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Old 19.11.2008, 22:41
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How to learn ski-touring / back-country cross country skiing

I live up in the hills/mountains with a collection of marked but ungroomed cross country ski trails behind the house. This is annoying because I don't have the first idea how to cross country ski and I want to try!

Where do I go to learn back-country cross country skiing/ski touring?

Are these in fact the same thing?

Are they significantly different from classic cross country skiing as taught at the ski resorts other than you don't have groomed trails? i.e. if I learn classic at a resort is that going to be enough for me to try outside my back door?

I want to buy skis, bindings and boots because I can practice for free out of my back door but don't want to get the wrong stuff - what do I need to ask for in a ski shop?

Web research at http://www.fischerskis.com suggests I need something like the following:
- Skis: FISCHER BACK COUNTRY CROWN
- Bindings: FISCHER BCK AUTO BLACK
- Boot: FISCHER BCX 675

Am I going to make an expensive mistake if I just buy the above and give it a go?!
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Old 20.11.2008, 00:12
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Re: How to learn ski-touring / back-country cross country skiing

To answer your question: "are these all the same thing..?" No, but there is some overlap between the various ski styles which makes it confusing for newcomers. I'll give it my best crack.

The skiing possibilities in Switzerland are endless, and one can do a number of different styles of skiing without having to go far. What you need to figure out before buying is just what kind of skiing you want to do.

Here's the most common skiing categories you should be savvy with:

nordic skiing (which takes place on groomed skiing trails) is broken down into:
a) classic cross-country skiing (where the skis follow parellel grooves set by a snow grooming machine. Not super strenuous for a moderately fit person. Skis have scales on the bottom to assist in giving you some grip as you shuffle along. Not meant for going up or down steep continuous hills.
b) skate skiing (called "langlaufen" here), is much more strenuous. This is the type of skiing where the skier looks as though he/she is skating side-to-side, as on an ice rink. The skis have no scales (important difference from classic) and rely solely on the skating motion for propulsion, even uphill. Biathalon athletes do this in the olympics. No comparing it with classic! It's much more strenuous. You can go up steeper hills than classic, but you have to be FIT! Also possible to pick up speed going downhill on the groomed trail (because you don't have scales), though you won't be able to stop as easily as you could with normal downhill skiing gear. The boots are soft and the bindings are weak.

Both of the above have bindings that are only connected to the boot via a small connection point at the front of the boot. This is necessary to facilitate traveling forward (because of course, you're not in a lift-serve ski area).

Then there is backcountry skiing (takes place outside of groomed, maintained ski areas), and is sub categorized into:
a) light weight backcountry touring (essentially a beefed up version of the nordic classic touring kit). This setup is meant to give you enough floatation to stay on top of a little fresh fallen snow (ie. wider skis), the boot is warmer, perhaps a bit more weather proof, but the rig is not meant to give you tons of support for making powerful downhill turns at speed. It's lightweight and meant for touring mostly flat terrain or perhaps rolling gentle hills-off trail. You may add a climbing skin (attached to the bottom of the ski to provide uphill grip) for tackling hills on this rig. That will depend on the terrain.
b) telemark skiing-a stylish throwback to the first means of traveling through the hills of Northern Europe on skis. A special style of binding and boot allows both touring (the binding hinges at the toe) and powerful downhill turns by means of a tricky "telemark turn." This is considered one of the harder skiing techniques. It can be frustrating to learn, but is beautiful once mastered. (I liken it to flyfishing). Climbing skins can be affixed for touring uphill. A skilled skier can travel up and down steep terrain in a variety of conditions from hardpacked snow to deep powder.
c)Alpine Touring relies on the same downhill techiques used for normal in-bounds lift-serve skiing, but allows the skier to tour into the backcountry by means of affixing climbing skins, just as in telemark touring. Again, skilled skiers can travel up and down steep terrain in a variety of conditions.

