Skiing isn’t all about rushing down mountains – head uphill, and between huts, for a more intimate adventure, says Yolanda Carslaw
The following article is a sneak preview from the next issue of Wanderlust travel magazine – available to buy in stores and online on 13 October. Taken from '21 Perfect winter adventures'.
It was a bright March Monday lunchtime and I was perched on the Swiss-Italian border, altitude 4,260m, passing round a packet of Haribo strawberry snakes. Our party’s skis and sticks were stuck in the snow higgledy-piggledy, our rucksacks doubling as picnic stools. To the south, craggy ridges tumbled into the lowland haze; to the west Mont Blanc reared from the horizon; behind us soared the Monte Rosa massif. I felt delirious and exhausted, because to get to this sensational spot, the Col de Lys, we had been skiing not downhill, but up.
Ski touring, an arguably more rewarding cousin of skiing, is enjoying a boom thanks to giant strides in equipment and increasing demand for an alternative to crowded ski resorts. It enables skiers to explore beyond lift systems, using equipment similar to regular skiing and not, as is sometimes perceived, langlauf (cross-country skis). Wider-based skis now allow intermediates to plough through the ungroomed snow that was once the preserve of experts. And once you can negotiate gentle to moderate unpisted slopes in reasonable control, you’re ready to slide towards a touring adventure.
The picnic was our first on a five-day hut-to-hut tour between the ancient villages of Alagna in Italy’s Val d’Aosta and Zinal in Switzerland’s Val d’Anniviers, both of which sit at the head of little-tamed valleys.
Unusually, the trip had begun with a long lunch. “Hungry?” chorused Marco and Michele, our mountain guides, as they met our six-strong party off a minibus from Milan airport. “Good! You can’t pass Alagna without eating at L’Unione.” Over gnocchi we examined the topographical map: our route would traverse a dozen glaciers and pass beneath that chocolate-box peak, the Matterhorn.
Marco audited the contents of our rucksacks, checking we carried essentials such as avalanche transceiver, harness and sleeping-bag liner, and frowning cheerfully at my extra ‘evening-wear’. Weighed down, too, by the feast, we headed to where the action began – the ski lift. Many tours start by ‘cheating’; even better, Alagna’s cablecar conveyed us to within a brief traverse of an improbably luxurious mountain refuge.
Unlike most, the Guglielmina (2,880m) has twin rooms, hot showers and flushing loos. Toasting our adventure gave us an excuse to sample the Bombardino, a house cocktail, and for our group – five Brits and an Italian, plus our guides – to mingle.
We took our first uphill steps the next morning from the top of the nearby Punta Indren cablecar, at 3,275m. The dozen people who stepped out with us quickly melted away as we meandered up the mountainside.
During ascents, tourers fix synthetic skins to their skis’ bases to prevent them slipping backwards, and unclip their bindings’ heels for easy walking. Normal ski boots are fine for day tours, but for longer trips it’s better to rent a boot with a ‘walk’ mode. The best approach is to go slowly but surely, especially at such high altitude; I settled into a rhythm, taking tips from Michele to improve my kick-turns – a simple technique for zigzagging uphill.
We trekked for four hours, halting hourly to reapply sun cream to our sweaty faces and gulp marschtee (walking tea), a fragrant, pink, sugary concoction included in the half-board rate at most huts.
Touring is rarely about memorable descents. Our first, into Switzerland, involved slow snowplough turns and entertaining tumbles in variable snow. When we passed close to crevasses, Michele – a quietly spoken former mountain rescue chief – instructed us to follow him precisely by pointing both sticks above his head.
However, with every stretch of downhill a glorious new panorama unfolded and soon we spied our lodgings: the shimmering block of concrete, wood, aluminium and glass that is the Monte Rosa Hut.
The 120-bed hut, completed in 2009, aims to be 90% self-sufficient by generating and storing solar energy. We settled on the terrace and put our boots out to dry as Michele and Marco kindly fetched us slippers and ordered us shandies. We chatted to other groups – from gnarly Swiss climbers to talkative Americans – and also, reluctantly, inspected our feet. Blisters are a hazard, and my companions’ fine examples were already crying out for Compeed plasters. After a typical hut supper of soup, salad, pork with tagliatelle, and fruit mousse, sleep came quickly in an eight-bunk dorm.
