Sometimes it is possible to have the best of two separate worlds. That's what I found last year when I finally tried alpine touring, or randonnee, skiing. Suddenly my 30 years...

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Sometimes it is possible to have the best of two separate worlds. That’s what I found last year when I finally tried alpine touring, or randonnee, skiing.

Suddenly my 30 years of standard alpine (aka downhill) skiing was of use deep in the backcountry. What’s more, when I wanted to trek out onto a ridge while skiing at Stevens Pass or Crystal Mountain, I could easily do that without the awkward effort of trying to hike in standard downhill gear.

Alpine-touring (AT) skiing is also called randonnee skiing because it was largely developed by French skiers (randonnee is French for “excursion”). AT skiing has been enjoyed in Europe for decades, but only recently has it gained popularity in the United States.

AT skiing offers longtime resort skiers an easy and safe means of venturing into backcountry bowls around their favorite resort, or even into more remote settings such as the rolling, snow-blanketed meadows around Mount Rainier. Unlike free-heel telemark skiing, there are no new turns to learn, and after a few runs the equipment feels as familiar as standard alpine gear.

The breakthrough

Gear tip: Bindings are key

Fritsche Freeride bindings,
distributed in the United States by Black Diamond Equipment, are possibly the best all-mountain alpine-touring bindings on the market. They have wonderful range and smooth motion for touring, though they are a bit heavy (several ounces heavier than some “pure touring” bindings). But alpine touring is as much about the “alpine” as it is the “touring,” and the Freerides are powerhouses when it comes time to turn vertical. Like standard alpine bindings, the Freerides offer the safety of heel and toe releases and 12 DIN settings so you can get precision fit and safety adjustment. $335. More info:

I came to AT in a roundabout way. A few years ago, I succumbed to peer pressure and good sense and traded in my snowshoes as my standard mode of locomotion in the snow-laden backcountry in favor of telemark skis. Tele gear allowed for faster travel than snowshoes, with the added thrill of downhill runs. (As the questioning goes, why would anyone want to walk down a slope on snowshoes when they could swish down it on skis?)

I managed to pick up the difficult telemark ski turn, overcoming the challenges of free-heeled gear. Then last year I went to Colorado for a week of backcountry adventure with several outdoor-writing colleagues.

Plummeting down the face of Hahn’s Peak, Colo., I realized my limitations as a telemark skier. My skills in the artistic free-heel turn didn’t adapt to steep terrain. Yet that’s where I found myself, trying to keep up with friends who had decades of tele experience. On alpine gear, I would have been fine.

That’s when it dawned on me: Why wasn’t I using AT gear? Alpine-touring ski gear blends the stability and ski-handling ability of regular heels-locked-down alpine boots and bindings with the free-heeled mobility of telemark ski gear.

A few days later, in Steamboat Springs, I rented some AT gear and hit the slopes to try it out. Glorious!

Adjustments on the fly

Alpine touring can be done on virtually any alpine or telemark ski, though there are also AT-specific skis that offer characteristics for both inbounds and backcountry adventures.

The heart of the AT system is the boot and binding. AT boots lack the forefoot flex of telemark boots, but they do have a hinged ankle to make striding on tour easier and more natural. That hinge can then be locked down when you point the skis downhill to provide the stability and strength needed to carve turns on the steeps.

Likewise, AT bindings function in two ways. For touring, a locking clasp is opened, allowing your heel to lift free of the ski. That lets you kick and glide as you trek into the snowy backcountry. Once at the ridge top, or when you are simply carving up the lift-served slopes, lock the clasp down to secure your heel firmly in place and swoosh away as you would on standard alpine bindings.

Throughout my youth, I had enjoyed alpine skiing and progressed to being a fairly aggressive skier. I also greatly enjoy telemark skiing, especially in the backcountry — I love the thrill of skiing down the stunningly beautiful terrain of Mount Rainier, Mount Adams, Mount St. Helens (though that might not be something we do again in the near future!) and other untamed slopes.

With AT gear, I truly found the best of both worlds. Since the AT gear lets me make use of my long experience with alpine skis, I am comfortable gliding down most resort terrain.

But the AT’s touring mode lets me enjoy my penchant for wilderness exploration.

Dan A. Nelson is a regular contributor to Backpacker magazine and an author of outdoor guides with The Mountaineers Books. He lives in Puyallup.