Telemark Touring and Alpine Touring are both going to take you into terrain which will generally require some mountaineering experience. These are not hobbies which you can pick up overnight, as there are real objective hazards involved--namely, avalanches. Most folks who tour into the backcountry frequently will own avalanche trancievers, probing poles, rescue shovels, and will hopefully have the necesary training to use these tools. A knowledge of the science of snow also adds to your safety. It is also wise to have some first aid experience and a couple experienced companions. There are courses you can take to acquire these skills, and also organized tours that you can take part in. The SAC (Swiss Alpine Club) offers a variety.

If you're interested, I put together a 7 minute movie from a 3 day ski tour in British Columbia which I made a few years ago with some friends.

It's on my blog (movie is titled "Resurecting adventures past") here's the link: http://lifeinch.blogspot.com/

I'm the guy on the guy on the telemark rig. The turns will look unimpressive, but hey it was loads of fun!

Hope some of that makes sense. I would definately go to an established ski shop and ask for the full run down before plunking down on a kit. Good luck and have fun with it!
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Old 20.11.2008, 10:00
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Re: How to learn ski-touring / back-country cross country skiing

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nordic skiing (which takes place on groomed skiing trails) is broken down into:
a) classic cross-country skiing (where the skis follow parellel grooves set by a snow grooming machine. Not super strenuous for a moderately fit person. Skis have scales on the bottom to assist in giving you some grip as you shuffle along...
b) skate skiing (called "langlaufen" here), is much more strenuous. This is the type of skiing where the skier looks as though he/she is skating side-to-side, as on an ice rink.
A lot of good information. A couple of minor points:
  • Both forms of cross-country skiing, classical (with the skis parallel to each other) and skating (as on ice skates) are call 'Langlauf' in Switzerland.
  • Cross country classical skis don't necessarily have scales. I believe the top skiers still use just wax; among other things they measure the temperature of the snow then iron different waxes onto the skis; I think they scrape most of it off again - it is a real science to get it right. Temperatures just around freezing make it even more difficult.
  • I would hesitate to use the phrase 'shuffle along' for the beautiful gliding movement of an 'classical' cross-country skiiing expert on a well-waxed ski!
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c)Alpine Touring relies on the same downhill techiques used for normal in-bounds lift-serve skiing... skilled skiers can travel up and down steep terrain in a variety of conditions.
The 'skilled' is very important here. Many skiers who can turn perfectly on a prepared slope are completely out of their depth (literally!) when trying to turn in deep powder snow. For the experts, leaving a trail of curves in fresh snow is one of the joys of Touring skiing.

Doubtless others will be able to tell you more. Good luck whatever you decide to do.
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Old 20.11.2008, 10:32
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Re: How to learn ski-touring / back-country cross country skiing

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I want to buy skis, bindings and boots because I can practice for free out of my back door but don't want to get the wrong stuff - what do I need to ask for in a ski shop?

Web research at http://www.fischerskis.com suggests I need something like the following:
- Skis: FISCHER BACK COUNTRY CROWN
- Bindings: FISCHER BCK AUTO BLACK
- Boot: FISCHER BCX 675

Am I going to make an expensive mistake if I just buy the above and give it a go?!
I have a pair of those skis and it sounds like they should be suited fine to what you are describing. For me, they work best on relatively mellow terrain through the forest without steep sections. I have no skills with these skinny things at all so going downhill is quite hysterical. But, I like to use them for making my own trails as I don't get much enjoyment out of sliding along in a prepared track. I would suggest getting the widest model available if you will have any downhills on your route as they will be a bit more stable (again, I have no skills at this). I don't think that it will be a bad investment. I use mine maybe 5-6 times per year and they should last for many years. Also, you don't need lessons if you are doing what is described above. Just go for it and don't get lost (or go into avy terrain).
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Old 20.11.2008, 12:58
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Re: How to learn ski-touring / back-country cross country skiing

Hi there!

Ok you don't neeeeeeed lessons to try back-country skiing, but lessons help!

In particular, one can definitely make turns (telemark style, which means lifting one of your heels, or stem style, which means struggling to turn like on the normal slopes, but 1. in shoes and not boots 2. on narrow skis 3. with your heels not fixed to the skis 4. in deep / bad / tricky / melting / icy snow tricky!

