Language evolves, sometimes changing quickly over just a few decades or years. Consider the English etymology of our beloved ski sport. (We’ve covered skiing definitions past, time for a new take). Thus, a 2015 glossary for what we in North America tend to call “backcountry skiing” and in Europe is called “ski touring.”
Everyone, please add your comments and suggestions. Help me refine the definitions and add synonyms. I intentionally left out photographs to inspire us to work harder on good verbal descriptions, and to prevent dating.
This acronym gained popularity in the 1980s when I, Paul Ramer, Craig Dostie and others attempted to promulgate a term synonymous with how the French and many others were using the words “ski randonnee.” The initials stand for “Alpine Touring.” In terms of gear, “AT” ski bindings free the heel for uphill stride while providing a latch-down fixed heel for the downhill. “AT skiing,” generally means using such gear in alpine mountain terrain.” While the terms “AT gear” and “AT bindings; skis; boots” are still in common use, one doesn’t often hear the term “AT skiing,” instead the term “alpine touring” would tend to be used, or just “ski touring” (see below). For many examples of AT bindings, see our museum.
See this post for an introduction to AT backcountry alpine ski touring.
When applied to skiing, “alpine touring” means using human power to move through alpine mountain terrain. Would usually refer to using AT gear (see above), but one could alpine tour on telemark gear (see below).
Skiing on natural snow in generally unpopulated undeveloped mountain regions (as opposed to areas with avalanche control or snow grooming) defines backcountry skiing. In common use this broad term applies to everything from skiing just outside resort boundaries, all the way to the most remote regions of the world. While most backcountry skiing is human powered, accessing natural snow terrain by mechanized means (e.g., helicopter) can also be called backcountry skiing. This is perhaps our most inclusive and general term, and thus our subtitle for the WildSnow dot com blog and website.
Traditionally, “extreme skiing” is a branch of ski mountaineering involving descents of steep dangerous terrain. The term “extreme skiing” was adopted by the ski film industry in the 1980s to describe fast agressive skiing we now tend to call “freeride” or “free skiing.” Presently, “extreme skiing” has returned to its original meaning — thankfully.
Defined by gear, see “Telemark Skiing” below.
Most often “frontcountry” would refer to resort skiing using mechanized means of ascent. While frontcountry skiing is often the antithesis of ski touring, one can frontcountry ski on their ski touring gear, uphill in a developed area, and thus be “frontcountry skiing” under human power. For example, in Europe it is massively popular to uphill ski in developed areas. One would not call this “backcountry skiing,” though one could say she “ski toured up to the restaurant.”
Definitions of “freeride skiing” are just as flexible as the skiers who practice this discipline. The idea of “freeride” is skiing free, as in no rules, artistic freedom, fluid and fun, usually fast with swooping carves. The only guidelines for freeride are “avoid tight turns whenever possible, ride the arc of the ski, stay in natural snow whenever possible.” Note that “freeride” skiing is practiced with mechanization or with human power. I include here as a definition to clarify related phrases.
Free & Freeride Touring
Go under mostly or 100% human power, make your descents in freeride style (with emphasis on descents): you are “free touring” or “freeride touring.”
Use of narrow light skis with flexible boots and a binding that only holds the boot toe, thus allowing up-down movement of the boot heel. Nordic skiing is generally done on lower angled terrain or prepared tracks. “Nordic” skiing on steep mountain terrain with heavier gear is usually called “telemarking,” “telemark” or “tele.”
“Skiing on piste” refers to packed snow, heavily human-influenced and/or machine groomed, usually at a resort. However, certain areas in Europe are not “resorts” per se, though they’ll run a grooming machine on a ski touring route, often to access a mountain restaurant. In that case, one might say he is “ski touring the piste to the gasthaus.”
Off Piste Skiing
In its broad definition, “off piste” simply means skiing natural snow within or outside resorts. When used in conversation (“I skied off piste today”) would imply being in the backcountry, but not necessarily.
Refers to natural snow areas near resorts or civilization, often heavily used. Sidecountry skiers often use standard alpine skiing gear without uphill capability, and seek out routes that end with access to ski lifts or road transportation. While here at WildSnow.com we would publish trip reports involving larger sidecountry routes, we would tend to not cover most sidecountry. If a “sidecountry” route required ski touring AT gear, we would tend to call it something like “lift accessed ski touring.”
This somewhat generic term refers to skiing in mountain terrain, generally with summiting or at least climbing part way up peaks that are fairly rugged or even technical. “Ski Mountaineering” may involve a broad skill set including technical rock and ice climbing, glacier travel and more. In many cases, a ski touring route might reach a mountain summit, but by a route that’s technically moderate and thus not really “ski mountaineering.” An example of ski mountaineering would be using skis high on Denali, Alaska. Conversely, doing powder laps on a lower peak in Colorado or the Alps would not be ski mountaineering even though the route accessed a summit.
Basically an abbreviation of “Ski Mountaineering,” but common use is to describe ski mountaineering racing. As in “she is a fast skimo racer.”
French for “ski touring.” Common use worldwide for decades to describe backcountry skiing under mostly human power, generally using gear that allows lifting of the heel for uphill striding and latching of the heel for downhill skiing.
In North America the term “ski touring” formerly connoted nordic skiing (see above) but has come into common use as a more specific term meaning backcountry skiing under mostly or 100% human power in alpine mountain terrain. The term is commonly used under the same definition in western Europe. That said, if you are located in the U.S. or Canada and skied with nordic gear on low angled terrain or prepared nordic tracks, you might still say you “went ski touring.” (Europeans and Canadians? Comments?)
Telemark (Tele) Skiing
Defined by gear, not regions or terrain. Use of ski equipment that does not latch the heel down for descent. The gear comes from nordic skiing roots, but present day telemark downhill ski gear is significantly different from what you’d call “nordic skis.”
Please check out our core ski touring glossary for much more in the way of etymology.
WildSnow.com publisher emeritus and founder Lou (Louis Dawson) has a 50+ years career in climbing, backcountry skiing and ski mountaineering. He was the first person in history to ski down all 54 Colorado 14,000-foot peaks, has authored numerous books about about backcountry skiing, and has skied from the summit of Denali in Alaska, North America’s highest mountain.