Jane the Virgin

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My friend Jane summed up the trip well: “Going back to skiing groomers with people whizzing past me at resorts will feel kind of dull,” she told me dreamily. “I think I’ll be spending more time in the trees and back bowls—and definitely there’s more AT in my future.”

I remember telling her last autumn, when I was trying to convince her to join a group of us who were planning a trip that would include some days of alpine touring, “There’s not much technique to learn, only your toes are attached to your skis so it’s just walking uphill, you know, one foot in front of the other.”

In fact, she was more skeptical about skiing off-piste on the way down. Fair enough. But I wasn’t surprised that trooper Jane passed with flying colours and reached several goals, including “never embarrassing my kids the whole week.”

Jane has skied most of her adult life with an occasional day or weekend in Ontario and, once a year, a big trip to Quebec, Vermont, Western Canada or, a few times, the Alps. Now in her early 50s, like a lot of curious skiers, she’s tried alpine touring or ski mountaineering for the first time. I had dragged her off-piste only once in the past: one big run from glorious open alpine to sloppy wet tight trees. I was impressed at the time by her cheery never-complaining disposition, so I was full of hubris that she could join our rambunctious gang.

“I’m an advanced skier,” she describes herself. “I no longer have to be the first on and the last off the hill, but I’m enthusiastic and inclement weather doesn’t discourage me. I thought my average level of fitness would be adequate for ski touring. I was wrong. I suppose I could have started with a less ‘enthusiastic’ group, but ski touring does require an advanced level of fitness, including a strong core. It also requires fitness for short bursts of activity, like a steep boot climb in powder, as well as endurance for long skins uphill and descents in varying snow as long as nine km. Sometimes I felt like I was cycling uphill in the wrong gear.”

Of the psychology involved, Jane said succinctly, “I find it’s usually easier to help someone else than to accept help. My sons reluctantly kept an eye on me, but support and encouragement in different amounts and styles flowed from the whole group: ‘Jane, you’re staying with us’ and ‘Jane, you can follow me.’ I also felt confident that the guide would pluck me out of a big powder bank at some point, when I would start thinking too much about what I was doing…and end up like a pretzel in a meringue.

“I enjoyed a real high from ski touring, which felt different from one of my average days on the slopes. I just enjoyed ski touring period! To me, touring felt like a functional balance of alpine and cross-country skiing.”

Of the gear, Jane said: “I wasn’t confident on the skis and skins at first; it was all new to me. The bindings baffled me: ‘pumps vs. stilettos?’ I didn’t know what they were joking about. Learning kick turns was easier because I’d watched YouTube videos before I went, but I’ve never opened and closed all the zippers on my jacket and pants more often—and I found built-in gaiters in my ski pants!”

Hopefully Jane will get something from Technical Editor Ryan’s backcountry gear guide that appears in this issue. With touring gear available and rentable at most major resorts and many ski shops now, it makes the decision to try this burgeoning genre (albeit, the oldest form of skiing) easier than ever. Whether you’re touring for powder, for serenity, exercise or you just like having the lightest gear under your feet or in your ski bag, there’s a whole world out there waiting for you.

The days of Alpine Trekkers and klister are long gone and the only distraction is deciding if you want super-light, dedicated ski-mo kit or hybrid gear that allows you to choose from both worlds, depending on the conditions, location or group. Like full-suspension mountain biking gear to better-designed fast ’n’ flowy trail building, the more R&D put into a sport, the more accessible it becomes—and it’s fun watching the increase in interest in alpine touring.

“I think ski touring is the most challenging activity or sport I’ve ever engaged in,” said Jane, “and definitely the most rewarding!”

from Fall 2019 issue

Iain MacMillan
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