And you do need to make sure you are safe and do not end up lost in a fog, a storm or whatever.

I do not have an answer to where to learn, though. Swiss ski schools have Langlauf lessons, but I don't know if such lessons include training outside the tracks. In France, they would. You can also find weeks for training or touring in back country skiing.
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Old 20.11.2008, 17:21
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Re: How to learn ski-touring / back-country cross country skiing

Hey there.

Can't help you with cross-country but since you're raised the subject of my most favourite thing in the world - off-piste skiing - how can I not join in?

We're big off-piste skiers (back country or "freeride" as the cool kids call it) and have found that the Swiss ski schools generally have instructors who're qualified to take you off-piste with certain restrictions eg they can only take you under the rope into areas accessible by lift (ie no carrying of skis and hiking up to ski down) etc.

Booking a day with one of these guys is a great way to learn off-piste/freeride/backcountry technique and how to handle yourself in those conditions.

For the real go-over-the-back-and-get-away-from-everyone off-piste/back-country experience which often involves some form of skis off hiking to get to where you need to go, it's best to book a qualified alpine guide not just because they normally know the area well and can take you to fantastic spots, but also because safety is their number 1 priority.

You don't have to know how to telemark or use touring skis to enjoy the sheer beauty of off-piste skiing, although it is advisable to hire off-piste skis (wide at the tip, tail and waist) because they will give you greater stability and help you "float" in powder.

I know lots of people here who simply go off-piste on their own because they've grown-up in the mountains and seem to know what they're doing, but we wouldn't consider going without a suitably qualified instructor or guide. There's just too much that can go wrong and you really are out there on your own if it does.

Throughout Switzerland and surrounding countries, there are lots of organised off-piste weeks and weekends you can join through the various ski companies.

But the Swiss ski schools are a good place to start for a day out especially in places like Flims-Laax, Andermatt and Engelberg which offer some interesting off-piste right off to the side of the pistes.

Happy trails.
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Old 20.11.2008, 17:49
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Re: How to learn ski-touring / back-country cross country skiing

Have you considered snow-shoes? Could be an alternative if you just want to get out but aren't a great skiier.
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Old 20.11.2008, 17:55
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Re: How to learn ski-touring / back-country cross country skiing

Good idea about snow shoes. I've tried them and they are OK but it is really skiing I want to do. I've been reading too many books about Nansen and the other great Arctic explorers you see...
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Old 20.11.2008, 20:53
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Re: How to learn ski-touring / back-country cross country skiing

Lots of good info. Longbyt is spot on IMHO. However, in my book, back-country & free ride are not the same thing. Free riders are off piste skiers who usually use lifts to get up hills. They're interested in wild offpiste downhill skiing.

The key question is: how do you get up hill? Cross-country skiing off-piste uses light skis with scales that allow you slide up (waxing is for tracks only, as far as I know & it's a total pain there). The heels of the boots can't be blocked to the skis. You can use this gear for a walk in the woods or up & down moderate hills. This is probably the style you want. Lessons are useful, even on tracks, for instance to learn how to do reverse direction without falling on your face in a tangle . This is how you zigzag up steep hills.

Back-country skiing ("ski de randonnée") will generally use boots & skis more like downhill gear, but with two modifications: 1) you can put on "sealskins", bits of synthetic fur that allow you to shuffle up hill. 2) You can unblock the boot at the heel so you keep the ski on the snow without falling over backwards.

In fact, the distinction between the two is not clear. For instance, the Ski-alpinisme guys use almost cross-country gear to race up and down mountains at ridiculous speeds.
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Old 21.11.2008, 10:04
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Re: How to learn ski-touring / back-country cross country skiing

I cross-country ski and have looked into, let's call it, nordic back country skiing. It seems there isn't so much done in Switzerland except for in the Jura, though if you find anything out about it in Eastern Switzerland please do post it here. I guess that's because its mainly too steep and so alpine back country/ski-touring is more popular.

