There is something counterintuitive about sealskin skiing, or, as it’s more commonly called, ski mountaineering. The first time I placed the sticky synthetic skins (no real skins!) on the bottom of my skis and angled myself toward the summit of a mountain in Val d’Isère, in the French Alps, I had to pause, half-expecting to slide backward all the way to the valley floor. But I had a convincing guide and a vivid memory of my Argentine grandmother telling me stories of how she skied in sealskins as a young girl wintering in Zermatt. If she had done it, so could I.
An increasingly popular winter sport, ski mountaineering involves hiking through backcountry in skis fastened with skins that grip the snow on the way up. (In the 1950s, these were made from real sealskin.) The technicalities are minimal: When going uphill, a binding releases the heel to allow for walking; on the way down, the skins come off and the heel stays put. An outing starts with testing the avalanche beacon strapped to one’s chest, a reminder of the dangers inherent to off-piste skiing. But provided you have a competent guide, the beauty of ski de randonnée is its simplicity. And the rewards are many: a powerful sense of accomplishment, an even more powerful workout and the luxury of skiing in near isolation.
As I looked up at the peak, I threw one ski forward, then the other, and soon, lulled by the rhythmic swoosh-swoosh of the glide, felt a child’s enthusiasm at the magic of uphill skiing. I wasn’t alone in rediscovering its old-fashioned charm: Ski-touring equipment makers cite a 30 percent bump in sales. Our terrific guide at Val d’Isère, Hervé Toussaint, who has more than 20 years of experience and leads tours anywhere from Russia to Greenland, attributes it to changing mentalities: The heliskiers of yesterday are looking for more environmentally friendly challenges and, as they age, ones that are softer on their joints.
I am a proficient skier but by no means ski-movie material. Yet throughout, I found that all I needed to do was pace myself during the vigorous climb and get a few tips on powder skiing for the ride down. Val d’Isère, which has become a mecca of sorts for ski mountaineering, is one of the most pleasant resorts to try the sport: It’s high enough for good snow in the spring, when warm temperatures make ski de randonnée most enjoyable. Climbing the 11,000-foot Col de la Sana made me feel like a superstar. I earned the astounding view, the ride down and the lunchtime fondue. Rooms at Val d’Isère start at $200, and an afternoon tour with Hervé Toussaint begins at $275. For details, go to valdisere.com.