Blog post by Sophie Nicholson

The Perfect Introduction: Ski Touring In the Haute Pyrenees

We were beginners once too so we fully understand the importance of learning in a supportive and appropriate environment.  With the right kind of training from an encouraging guide in terrain that is suitable for your experience level, aspiring ski tourers will make swift progression in this most fantastic of winter sports.

This is why we developed our long-weekend Introduction to Ski Touring package with James Dealtry in the Haute Pyrenees. In this blog, James gives us some insight into what you can expect from the course – the training, the touring, the terrain, and the excellent food and luxury accommodation you can expect at the end of a fantastic day in the mountains.

1. Tell us a bit about yourself.

My name is James Dealtry. I am a Premiere degree ski alpin ski instructor which enables me to take people off piste skiing and on day ski touring adventures below glacier level. I gained this qualification through the French system which is quite rare for a Brit!

I spent 17 seasons in Val d’Isere working for the French ski school ESF before relocating to the Pyrenees where I have lived and worked for the past five years.

I am extremely passionate about the mountains and love working with my guests to help them get the most of this incredible environment.

2. How did you end up living in the Vallee du Louron in the Haute Pyrenees?

After working so many winter seasons and moving around so much i was looking for more of an all-year round base with a great summer climate. I wanted to get away from the busy alpine resorts and feel like i was actually living in France and using my fluent language skills on a daily basis ! 

I love the wilderness the Pyrenees has to offer as it is an untouched area that offers endless possibilities in both winter and summer.

I have always wanted to own my own lodge and with property prices being much cheaper down here compared to the Alps it made much more sense to base the project down here.

My concept of offering all the trimmings you would expect from a luxury chalet but with an in-house guide/instructor to take care of all of the guests needs is original and one I felt would work best in an area that has barely been discovered by the British market. Offering something different, somewhere different definitely gives me a unique selling point. 

I am also an avid surfer so being only 2 hours from the west coast was a massive plus on a personal level!

3. What makes it such a fantastic place for ski touring?

The off piste terrain here is extremely quiet – there’s no-one to steal your line and when conditions are in, you can ski powder all day long – and we have easy access to it direct from the lodge. This is a wild place and offers a real opportunity to get away from the crowds and go on a real adventure – which is what ski touring is all about!

It’s all far less daunting than the terrain in the Alps which makes it ideal for beginners to build their confidence and consolidate their skills.

4. Why do you think it is important to have a real introduction to ski touring?

With advancements in gear and technology making off piste skiing more accessible, more and more skiers are venturing into the backcountry without the necessary mountain knowledge. This means they are not only putting themselves in danger but also other skiers – not to mention the rescue services who would have to assist in an emergency.

The mainstream coverage of avalanche accidents and the dangers associated with off-piste skiing is also on the increase and I aim to teach people that while we are admittedly moving in a potentially hazardous terrain, we can actually reduce the risk we are exposing ourselves through sensible decision making and improving our mountain craft – route planning and understanding the snow pack etc. It is also imperative that people understand how to use their avalanche safety equipment and practice regularly with it. Whilst many people buy the gear they sadly have no idea how to use it competently when faced with an emergency situation. 

How many people actually carry out avalanche transceiver practice on a regular basis and/or put themselves in a mock avalanche situation? Honing these skills is extremely important as they can be the difference between life and death. Should the worst occur, it will be up to the group to locate the victim and perform the rescue. The window is very tight – around 15 minutes – so practicing rescue techniques on a regular basis is absolutely key. You cannot rely on the mountain rescue to reach you in time….

5. What are the minimum requirements required for an individual to get the most out of this course?

A good all-round level of fitness is a must to get the most out of the course i.e someone who practices endurance sports on a regular basis. In terms of ski level I would suggest that someone who is capable of skiing red pistes confidently and always in control is ready to begin their journey into the backcountry!

6. What skills can people expect to come away with during a 5 day Intro to Touring course with you?

Basic ski touring competency – how to fit skins, care of and familiarity with equipment and techniques used when ascending i.e kick turns etc.

Basic mountain craft – snow pack assessment along with off piste skiing techniques to ensure safe progression on the descent and the ability to deal with variable snow.

Simple route planning and navigation.

Avalanche awareness including safety films but also a good understanding of how to use your safety equipment when off piste i.e beep searches.

At the end of the course we intend clients to come away with a good understanding of the dangers of skiing off piste and how best to arm ourselves to reduce these risks but most importantly a wonderful insight into how great backcountry skiing can be if one respects the mountain and the associated safety procedures. There is no elusive secret to ski touring, only acquisition of knowledge and experience!

7. Describe an average day on an intro to ski touring course from L’Ancienne Poste.

We’ll begin with a healthy and tasty breakfast followed by short briefing on the day’s itinerary. i.e what equipment is needed along with weather update etc.

We’ll then head off on a day tour (4-6 hours) with the focus being on uphill climbing technique but also including snow pack assessment, route finding/navigation, and off piste skiing techniques.

I don’t believe in hours and hours of talking in an indoor classroom situation and the best learning environment is the outdoors. I tend to adopt more of a ‘learn as we practice’ approach, discussing problems and mistakes as and when they come up.

We also tend to carry out a mock avalanche transceiver practice session at the end of the day somewhere close to the lodge so that we make the most of our ski time on the hill and can practice our skills in fading light.

8. And an average evening back at base….

At the end of the day we will have a debrief in front of one of our cozy wood burners with tea and cake. We may watch some avalanche safety films or carry out a Q&A session.

After that it’s time to unwind a little and relax with pre-dinner drinks and canapes at the bar as we run through the itinerary for the next day.

Then it’s time to settle in for a four-course fine dining experience exploring local dishes, wines and cheeses all lovingly prepared by our in-house chef.

After dinner, it’s downtime – reading books or magazines, surfing the net with our free WiFi or watching a movie on our home-cinema system. 

9. What tends to be the highlight of the weekend for most people? 

Discovering a new sport, a new passion and a new mountain range. Oh and they tend to be pretty excited about having a luxury mountain lodge as a basecamp!

10.  Are there any specific aspects of teaching this course that you find particularly enjoyable?

The bottom line is that i love my job. I am not only passionate about the mountains but also meeting new people and bringing groups together to share experiences. I really enjoy helping people to safely learn new skills and techniques in an inspirational environment.

Passing on the skills and knowledge that i have gained over the last 22 years is a privilege and a joy and seeing guests improve and gain confidence is a reward far greater than words can describe !!

If you’d like to find out more about our Intro To Ski Touring course, check out the detailed itinerary here. We also run a host of other ski touring trips to some seriously interesting destinations and could talk about them all day so just give us a call!