The fisher skis I've also heard are supposed to be good, but it is always better to go to a shop where you can get some advice (for example do you need skis with metal edges) and the skis properly fitted, at least for cross-country skiis the setting of the binding makes a big difference when you "kick" off. Possibly, if you can't find a back country specialist you could get them fitted by a langlauf one.

Whilst you can just go off and shuffle, it's really not efficient on flatter terrains. So if you've never skiied cross country I'd suggest doing at least a one or half day course in classic langlauf to get introduced to the kick and glide technique which, depending on the terrain, is also relevant to back country. My impression for turning is that stem christie is going to suffice but if you get into it you'll want to learn to Telemark.

I guess it's obvious too, but there are still risks for nordic back country skiing so you should take sensible precautions like telling people where and how long you'll be gone for and carrying some emergency supplies etc.
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Old 24.11.2008, 12:00
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Re: How to learn ski-touring / back-country cross country skiing

There's certainly lots of good info here to get you started - EnglishForum at its best. Anyway, a couple of comments about classic cross-country skiing. As mentioned above, most amateurs use skis with scales under the foot area to kick off on, but serious skiers use a smooth ski which they then apply grip wax to the area under the foot.

When I lived in Canada, it seemed that almost everyone used the waxable skis and only the most novice/basic skiers used the scales. Here, the opposite is ture - almost everyone uses the scales. A big advantage of the waxable skis is that you can select the right wax for the temperature and snow conditions (BTW, you do not iron the grip wax on as someone mentioned above, you just rub it in on the trailside). In Canada, having waxable skis was essential because conditions were extremely variable - anything from -20 to +5 Celsius. In contrast, the skis with scales are far easier because you don't need any grip wax, but they do not perform quite as well, especially when it is particularly cold or warm. However, in Switzerland, whenever we've been skiing the conditions have been almost the same: -7 to -2 Celsius and hard-packed, groomed trails, and so we use the same wax almost all of the time. In these conditions, the scales would probably work almost as well and would be a lot less hassle.

Therefore, if I were to recommend getting a pair of skis for classic cross-country skiing in Switzerland then I would say get the ones with scales and they'll work fine 95% off the time or more. Also, this is probably the cheapest and easiest-to-master of the types of skiing that have been discussed here (classic cross-country, skating cross-country, and ski-touring). You can also get cross-country skis that are a bit wider than normal and are designed for non-groomed trails.
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Old 24.11.2008, 12:13
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Re: How to learn ski-touring / back-country cross country skiing

http://www.swissnordic.ch/day/index.html

By the way, if someone wants to get an idea of what langlaufen is (likely on tracks, not hors piste) and get a free lesson, try this link. Apparently Swiss ski schools and Coop are getting together to promote langlaufen.

Last time I tried, the link to register for the free lesson did not work, but I sent a paper application and it worked.

Enjoy!

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Old 24.11.2008, 12:33
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Re: How to learn ski-touring / back-country cross country skiing

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I live up in the hills/mountains with a collection of marked but ungroomed cross country ski trails behind the house. This is annoying because I don't have the first idea how to cross country ski and I want to try!

Where do I go to learn back-country cross country skiing/ski touring?
The lessons you need, depending on what you already know.

Can you ski Alpine downhill?
  • If yes, then you may only need 2 or 3 hours in a class to learn cross-country skiing.
    You are then well placed to combine the Alpine and Nordic skills to go touring (all day long-distance excursions in rough mountain terrain). Of course touring requires all the mountain survival skills, too.
  • If you cannot yet ski Alpine downhill, then you have a steeper learning curve. You may need 10 or 12 hours in a "Langlauf" class. You will learn faster, if you can ice-skate or roller-blade. Without Alpine skills, do not dare "touring".
Rapid learning depends on whether you are athletic and fit. Start doing strength training, particularly for core and lower-body. Upper-body is important, too, for propulsion in rough conditions. In fact, cross-country skiing is an ideal fitness sport. It exercises all major muscle groups, revs up the cardiovascular, and trains balance.

