One Thursday last March I emerged from the Jungfraujoch, Europe’s highest train station, and crossed into another world. Inside the station, a guide with a novelty Swiss flag was marshalling a party of Asian visitors. Outside, we were soon on the Jungfraufirn, a small glacier that feeds the Aletsch, the largest glacier in the Alps. Sunlight shone through breaks in the cloud, and the ice, flanked by buttresses of dark rock, ran south for miles. The pitch was gentle and the ungroomed snow looked inviting.
I was on a training course in skihochtouren – high-altitude ski touring –organised by Bergpunkt, a Swiss-German mountaineering school for a book I’m working on about ski mountaineering. Bergpunkt’s guides were multilingual and a visitor without German could, with patience, manage.
Ski touring is an entirely distinct experience from resort skiing. By using “skins” – fabric strips that attach to the base of the ski and provide traction on the snow, and specialised bindings that can release at the heel – tourers can climb hills as well as ski down them. At the top of a climb, you strip the skins, lock down your heels, and then ski in the conventional way. But the real difference with touring is the emotional – and perhaps even spiritual – tenor of the experience. Rather than skiing in managed, groomed and often-crowded resorts, you are among wild mountains, in nature and peace. A multi-day tour, with stays in mountain huts, can feel like an Alpine odyssey. The other side of skiing outside a secured environment is that there are risks, notably avalanches and, on glaciers, crevasses. Beginners should go with guides.
For me, the appeal of ski touring is also the cultural immersion. Among English speakers, the sport is often the preserve of men in working in finance or working through a mid-life crisis. My experiences with Alpine natives saw me touring with bus drivers as well as bankers, and while men still outnumbered women there was much less overt machismo.
From Jungfrauhoch, we descended to Konkordiaplatz, a plateau at about 2,700 metres where several glaciers meet, before traversing the Grünhornlücke, a pass at 3,273 metres. In cloud, the descent became a chance to practise roped-up downhill skiing: this is a standard technique on glaciers in poor visibility, given crevasses, but challenging. The rope snaps tight at inopportune moments. We emerged below the murk into a grey and spare world and traversed to the Finsteraarhorn hut at 3,048 metres.
Staying in huts – on this trip we also lodged at another one at Konkordia – transforms the ski-touring experience. It means skiers don’t have to carry food, fuel, or tents: carrying a heavy pack can ruin any skiing experience.
But again, the real lure is the company. I have always found that any lodging that can’t be reached by road has an immediately distinct atmosphere – you are not strangers, but comrades. Though they are staffed in the ski-touring season, huts are not hotels – there are dormitories with bunks or enormous shared mattress, meals of hearty but unfancy food, and in winter you sometimes have to buy water as – in its liquid form – it’s at a premium. But you are together in the mountains. I can think of few happier evenings than the one I spent this year than in the Konkordia hut, boot liners and gloves drying around the strove, asking the other members of my group to try to locate precisely which valley the custodian’s extraordinary lilting Swiss-German accent came from.
Ski touring also means constant adaptation. Given the inclement weather, our guide picked a careful route to the south summit of the Kranzberg, a 3,666-metre peak across the valley. By the last stretch, we were in a howling blizzard, visible rocks cross-hatched with blowing snow. We took off our skis shortly below the summit and stomped up the last metres with crampons and axes. There is satisfaction in being out in such weather, in managing it through gear and skills.
By midday on the last day, we followed a compass bearing in limited visibility up the Grosser Aletschfirn glacier. Ski tourers today largely navigate digitally but over-reliance on GPS has been known to cause accidents, and the old skills remain valid. The guide’s neat black matchbox-style compass added to my fascination with Swiss material culture.
The storm intensified as we approached the Lötschenlücke pass. My goggles froze. I was later told that a small avalanche came down nearby, though I neither heard nor saw it, given the tempest. And then, quite suddenly, we emerged below the clouds into Lötschental, one of the loveliest valleys in the alps, and saw our first trees for days.