“Breakfast at 6.30; we ski at 7.30,” Marco had decreed. But although he woke us politely at 6am, much faffing meant we were last out at 8.15. We wove between crevasses then enjoyed a rollercoaster descent of a hidden icy chasm, complete with caves and streams, before spotting a herd of chamois as we slid out below the glacier.
That afternoon I was glad that Zuba Ski, the tour organiser, had suggested we take two guides. On a series of windblown pitches beneath the Matterhorn, Marco and Michele communicated by radio, checking us safely across one by one. There followed a steady two-hour ascent, sunhats on, sleeves rolled up – a chance to lose yourself in the rhythm and scenery.
Arriving at the Schönbiel Hut, it was bliss to huddle over bowls of soup cooked by the welcoming husband-and-wife guardians, a stove blazing nearby. This traditional stone hut with cheery red shutters featured dorms of side-by-side mattresses and an outside loo reached by a precipitous path.
Setting off at 7am the next morning, a freeze had hardened the snow, so we fixed ski crampons under our bindings for extra grip. A field of overhead seracs – ice-towers as big as houses – made our guides take extra care over our route up a trackless valley. “Keep going, Yolanda!” urged Marco as I hurried up, the gurgle of glacier melt a metre beneath my skis.
At the top, we were dismayed to see Marco producing not his popular bag of nuts and raisins but a rope and ice-screw. The map contours indicated our descent began steeply, but the glacier had shifted, making it too treacherous to ski. One by one we clipped onto the rope, and Michele lowered us 6m to Marco, waiting below.
The last day of a ski-tour usually involves a grand descent into springtime. First, we climbed, watching the peaks of the Obergabelhorn and Zinalrothorn peeping between wisps of cloud. “Who wants to go higher?” called Michele after we’d peered over a ridge at the apparent top.
Two of us followed, leaving the others to wait – and then weep as we swept past in feather-light powder. From there, it was down, down, down into the meadows.
We shared the last strawberry snakes, plus bits of salami and cheese, before a push-and-skate into Zinal. There, we eased back into civilisation with cheese fondue and Fendant wine at our rustic hotel, gazing and grinning back up to the white wilderness whence we came.
Access city: Milan (Milan Malpensa airport is 98km from Alagna)
Time: GMT+1 (Mar-Oct GMT+2)
Visas: Not required by UK nationals
Money: Euro (€), currently around €1.13 to the UK£; Swiss franc (CHF), currently around CHF1.33 to the UK£. Mountain huts don’t always accept both currencies – and may charge extortionate exchange rates. Expect to pay €5 for a beer in a hut.
When to go: Europe’s hut-to-hut season is mid-March to mid-May. Outside this time, huts have a ‘winter room’ with a stove, heater and mattresses. Day tours are possible all winter. Daytime temperatures in spring can be below 0°C or up to 20°C; at night they usually plunge below 0°C.
Health & safety: Ski-touring can be dangerous – do not attempt a tour without a guide. Drink extra fluid at altitude and use a high factor sun cream. Travel insurance that covers snow sports is essential; check out www.wanderlustinsurance.co.uk.
The author travelled with Zuba Ski on a tailormade Monte Rosa tour. Based on a ratio of one guide to five guests, it costs £650 pp, including five nights’ half-board, guiding and transfers from Milan. Zuba Ski tailor-makes tours throughout the Alps, as well as off-piste and touring skills courses.
For hut-to-hut touring, you need to be a red- to black-run skier with some off-piste experience; confidence and fitness are more important than style. For group off-piste tuition, try Mountain Tracks or the Arlberg Ski School’s Powder Club. Mountain Tracks also runs group ski-touring skills courses from £595.
You can hire touring skis, skins and boots in most resorts for around £30 a day. You can rent a transceiver, shovel and probe but check if your guide supplies these. For some tours, you need ski crampons and a harness. For hut-to-hut tours take a 40-litre rucksack.
This article is a sneak preview from the next issue of Wanderlust travel magazine – available to buy in stores and online on 13 October. Taken from '21 perfect winter adventures'.
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