I have been on skis since age 3, so seriously I’m pretty skilled at skiing. So when hubby proposed that we try AT (Alpine Touring), you know – climbing uphill with our skis on, my eyes grew wide, my pulse raced and I twitched in discomfort.
Sounded difficult to me! Besides aren’t there perfectly good chairlifts and gondolas, even T-Bars to haul my butt up the ski hill? Wouldn’t I rather be resting while ascending and enjoying the view before my ski down? I’ve seen those hikers trudging up the side of a groomed trail with their boards on their feet, and a bulky backpack. These AT skiers always look sweaty, tired, and rarely smile. I am NOT those people, I thought.
But, for years Greg had been eyeing and pointing to snowfields and untouched descents that were not accessible from the chairlift we were riding at the time – saying “wouldn’t that be sweet”?! He pointed out with great enthusiasm that we could go further afield, find un-tracked powder, and best of all – escape the crowded trails and lift lines we’ve been encountering of late at certain conglomerate ski resorts (you know the latest iconic ski places with epically oversold passes).
I had resisted enough, Greg plans all our amazing ski trips, he’s an amazing ski buddy and guide. So I indulged him his AT dream and fall-line fantasy with “ok, we’ll try it.”
The “get away from the crowds” campaign appealed to me especially. Then I Googled the Alpine Touring calorie-burning factor – wow, and I was in (to be thin)!
Getting new AT ski gear sweetened the deal. Opening the box to my Rossignol All Track ski boots that are super lightweight, comfy, and Barbie pink – I was all smiles. I vowed not to be one of those grumpy frowning groaning sweaty AT skiers in that very moment.
Off to Austria we went, 4 weeks, with only our new AT Gear, this was a commitment. Good news though, today’s all-terrain skis, boots, bindings and poles are incredibly well-engineered so they are perfectly suitable on groomed resort runs, and adaptable to hiking (with the telescoping poles and hike mode on the bindings and boots). In fact, we practiced in our carpeted basement prior to our trip, shifting our Salomon Lab Shift bindings from ski to hike mode. We practiced sticking our skins on our skis. And we practiced finding each other with our transceivers. Neighbors must have thought us ridiculous playing hide and seek with avalanche beacons in Florida. Greg was “in an avalanche” out on our dock by the pool on a sunny 80F day – found him! Note of humility here, we take our safety precautions very seriously and we are very careful about what and where we ski, hiring a mountain ski guide typically to minimize any risk.
Our first alpine ski run in Austria was in the Zillertal Valley just a couple of hours from Munich where we’d flown in that morning on a red eye. The AT bindings felt a bit , lightweight and flimsy on my first few turns, but the Blizzard Sheeva skis and Rossi boots were so similar to my previous alpine versions. I was just getting in sych when I crossed a tip and crashed, lesson learned that AT ski do float and steer a bit differently (won’t make that mistake again – tips up).
Ironically, now that we had our off-piste ski climbing equipment, conditions were such that we were relegated to the groomers for several days. Finally, new snow set us up, and a beautiful peak sparkled in the sun beckoning us at Mountopolis Mayrhofen.
My guide Greg had studied the route but was apprehensive to do it alone the first time. Coincidentally (or not?) a nice German couple were putting their skins on, shared that they had skied the route before and offered to be our guides. “Danke, and yes please, what a kind gesture.” Having practiced, we proficiently applied our skins to our ski bases, turned on our beacons, switched our bindings to hike mode, and we were off – hoofing it up this big mountainside. I was so surprised by the Montana skins’ grippy nature, no slip – all grip. I couldn’t slide if I wanted to. I’d been concerned about learning the “skill” of AT – but it’s just walking uphill with skis on – literally “put one foot in front of the other” like the Winter Warlock in my favorite Christmas story. The quiet, the calm, the views – the ascent was exhilarating. There was one tricky steep herringbone turn, weird with your heel loose, I managed without grace – but success.
The excitement of learning this new ski trick soon faded as the climb went on, and on, I got warm, tired, and that summit just kept looming further away. I was grumpy, I swore four times, which Greg heard and checked on me, to which I replied “I’m FINE!” with irritated emphasis. I resisted the urge to yell, “this was your f*#c’ing idea!” (Greg’s Note: She mumbled it just loud enough for me to hear).
Then, we summited, we arrived at the top, a perfectly panoramic pinnacle, no noise, just peace and nature, and untracked snow for miles. Catching our breath, high-fiving, hydrating, taking selfies, we stowed our skins in our packs, flipped bindings back to ski mode, and we were ready for a super long lovely descent.
A steep wind-scoured drop led to pillowy powdery knolls and gently pitched wide-open fields. We bounced and whooped, and giggled, and skied and skied. Our descent eventually brought us to tree-line and more challenging skiing at lower elevation, and finally a bus stop to bring us back to the ski resort. Back to civilization, humanity, lifts and lines, but also happy hour – apres ski and we had much to celebrate! But first, ski boots off and a much-needed rejuvenating shower…
So skinning uphill, alpine touring, is not a complex skill as I had feared, it simply requires courage, stamina, fitness and a sense of adventure. It’s walking uphill with skis on… rigorous but rewarding. I still don’t see the benefit of climbing up a groomed ski resort trail only to ski that same prepared run with all the inbounds skiers and lift-riders. But getting out into virgin territory – I get it, I like it!
Now I know why you don’t see fat AT Skiers. Yes, they may look grumpy on the climb at times. I do too. It’s a serious workout. But what you may not see is the joy and sense of accomplishment at the end of an amazing off-piste run, the huge grin. You don’t see them because they are out experiencing nature, the way perhaps skiing was intended.