Before investing in new equipment, you could
  • Rent the gear at the resort.
  • Find 2nd hand give-aways.
Later you can buy the hi-tech fashionable gear that you really need and can use.
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Old 24.11.2008, 13:18
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Re: How to learn ski-touring / back-country cross country skiing

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(BTW, you do not iron the grip wax on as someone mentioned above, you just rub it in on the trailside).
But for best results, you iron the glide wax on. It 'works' longer than hot wax or sprayed-on. I even have one for '...old dirty snow'.
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Old 24.11.2008, 14:52
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Re: How to learn ski-touring / back-country cross country skiing

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But for best results, you iron the glide wax on. It 'works' longer than hot wax or sprayed-on. I even have one for '...old dirty snow'.
Glide wax and grip wax are different. Ironing on the glide wax certainly works better than other method of applying glide wax, and you should do this to the tips and tails of classic cross-country skis, just as you do on the entire surface of all other skis and snowboards. For normal use, glide wax does not need to be applied very often. On waxable cross-country skis, you then rub on the grip wax that is appropriate in the central portion of the ski - rub it on straight from the tub, then use a piece of cork to work it in, then repeat the process once or twice to get a longer-lasting effect. You put grip wax on before starting to ski each time, and if you go for a long ski or the conditions change then you may have to stop and do another application, so a lot of people keep a couple of different waxes and a cork in their pocket while skiing.

(Klister grip wax, for temperatures above zero, is a bit different, and a bit of a nightmare which I've always avoided - if it is that warm then why not go cycling instead?).

BTW, serious cross-country skiers LOVE talking about wax. I am not one of those, but I know several of them, so I've learnt a little of their mysterious art.
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Old 24.11.2008, 15:29
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Re: How to learn ski-touring / back-country cross country skiing

I am keen to learn cross country skiing and would like to have a lesson before I head back to the US in mid Jan....

Does anyone know if there are lessons to be had so early in the season within an hour or so of Zurich? Would really like to try a lesson this weekend if there is still snow
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Old 24.11.2008, 15:37
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Re: How to learn ski-touring / back-country cross country skiing

I have wanted to try it ever since seeing the biathlon on Eurosport when I arrived in January. Skiing and shooting now there is a cool sport
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Old 24.11.2008, 16:22
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Re: How to learn ski-touring / back-country cross country skiing

Quite a few of the national cc skiers of yesteryear came from the Einsiedeln region where this Bolzberg Loipe and cc skiing school are to be found. (the new summer ski hill for the jumpers is there too)
The loipe doesn't look very good at the moment (fahrbar is too little for me) but things may improve and whenever I have been, the comments in the Homepage have been accurate. I usually looked at about 7 a.m. when the newest details would often be online. You can also look at the Webcam in Einsiedeln.
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Old 24.11.2008, 17:08
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Re: How to learn ski-touring / back-country cross country skiing

I did a nice skating lesson at the school in Studen which is around an hour from Zurich. They do classic lessons too, and I think they would be able to do them in English if you asked. You can hire/buy equipment there too and the shop is excellent.

Studen is not far from Einsiedeln but tends to be a few degrees colder because of its situation and slightly higher altitude, so the snow is usually better with a longer season.

Best of all they're reporting 27km of loipe open right now! If you want to find other places try the http://snow.myswitzerland.com/snow_reports/?lang=en site (click on cross country skiing and then sorting the table that appears below according to the condition of the track works best to find places at the beginning of the season)

Here are links for Studen anyway.
http://www.studen-sz.ch/
http://www.schaad-nordicsports.ch
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Old 24.11.2008, 17:17
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Re: How to learn ski-touring / back-country cross country skiing

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The 'skilled' is very important here. Many skiers who can turn perfectly on a prepared slope are completely out of their depth (literally!) when trying to turn in deep powder snow.
This is *so* true. I'm a competent skier and boarder (can can get down black runs successfully, if not always gracefully), but I've yet to be able to get more than a few tens of metres into any powder without falling over.

It's very, very different to skiing on groomed snow (and freakin' hard to get back up in !).
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