The winter is an ideal opportunity to try something different in your training and cross-country skiing is an increasingly popular way of mixing things up.
Adventure journalist and athlete Tobias Mews completed an unusual test of endurance in the snow earlier this year and he's given us the lowdown on how best to prepare for a skiing challenge...
I’ve done a lot of silly-sounding races over the years. Like jumping out of car ferries and swimming across freezing cold fjords at the start of an IRONMAN distance triathlon. Or running up a hill with my wife’s legs wrapped around my neck in the UK Wife Carrying Championships.
I’ve even joined Precision Hydration Founder, Andy Blow, swimming and running in a wetsuit across 26 islands in the Swedish Archipelago.
But never have I tried to ski tour up the height of Everest. In fact, I can count the number of winter endurance events I’ve done on one hand. So when I heard about an event called Everest in the Alps - four days of ski touring and 8,848m of vertical ascent (the equivalent height of Everest) - I was hooked.
Because if a race or challenge sounds bonkers, impossibly difficult and saturated with adventure, then it’s right up my proverbial street. And without wanting to say that climbing the height of Everest on skis is ‘bonkers’ (maybe it is a little bit) or impossibly difficult, the sense of adventure and camaraderie that Everest in the Alps oozed, is exactly what attracted me.
Now, I’m not going to pretend that a ski touring challenge with just shy of 9,000m of vertical ascent isn’t difficult, but as I quickly discovered on my first day in the Alps, you don’t need to be a ski touring expert in order to complete a challenge like this. In fact, I learned, you don’t necessarily need to have done any ski touring at all. Albeit, maybe a little bit would be helpful…
Image: Tobias Mews Instagram ©
Prior to signing up for the 2019 edition of Everest in the Alps, the only time I’d previously tried to ski up a mountain, was by accident (i.e. I’d gone the wrong direction down a piste on a ski holiday).
You only need a morning or two of getting used to the kit and a couple of test outings on the slopes - and you’ll quickly get the gist. If you’re in a ski domain like Verbier, it generally means that you’ll be on decent snow, almost never in deep powder, and, most importantly, never too far from help, since each team is accompanied by at least one, often two, experienced guides.
The key ingredient you need is the motivation to succeed and the ability to ski down the height of Everest on tired legs.
But if that’s not enough, here are four crucial steps you need to consider when taking on your next big skiing challenge...
When training, focus on elevation gain not distance
I’ll be the first to admit I’m pretty lucky. I’m based in the foothills of the French Pyrenees, so I’m not short of lumpy places to go ski touring. At the start of the year, my long-suffering wife had just given birth to our second daughter, which meant that with two children under the age of three, finding the time to hit the slopes was going to be difficult.
In the end I only managed a couple of practice days - an opportunity to get used to the equipment and attempt to master the infamous 'kickturn' that allows you to change direction when climbing.
The rest of the time leading up to the event, I did what I do best - trail running and cycling. But rather than distance, I focused on elevation gain. My goal was to get as fit as I could whilst simultaneously strengthening my legs. When I wasn’t running or cycling uphill, I was doing squats, press-ups and sit-ups - anything to strengthen my core.
I was also conscious that during the event, we’d have to carry around 5-7kgs worth of extra kit - waterproofs, food, water, crampons, spare clothes - so on a number of my training runs and hikes, I’d carry some extra weight on my back.
Buy a pair of ski boots
When it comes to equipment, the first thing to realise is that unless you’re planning on doing a lot of ski touring in the future, you don’t need to blow a wad of money on a new pair of skis, bindings and all the other paraphernalia that goes with the sport. Ski touring equipment ain’t cheap but if there's one investment worth making, it’s a decent pair of custom-fitted, ski touring boots.
Once in possession of your shiny new boots, my advice is to take a weekend off, head to your nearest ski resort and test them out.
Think about it for a second. You wouldn’t go and buy a new pair of running shoes before running a marathon, would you? At least I hope not. Well, neither would you climb the height of Everest without ‘wearing in’ your ski boots.
Before you set off, you want that warm and fluffy feeling that your boots are not going to be too small, big or uncomfortable.
