Written by David Roberts
In order to pass the BASI Level 4 European Mountain Safety module, candidates need to log six days of ski touring. This can be one of the most enjoyable parts of the BASI system, as it’s just you and some friends, escaping from the ski resort to have some fun and adventures. You can make mistakes with no BASI Trainer looking over your shoulder and you don’t have to watch them replayed on video!
The EMS Logbook requires that the tours are away from forests and ski areas in order to put people into situations where they might have to make some real and challenging decisions. How you deal with mistakes and problems builds experience, meaning that you arrive at the exam with a toolkit of ideas.
Prior Preparation Prevents Poor Performance
Ski mountaineering is one of the finest sports imaginable, but to practice it without technique is a form of more or less deliberate suicide. Technique encourages prudence; it also obviates fatigue & useless or dangerous halts and, far from excluding it, permits meditation. It is not an end in itself but the means of promoting safety. Gaston Rebuffat, “On Snow & Rock”
With a few planning tools and a bit of thought it’s possible to have some enjoyable, safe days out in the mountains. The first thing is to make sure that everyone has the right kit. For some ideas about what you might need, have a look at our previous blog about the EMS module.
Once you’ve got the right gear for the job, go out and practise using it. Try out your transceiver in the avalanche park. These often have timers, so that you can set your friends a time to beat. Try out your touring bindings and skins on short climb but don’t do this on the pistes as it’s dangerous and also illegal in many resorts.
When to Go?
Once you’ve got the right kit and practised using it, the next thing to do is to decide when and where to got for a ski tour. It is possible to log all 6 of your tours in a week but it’s more enjoyable to do them without rushing or just before the exam.
- Get fit first. An EMS qualifying tour should have 1,000m of climb in it, which could take you five hours when you’re first starting to ski tour (World Champions climb at the rate of over 1,000m per hour!). You’ll have more fun, find it easier to make good decisions and enjoy the ski down more if you’re fit. Have a look at the Fitness Training section of this blog for some ideas.
- Spreading the tours over a couple of seasons means that you’ll gain experience of assessing the stability of a different snowpack. The same route can be totally different from one year to the next.
- Days in December and January are shorter, so you’ll need to start earlier to avoid getting stuck in the dark. Later in the season the days are longer, giving you more time to deal with mistakes & problems and more chance of successfully completing your tour.
- Pick days with good weather for your first tours, to make the navigation and route finding easier. Then, once you’ve got some experience and skills, try exploring in poorer visibility.
- Give everyone who is going plenty of notice, preferably a few days before. That way you don’t have to waste time on the morning of your tour, waiting for people to buy lunch, find their skins and borrow some ski-crampons.
- Don’t plan to go on a ski tour after a big night out. To quote one New Generation instructor, skinning up a mountain in Switzerland, “This is so much easier without a hangover!”
The essence of mountaineering is the search for problems in order to have the fun of solving them. Sir Arnold Lunn, “Mountain Jubilee”
Choosing where to go for your day is dictated by two things: the avalanche risk and the weather.
The avalanche forecast will tell you which slopes are going to be safest or easiest to ascend. Knowing the history of the snow conditions will also give you an idea of on what aspects you might find the best snow for skiing down. Remember that you can skin up slopes with a lot less snow cover than you can ski down. You’ll also spend a lot more time exposed to avalanche risk on the slopes that you’re planning to ascend than on the ones you’ll ski down. However, if you’re not sure, don’t go. Try to chose tours where you’re not backed into a corner and committed to doing something that you don’t want to do in order to get home. Think about giving yourself options and escape routes. Will it be good to ski down the ascent route? You will have had plenty of time to assess the safety of the snowpack on the climb.
The weather forecast will tell you how the snow is likely to change during your tour. Will the wind transport snow across the mountain, turning safe slopes into wind slab? Will the sun transform the snow into soft slab avalanches or perfect spring snow to ski down in the afternoon?
As well as official websites of weather and avalanche information, there are also many sites and groups where people share information about local conditions. Often these have photos, so that you can see what the snow is like for yourself. A classic example is the “British Backcountry” group on Facebook, administered by ex-BASI Trainer, Blair Aitken. A great source of information for the whole of the Alps is camptocamp.org This website is updated by users with details of their latest trips. You can search it by place names, so it’s easy to use. However, it’s generally not written by Brits, so those language skills from your BASI Level 3 will come in handy!
