Randonée (ski touring) for beginners
The word 'randonée' may sound a bit extreme. It's a French word and actually only means ski touring, also called alpine touring or back-country skiing. We often see sporty figures in bright colours dashing down steep slopes at breakneck speeds. For most of us, these daredevil pursuits are frightening enough just to watch. So does this 'randonée' business have any appeal for the average guy or gal in the street?
Yes, absolutely, as this is an activity most people can enjoy. Forget the videos and pictures of skiers flying down steep mountainsides and running at furious speeds. Even if we have the same goal – to visit white-clad mountains and enjoy the outdoors – our version of ski touring is a little different. A calmer pace and not quite so steep slopes make these mountain tours much less daunting. What gets a lot of people hooked is the sense of excitement, freedom and weightlessness when they go exploring on skis beyond the prepared slopes.
If you're thinking this is way beyond your comfort zone, I hope you'll be convinced otherwise after reading this entry. It's an extensive subject, but I've tried to boil it down to a few key ideas to bear in mind when you're broken out of your comfort zone and are ready for your first off-piste excursion. Right now is the best time to get your randonée hobby started. If you don't feel ready for the mountain, find a hill covered in snow and enough of an incline to ski down. You can practice there until you've mastered your turns. Just make sure you have a companion with you to help out should you get into trouble. Find fellow enthusiasts or ski clubs who'd be happy to share their expertise with you. Practising various scenarios is educational, fun and necessary, as you'll also learn to use avalanche equipment.
Why try ski touring?
Compared to cross-country skis, touring skis are sturdier and easier to manoeuvre in steep terrain. They are comfortable and the ski skins provide good grip for the climb. On the way down, it's very similar to skiing in regular downhill equipment, i.e. in skis and boots.
The contrasts between the fjords and mountains are breath-taking.
A mountain tour on a summer's day is beautiful, but the Sunnmørsalpene on a crisp, clear winter's day really takes your breath away. The contrasts between the fjords and mountains are breath-taking. It's totally worth risking a heart attack to stand 1500 metres above sea level and just take in the view. And that is the goal, of course, once you've made it through the foothills and you've got your blood flowing. Traipsing up a mountainside is more about presence than a struggle. You quickly forget why the lactic acid is still trying to get your attention when you reach such heights where you can see sky-scraping peaks all around you. You have more than enough to do just letting the impression sink in. The view, the feeling of triumph and the endorphins will have you high on life. That feeling will stay in your body so long you'll never forget what an excursion like that can do for you, whether you can ski or not.
"Living in a playpen challenges you to play"
When you put your skis down and glide through hopefully untouched snow to begin your first long descent, when the sun hits the powder where you've just carved out a turn, you know it's happened. You are free, weightless and have become a 'powder junkie'. You're hooked for life.
The view, the feeling of triumph and the endorphins make you high on life. Full stop!
You can get a fantastic view from the 'hill' as well. My hill is called Frostadtinden.
The risk of avalanches frightens many of us. I'm not going to write an essay here on the dangers of avalanches. I'm still too inexperienced for that. But equipping yourself with basic knowledge is obviously important. Plan your excursion and check the map. The map will tell you whether you'll be passing over terrain that can be cut off by avalanches from surrounding mountainsides. Always check the weather updates and avalanche warnings before your set off on your trip. Varsom.no is one of the sites I check most often.
There's a difference between winter snow and springtime snow. Winter snow that is layered is associated with a greater avalanche risk. Spring snow, which is transformed homogeneously and in coarse flakes, is largely more stable than winter snow. From this point on in the spring, when the temperature is warm and the sun is shining, we often see slush avalanches. These can be heavy and dangerous, but are more often easier to control and avoid.
Ski touring equipment
As a beginner, we don't always know what to even ask for. I certainly didn't. Unfortunately, not every sports shop is as knowledgeable as we'd like. Give a thought or two to what kind of skiing skills you already have. It's worth renting equipment for a couple of excursions to get a feel for it. Talk to someone you know has expertise and a good deal of what you need. There's a skiing enthusiast in every town and village, so why not ask them? They'll know what you need. The equipment is expensive enough to warrant thorough research before you start buying. But then you'll have dependable equipment to last you many years if taken care of properly.