Image: Tobias Mews Instagram ©
Of course, the other option is to rent a pair of lightweight ski touring boots - which is what I did. I would have bought a pair of boots, but I didn’t have enough time to wear them in. And if I was to do the event again next year, I’d definitely buy a pair of boots well in advance, so I can practice in them as much as possible.
To be honest, I was very lucky to not get any blisters or hot spots. But I guess a major advantage of using rental boots is that they’ve already been worn in!
Invest in a breathable waterproof shell pants
The one item of clothing that kept my grey cells working when they should have been resting, was finding a lightweight pair of ski touring trousers/pants. Because ski touring actually involves doing some proper cardio, your standard alpine ski pants won’t do. Believe me - you’ll get very hot.
So ideally you need to find a set of ski touring trousers that have ventilation zips you can open when climbing. And when descending, they should have enough insulation and protection to keep you from getting wet or cold.
I got my soft shell pants from Decathlon. They were a touch on the heavy side, but they were cheap. And I also bought a separate set of waterproof pants (obligatory equipment), should the weather turn nasty.
If I was to do this all over again, I'd invest in a quality pair of ski touring soft shell pants, which would in theory stand the test of time - something like the Mammut Eisfeld Guide.
Stay hydrated. Eat little and often
If there's one thing that I’ve learned from the hundreds of endurance challenges I’ve taken on, it’s the importance of getting the right amount of food and water on board - both before the event and during.
Common sense dictates that you wouldn't jump in your car and set about driving a thousand miles without making sure you have enough gas in the tank or that your oil levels and water coolant are sufficiently topped up. And nor would you ski up the height of Everest without a little nutritional help.
In the briefing a couple of days before the event, we’d been advised that we’ll burn around 10,000 calories a day, so I was aware that keeping on top of my electrolytes and carbohydrate stores would be crucial.
Image: Tobias Mews Instagram ©
The reality was that with a 4.30am wake-up call and on our skis by 6am, I found it difficult to eat a big breakfast. Instead, I’d have a light breakfast, a coffee and over the course of the hour before setting off, take on around 500ml to 750ml of water with some PH 500. My goal was to essentially top up my electrolytes and carb supplies from the previous evening’s dinner.
During the day, I’d snack every hour. Nothing complicated - energy bars mostly and I’d then have a little pre-made sandwich around mid-morning.
One mistake I did make on the first day was to eat too much at lunchtime. Each day, we’d stop for a hearty Alpine lunch at a restaurant, where the meal would often involve an unhealthy amount of cheese (the Swiss love the stuff!). When it came to getting back on my skis and almost immediately heading back up a steep climb, I had indigestion.
Staying on top of my hydration at times proved difficult. I took a CamelBak with around 2 litres of water. But at certain altitudes, the drinking hose of our CamelBak packs would freeze, so it was crucial that whenever we did drink we made sure to replenish our electrolytes at the very least.
Once the day was over, I’d dry my kit, have a shower and then get some food. I didn’t go mad and stuff my face - that’s of no benefit and only causes gastro issues - but I did ensure that I ate enough to try and replace some of the carbs I’d lost during the 10 or so hours I was on the mountain.
So what’s stopping you?
So there you have it. Get some boots, get as fit as you can by trail running, hiking and cycling. Do a recce weekend in the Alps or elsewhere to get a feel for the equipment and you too can ski the height of Everest.
And I promise you, as someone who’s never ski toured before, Everest in the Alps is one of my proudest achievements. And one of the most fun!
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This time last week, I was worrying about whether I'd be able to complete the epic endurance feat that is @everestalps. • My experience of ski touring ... well, I could write on the back of a postage stamp. And now, a week later, I am super proud to be a member of a very select number of people to have skiied up the height of Everest. • The people I met - the team members, the guides, the organisers - they're all awsome. And inspiring. They are all mums and dads that want to both help the children affected by brain tumours, but also inspire their own. And they raised a sh*t load of money - over half a million pounds. • And I truly believe that I've stumbled upon what could be one of the most brilliant endurance events on the planet. This is one event you need to add to your bucket list!
The 2020 Everest in the Alps Challenge takes place from 29th February to 7th March. For more details and a full itinerary, visit the 2020 Everest in the Alps page.