Sometimes it can be hard to collate all of this information in a way that makes sense and is useful. Online tools, such as the White Risk website and app, can be very helpful and can pull in information automatically. Robert Bolegnesi’s book “Avalanche!”, comes with his plastic Nivo Test, which is another useful tool for assessing the risks of a tour.
Where to Go?
Once you’ve decided which aspects of slope you want to travel on, it’s finally time to select a route. There is a lot of information out there, especially if you speak a bit of the language of the area that you want to tour in. Ski touring guide books can be hard to find in ski resorts but they do exist. Shops, such as Vieux Campeur in Albertville, climbing shops in Chamonix or Mountain Air in Verbier all stock them. You can also find ski touring guidebooks online, including a few in English, such as the ones published by Cicerone or on Kindle. Guide books tend to be expensive, so it’s worth finding out if friends have any that you can borrow. It’s also worth spending time looking at routes on free websites, such as CamptoCamp.
Generally each tour in a guide book will start with a summary of the route. Is it on the aspects that you’ve decided are safer today? Is the tour the correct length to qualify for the EMS Logbook? Does the tour start from the road or do you need to buy a lift pass and use ski lifts to get to the start? Does the tour require any extra skills, such as crossing glaciers or climbing? You can quickly narrow down your choices and get into the details given in the written route descriptions and by looking at a map.
Like guide books, maps are expensive. Buy a good, fully waterproof mapcase to keep them in, such as the ones made by Ortlieb. Regardless of how carefully you look after them, French 1:25,000 maps seem to be printed on paper that falls to pieces as soon as it’s taken outdoors. Laminated maps are one solution to this problem. They’re even more expensive but worth it if you’re going to use them for a couple of seasons. French 1:25,000 maps have blue, ski touring lines printed on them, though, it’s still worth reading up about the route, especially if the lines are dotted. In Switzerland, there are specialist 1:50,000 ski touring maps, with red, numbered ski routes overprinted onto them. These maps have slopes over 30o shaded red and written descriptions for each route on the back.
A cheaper option is to use an online map service, such as Swiss Mobility or the French GeoPortail. Using the Swiss site, all you need then is a cheap printer and a cheap laminator and you can make as many A4 waterproof maps as you need. Most sites and apps will require you to pay a subscription, before you can print from them but it can save you money in the long run.
At this point you might be thinking about just using a free mapping app on your phone. Unfortunately the EMS Exam is done using just a paper map, compass and altimeter: no GPS! Most maps on free apps aren’t good enough quality to navigate in the mountains either. However, having a mapping app in your mobile can be a great backup: either to check that you navigation is accurate or to help out if the weather gets bad. Remember that if you haven’t downloaded the maps into your ‘phone before you go, there might not be a data signal to stream them, up in the mountains. You’ll usually have to pay to access these services (50chf per year for Swiss Mobility). Running a GPS mapping app on your mobile is great but it also uses the battery at a fast rate. Try to keep your ‘phone warm and carry a back-up power pack. Remember that mobile ‘phones really mess up avalanche transceivers, so keep your ‘phone in your rucksack when you’re not using it.
If you’re really not sure about where your tour goes or the map is over-packed with detail that is confusing, it’s worth flying along your route in Google Earth. This can help you to visualise what certain parts of the route are going to look like. It might help you to spot that crucial turning on the descent, that means you finish in the correct valley!
Going on the Tour
Once you’ve done all of the hard work, all you have to do now is get your team together and go on the tour. Remember that conditions can change as the day goes along. The weather forecast might be totally wrong and you might have to change you plans in the car park. Think about some alternative routes when you’re doing your planning, so that you’re not backed into a corner. Is there a shorter route? Can you practice techniques safely in the trees? Is there a ski resort nearby where you can going and ski some new pistes for the day?
The further you get along your route, the harder it can be to turn around and go home but it might be necessary to stay safe. Perhaps the hardest place to decide to turn back is at the top of the climb, looking down trackless snow, that you’re not quite sure about. There can be a lot of psychological pressure, from yourself and your group, to keep going. After all you’ve done all of that hard work planning the tour and climbing the mountain. If in doubt, don’t do it and live to ski another day!
Going ski touring can be a bit like playing cards at a casino. You know that the odds are stacked against you but when you win it’s absolutely brilliant!
There is nothing like a ski tour for inducing a happy mood, when the going is brilliant, skis are smooth…and the company is good.
Otto Theodor Krohg, Tromso, New Year’s Eve 1843