Spotlight on the Outdoor Program, Part 4: Skitouring

Wednesday, 20. November 2013

by Daniel Davis Wood

Skitouring classes give Ecole students an incredible opportunity to explore the Hasliberg and its surroundings during the winter time. They head into the snow-covered back country, covering a lot of ground with skis in an afternoon, skinning up the mountain and along valleys, and skiing down long runs of fresh, untouched powder. Skitouring is offered to students through the Ecole’s Outdoor Program, and it's the last of the outdoor activities that we’ll take a closer look at with Michel Raab, our Outdoor Program Director and Risk Management Officer, and Martin Gutmann, one of our resident skitouring instructors.


Video footage from the Skitouring Hikes
in 2013 (top), 2012 (middle), and 2011 (bottom).
Video footage from skitouring in Turtmanntal in 2012.

Between two and three skitouring classes take place each Winter Term — usually on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays — allowing somewhere between twenty and forty students to take skitouring lessons. These students often find that skitouring is the highlight of their Winter Term.

So what does a typical skitouring excursion look like? “The day starts like any other day in March,” says Martin. “Breakfast is at seven, followed by Putzpause and three morning classes. But then, when everyone else at the school heads to the dining hall, the students and teachers involved in skitouring meet in the outdoor equipment room. With a sandwich in hand, each student frantically packs a backpack with climbing skins, ski crampons, a headlamp, avalanche rescue equipment and other gear, grabs a pair of Black Diamond touring skis and touring bindings, and the group heads for the bus.”

The group is already on its way to the summit of the Rothorn by the time everyone back on campus is finishing their lunch. “The hike up is long and difficult,” says Martin. “After an hour of walking with skis and skins or, in the case of snowboarders, snowshoes on their feet, everyone attaches their equipment to their backpacks and heads up a narrow snow ridge towards the top. After taking in the stunning panorama from the top and spotting the Ecole houses far below, the group begins the descent: a long and steep colouir filled with powder snow. By the time they reach the bottom, only a few minutes later, everyone’s legs are burning and their hearts, pounding hard, are proud of what they’ve accomplished.”

“Instruction and supervision are delicate,” says Michel. “We have to find a good balance of teaching and guiding in order for students to learn the necessary skills, but we also need to balance out the learning styles and needs of twelve different students in a very dynamic environment. At times, students just have to follow direct instructions, since they don’t know about avalanche dangers, or how to judge terrain and weather conditions, and we can’t afford to spend much time teaching them in depth about these topics, since that requires time and an experienced audience.”

Several hours of the first class each term are devoted to an introduction to avalanche rescue and practice, and students review this material halfway through term. Off-piste skiing techniques are taught on-the-go, however, allowing the route and the terrain to dictate what needs to be taught. “Beyond the great skiing that waits at the end of every skitouring day,” Martin adds, “the sport gives students a huge reserve of stamina, concentration, and mental strength. For some students who struggle academically or socially, skitouring classes have at times been their salvation: the one experience, so intense on a physical and mental level, that motivated them to stay, open up, and eventually blossom at the Ecole d’Humanité.”