Skis and boots
When it comes to boots, which are one of the most important choices you'll make, they need to be a good fit. If your sole of your foot slides back and forth, they're too big. And you'll have blisters in no time. Towards the top, the boots should be a little loose around the leg, but your heel should sit tight. The boots are your connection to the skis. If your boots fit poorly, your ride down the mountain won't be any better.
When choosing skis and boots, you may wonder what your focus should be. Most people, of course, focus on enjoying the descent. In that case, downhill-orientated boots are the right choice (these will normally be a little heavier and stiffer, but the difference is not so great). Lightweight boots sacrifice much of the quality of the liner in order to save weight. They get colder more quickly and more uncomfortable when the weather gets challenging. But they're lighter for the climb up the mountain.
Skis and boots must have some consistency: wide skis need sturdier boots, while light and narrow skis can be controlled using softer and lighter boots. But light, narrow skis can, in turn, require better technique and skiing skills. It's an extensive subject, but this is as far as I'll take it for now. In terms of the length of your skis, most people choose touring skis that are 0 to 10 centimetres shorter than their own height.
The boots have two settings: 'walking' and 'skiing'. The same choice applies to your bindings. When you're going downhill, the bindings are set to 'ski'. And when going uphill, they're set to 'walk'.
When you reach the top and remove the skins, it's a good idea to set the back bindings to 'ski' so the stoppers are on. That way you'll be able to keep up on the way down. Obvious perhaps, but when you're worn out and it's your first time, anything can happen.
The heel lift function means you lose a little grip when doing slalom (turning in a zigzag pattern). It seems that if you use the highest heel lift you'll go too fast. The mountain slopes generally start at around 25 degrees. If you go straight up an incline, you'll see the gradient signposted. If it's your first time, it may be worth testing out a gentler slope to begin with.
Avalanche receivers must be protected by a layer of clothing. Keep your mobile in your bag so it doesn't interfere with the receiver's signal. Always test the equipment before heading out on an excursion.
A helmet is a 'must-have' in case you should fall on something hard.
Ski skins, telescopic poles, avalanche or touring rucksack, avalanche equipment, helmet and good ski goggles. Ski crampons are a smart buy – they are indispensable on hard crusts and ice, and can be a life saver. A very good investment. Most problems in life can be solved by ski crampons, says my informant :)
It's worth bearing in mind that you should not buy used avalanche equipment from just anyone. You have no guarantee that it will work properly. If you do get caught in an avalanche and disappear under piles of snow, this is what will determine whether or not you'll be found.
This spring and it feels good to go for a walk in a little smaller clothes.
How to dress for ski touring
When you go exploring in the mountains, anything can happen. Even on a sunny day, the weather can turn quickly and it pays to be prepared. My favourite clothes for the winter season are:
- Mesh bottom layer
- Rav 100% turtle neck w/zip (merino wool) on top, i.e. thin wool underwear.
- Finally I have a Rav sweater.
- And I also take a change of wool clothing and a windbreaker.
With these three layers on my upper body, I keep a very even body temperature for both the climb and descent. For the coldest periods, I always carry a down jacket as well. My mittens and hat stay in my rucksack almost all year round. Shell trousers with good ventilation. Wool underwear underneath.
At the top of the mountain, there's often a bit of a breeze. So a change into dry wool and putting on a jacket does the trick.
The reason I'm mentioning food is simply because, personally, I quickly run out of energy, as I have a fast metabolism. I eat something light, which I have easily accessible, almost every half an hour, all depending on how long the excursion is. I drink liquids even more often. To get the energy I need for an excursion like this, that's how I have to eat. There's nothing better than a trusty bowl of porridge for breakfast before embarking on a mountaintop outing.
Not everyone needs wool!
Now I hope you're convinced that this might be something you'd like to try. The most important thing is just to get started and you'll get better and better the more you do it. Have a great ski tour with good friends and you'll have so much fun.