Jungfraujoch each year, blinking in the sunshine amid a swirl of glittering ice and superlatives, to find themselves at the head of Europe's longest stretch of living ice, the 23km-long Aletsch glacier.

Peaks, snow and an eerie quiet. The graceful ribbon of ice and snow looked a lot like one of the world's biggest mountain playgrounds should look, except – or, perhaps, because – there is not a chairlift in sight. Switzerland's Jungfrau-Aletsch-Bietschhorn area is, after all, a protected Unesco World Heritage site. The glacier is more than 1km wide and, at its thickest, 800m deep. Bouncing up and down for effect, Andreas gauged its stability: "It should be enough to hold us today."

We skied off, down a wide 7km stretch towards the Konkordiaplatz. On this early April morning, the snow hadn't yet had time to soften; despite the gentle incline the frozen crust turned everyone except Andreas into seriously bad skiers. Leaning back; falling over. One guy almost wiped me out. But that's another thing about touring: it's not just about the skiing.

"It's the best way to get up – not to stop," offered Manfred, one of my fellow tourers, helpfully. (For the record, I hadn't actually stopped, though my pace might have given a different impression.) After pausing to attach our skins and strip down to T-shirts in the heat, we were now 30 minutes into the two-and-a-half-hour ascent of the Aletschfirn. As we followed each other one by one in a tight line, Andreas set a chirpy tempo at the front. I was already exhausted at the back. I managed a nod of thanks to Manfred, not wishing to waste limited breath.

But heavy breathing is its own reward. The air up here doesn't just feel and smell clean, it truly is. From its Jungfraujoch base, the National Air Pollution Monitoring Network measures the atmosphere's composition, as well as cosmic rays beaming down to earth. In good weather like today's, 95 per cent of all dust particles and 98 per cent of humidity lie below us. The flipside is that the solar radiation is 10 times greater than down in Bern. I applied plenty of sun cream and scanned the horizon suspiciously.

Left, right, left, right. Like a slow-motion marathon, getting into a rhythm was paramount. I occasionally looked up from my default view of Manfred's bottom to soak in the panorama of the Aletschhorn's craggy ridgeline and steep north face. One hour on, and we were gaining good altitude, and I was just about getting into a rhythm. That's part of the allure of ski touring – the meditative pace, the romantic terrain, the absence of clamour that comes with big resort holidays. "Ski touring is one of the last adventures possible in a big European civilisation," Johann Kaufmann, mountain guide and director of Grindelwald Sports, said later. "Up there, you're alone, away from tourism, deep in nature."

Happily, we weren't so alone or so deep in nature as to forget the other half of the equation: the high-definition moment when we reached the summit. Then, after three hours of building up credit, it was finally time to cash in our chips. Downwards we sped: endless long arcs weaving through a yawning, sprawling valley. No people, no lift towers, no signs – and no stopping. "And that," I declared to Manfred later, "is the best way to get down."

Traveller's guide: Swiss ski touring

Touring there

Grindelwald Sports (00 41 33 854 1280; offers Lötschenlücke ski tours each weekend from 6 March-24 May 2010, weather permitting. The price of CHF210 (£130) includes a mountain guide, plus transfers from Interlaken to Jungfraujoch and back to Interlaken from Blatten at the end of the day. Group sizes are six to 11 skiers. Skiers should bring or hire their own touring skis and skins.

Staying there

Hotel Bellevue des Alpes (00 41 33 855 1212; at Kleine Scheidegg above Grindelwald offers doubles from CHF370 (£230), for half-board.

More information

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