|Photo by Mont Tremblant|
Stephen Wood, The Daily Telegraph, November 10, 2014
The first English downhill ski championship took place in Switzerland in January 1911. The winner’s time on the unprepared course, which dropped 1,500m from the Plaine Morte glacier to the village of Montana, was a remarkable 61 minutes.
The downhill, however, was the easy part of the event; competitors were really tested on their way to the start line, with a full day’s climbing and a night in a mountain hut. Before the advent of lifts, skiing was a sport which, first of all, demanded fierce determination. How many descents would I make, I once wondered, if each one involved hiking up the slope? A subsequent experiment in Canada revealed the answer: only one.
Just before the millennium I climbed the front face of Mont Tremblant at the main ski resort on Canada’s eastern seaboard. With snowshoes on my feet, snow blades and boots in my backpack and – perversely – a lift-pass hanging from my jacket, I made the ascent (2.5km in length, 645m vertical) in 85 painful minutes. Once the fire in my lungs had died down, the pay-off was a 14-minute descent to the village. And thus ended my skiing day.
Some thought went into the choice of Tremblant in the French Canadian province of Québec as the venue for the experiment: it seemed a better option than, say, Revelstoke in British Columbia, where I would have had to climb 1,714m to the top of the ski area. When I returned to Tremblant last season for another experiment in old-school skiing, however, it was at the resort’s invitation. It had launched a programme of half-day, guided alpine touring experiences. The idea was that as a change from downhill skiing guests might enjoy climbing up through the woods on skis fitted with “skins” – which allow forward movement but won’t slide backwards – and then, having earned some turns, descend on-piste to the resort.
Would I like to have a go at that? Yes, I told Tremblant; I would.
You have probably observed a recent change of emphasis in winter-sports resorts. The assumption that skiers and boarders want to be on the slopes from dawn to dusk has been eroded by research into guest behaviour. It was Intrawest, the North American resort-owner, which first observed the phenomenon in the Nineties: its surveys showed that the average visitor spent less than half of each day skiing or riding.
A company which made much of its income from property development, Intrawest saw this as an opportunity, and responded by animating its resort villages with shops, restaurants and activities. Now, every destination in the winter-sports world is adding cake to its bread-and-butter of ski and board. Last season Tremblant – which though 75 years old was created in its current form by Intrawest from 1991 onwards – offered 10 winter activities apart from downhill, including ice-climbing, snowmobiling (including mini-snowmobiles for children) and ziplines, as well as snowshoeing and alpine touring.
Downhill skiing is just a modern frivolity by comparison with snowshoeing and alpine touring. Snowshoes were used in Canada by fur trappers and traders from the 17th century onwards; skis have been a means of transport – uphill and down – for 5,000 years or more, becoming particularly popular with North American postmen in the mid-18th century. But the equipment for these old-school activities is now hi-tech. Snowshoes no longer look like tennis racquets, though French-Canadians still refer to them as raquettes; and even the rubber-and-aluminium version I used 15 years ago have been superseded by more rigid shoes made from high-density plastics in bright, primary colours.
At the Explore rental shop in Tremblant my fitter, Philippe, told me that alpine-touring skis and boots are the big growth area in the North American equipment market. I could see why. The Dynafit binding, based on a device patented by an Austrian inventor named Fritz Barthel in 1984, looks at first like something your handyman uncle might have rigged up in his garden shed from an old washing machine motor and some bicycle parts. But it is so beautifully machined, so perfectly sprung and so light that I couldn’t help admiring it as Philippe fitted me with bright yellow boots.
Made by Scarpa, these boots welcome the foot by swinging open a hinged tongue, and then fondly embrace the upper part of the ankle with internal lacing. For downhill skiing the back of the boot is braced, and locked onto the ski by the rear binding; but for climbing it is unlocked, and allows the foot to articulate naturally. Not only does this make walking comfortable – the experience is about half way along a scale from carpet-slippers to ski-boots – it also avoids the “exploding groin pain” which Philippe said would result if the heel couldn’t lift.
Shuffling up the piste is no less comfortable thanks to the lightness of the equipment. Fritz Barthel said of his patent that “Laziness is the mother of invention”, the point being that if you are climbing a mountain you don’t want to carry much weight. Put his bindings together with a pair of touring skis and Scarpa boots and you have a bundle weighing less than two kilos. The downhill skier’s equivalent bundle weighs at least a kilo more.
There is a demanding dress code for alpine touring at Tremblant. The briefing document for its half-day experience lists eight items of clothing for the ascent, and five different ones for the descent, plus a big backpack to carry this wardrobe around. The rationale is that you sweat on the way up and freeze on the way down, so – for example – a lightweight jacket and a warm tuque are advised. To my surprise I own both (“tuque” is what French Canadians call a woolly hat), and took them along; otherwise I was poorly prepared when I met my guide at the village base, having decided that in typical Québec weather – it was -14C (7F) – working up a sweat sounded appealing.
My guide, Sylvain, had an easy morning, firstly because “skinning up” (as alpine skiers innocently call the ascent) demands little skill. The tricky part is locating the studs on either side of the boot into the front part of the binding; manage that, and the rest is just a soft-shoe shuffle, sliding one ski after another up the slope. The skins – so called because they were made of sealskin before synthetics took over – are stuck to the base of the skis, and prevent them sliding backwards if downward pressure is exerted. When the gradient steepens, Fritz Barthel’s cunning device keeps the pressure on by allowing the heel to be stacked – from flat to stiletto, as it were – so that the boot always remains roughly horizontal.
It was easy also because the “guiding” part is child’s play: Tremblant has created well-signposted trails away from the pistes and into the woods. For tourers in a hurry to get up the mountain, there are contraflow lanes at the side of some major pistes; and they are invaluable when setting off from the lift base. But thereafter the fun is to be had among the trees, from where the pistes are visible but inaudible. Following Sylvain’s tracks (and heel adjustments) through the quiet landscape was mesmerising: provided you accept it is more workout than thrill sport, alpine touring is very rewarding. I asked about its virtue as exercise, expecting an answer in kilojoules; what I got was a smile and a laconic “that depends on how fast you climb”.
Finally, Sylvain got an early lunch because I couldn’t make it all the way to the peak. Skinning is slower then snowshoeing; it is also less demanding, because skis float on the snow – I didn’t get hot enough to warrant discarding even a single layer of clothing. My problem was that even the most comfortable boots will find a weak spot, and I had an infected toe.
A little more than halfway up the mountain a halt was called; we stripped off our skins, locked down our heels, and skied back down the hill. With 10 good toes, I think I would have gone back up for a second run.
Need to know
Alpine touring packages at Tremblant start at CAN$69.99 (£33) for a half-day (based on a party of four) including equipment rental and guiding service: further information at tremblant.ca
Stephen Wood travelled with Crystal Ski ( crystalski.co.uk ; 0871 231 2256), which offers a week’s accommodation at the three-star Le Lodge de la Montagne in Tremblant, Canada, from £675 per person (based on four sharing) including Air Canada flights from London Heathrow to Quebec and transfers. Connecting flights from all UK major airports available (supplement from £80 per person). Price based on two sharing is £787.
This article was written by Stephen Wood from The Daily Telegraph and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.