Want to join the freeride revolution, this winter? And not just off the sides of the piste? You'll find the Top 10 Tips you need for skiing powder if you scroll further down. But, first, for your enjoyment as well as safety's sake - and the sake of the old dogs whose hunting ground you'll be potentially trashing - check out our essential guide for how to do powder - and live without being lynched. Or buried in an avalanche.
Missed first lifts after it puked down overnight? Can't make it till the afternoon? Then suck it up because chances are that all the off piste will be tracked out. In these days of widening horizons and ever wider skis, powder is now within the riding capabilities of more and more people. Which is good news - or bad - depending if you are an eager new powder hound - AKA powder pup - or an old dog trying to guard your off piste patch.
Nowadays, a resort gets tracked out after fresh snow before you can say, 'hello, bluebird'. The powder hound pack has been increasing season after season with eager would be freeriders on snowboards and ever fatter snowboard-wide skis gallivanting over the freshly laid white stuff like labrador puppies after a roll of loo paper.
Ducking under boundary fencing, ignoring out-of-resort warnings, just back from Japan and champagne pow they head for the freshly covered hills glorying in the 'free' of freeriding.
The trouble is, the kit isn't. Free, that is. The cost of safety gear can rack up so transceiver, shovel and probe let alone an avy bag, are often not high up on the shopping list, coming after new wider skis with rad rocker (or split board with Karakoram bindings). And a guide? Pfft, who needs one at 500 Euros a day?
Well, great as the freedom to roam the hill doing off piste, slackcountry and backcountry is, it is undeniable that the dangers are significant. Also, however easy it was in Japan to shred the super fine powder, it can be a different story riding deep, heavy, turgid and/or rotten snow in Europe. Jeremy Jones may make it look like a ride in the park but even he admits to being 'sluffed off' a spine that was over 40 degrees dropping from the Shangri-La ridge in Nepal.
THE ESSENTIAL GUIDE TO SHREDDING POWDER - AND LIVING LONGER
1) If you don't know the area like the back of your hand take a qualified guide
But a mountain guide is expensive. Yes? No. Not if you are in a group and share the expense. For as little as 50-80 Euros each in a group of six you can have a day off piste, slack or backcountry, finding the best snow. A bargain. UCPA, all inclusive acivity holidays, have the largest range of off piste courses in Europe with extreme skiing at extremely competitive prices. Great news for opening up the backcountry for more riders. Not so great news when you see a couple of UCPA groups (as below) on the off-piste horizon in front of you and about to track out your powder bowl.
2) Check the weather and warnings
There's absolutely NO excuse, these days, not to know the weather forecast for the day with weather apps and internet everywhere. Also, in resort, check the avalanche warnings. And, no, don't just continue off piste regardless. Be prepared to abort your plans if the forecast isn't favourable or the avalanche risk is 3 or more. A risk of 3 out of 5 is technically 'considerable' and, often, this is when more riders get caught because they 'considered' 3 out of 5 to be 'medium' risk rather than appreciated the potential danger it implied.
3) Take safety kit
SCOTT Winter 15/16
Oh you have a transceiver? Good for you? That way you can be found if buried in an avalanche. But what about your mates? If they don't have transceivers, too, they won't be able to find you. And you all need probes and shovels for locating and digging out victims. An avy airbag is also recommended. Okay so it's expensive at around £550 (see SCOTT Alpride bags, above) but it can potentially save your life.
4) Practice using it
Are you sure you know how to use your safety kit? Just after your mate disappeared under a slide is not a good time to be wondering how to switch to 'search' mode. If you've splashed out on an avy bag, that's another tick in the safety box. But when did you last test it? And, er, did you actually remember to prime the trigger before you did that couloir? Also, don't let the fact that you have safety kit give you a false sense of security. You might be protected but you ain't bulletproof!
5) Plan your route - as far back as the summer
Want to really improve your backcountry knowledge? Then walk the areas out of resort in the summer, getting to know the lie of the land. Literally. This way you'll discover valleys with perfect - and safer - pitches. Download a map of the area with ski touring routes marked on.
6) Read the terrain and snowpack
Knowing which direction a slope faces, how the sun and wind will have affected the snow and what the approximate gradient is, will give you a heads up when it comes to finding the better - and safer - snow. But it takes mountain guides years of training to be experts in snowpack and stability - and even they can get it wrong. Despite all the security checks and detonating of unstable pack during the Freeride World Tour, competitor Julien Lopez, below, was caught in a slab slide, last winter, which was 100m long and 40m wide on the Fieberbrunn face in Austria. Fortunately, he was rescued unharmed and, not surprisingly, that day's event was cancelled.
7) Take emergency supplies and gear
Okay, okay, your avy bag is heavy enough why do you want to pack more weight? Because the mountains are unpredictable. So, roll up a duck down jacket in case it turns Arctic, squeeze in a Buff, definitely have goggles, first aid kit, duct tape (you can wrap a long strip around the top of your ski pole for emergencies); add a bar of chocolate and a bottle of water; you never know when you might need them.
8) Head for the trees
If it's puking and a white out, head for the trees to score fresh - and the ability to see better. Trees are also safer when there is a high avalanche risk, but never assume there's no danger. Cheese grating is the term for snow sliding through the trees and, yeah you got it, the potential shredding effect on a backcountry rider.
9) Pick your resort - and days
Some resorts are off piste meccas where you'll feel out of place if you're not still wearing a harness at apres. But, maybe, for your first off piste venture, don't start with La Grave, the extreme French Alps backcountry area below La Meije with only one lift and over 2000m of unpisted vertical. Avoid the peak season, obviously. Plan your trip so that you have at least one Saturday for skiing. If there's fresh, you'll have it mostly to yourself as Saturday is changeover day and, not only are holiday skiers not out but, also, most of the seasonaires are tied up with chalet changeover and transfers. Just hope it pukes on Friday night.
10) Backcountry and slackcountry
You'll need skins and touring bindings for skis - and, also touring boots if you have technical bindings - or, if boarding, snowshoes/splitboard. All of which you can hire if necessary. And then you can walk, that's right, walk, up to do backcountry away from the maddening crowds and UCPA groups. Yup, it's harder work than taking lifts but it's a cool way to enjoy the mountains AND discover untracked. Or, if you have a ski pass and skins/splitboard you can take the lifts up, ski down over the back and skin up to another lift in the resort. It's called slackcountry - and a way to use lifts and go off piste away from the hordes. But, as above, take a guide if you don't know the area, check the terrain, avalanche risks and snowpack - and have safety equipment primed and in working order
11) Don't go alone. And tell someone when and where you are going
Seems kind of obvious but, if things go wrong, riding alone can be fatal. Who's going to dig you out and raise the alarm? Who'll know where to look? Even when going in a group, tell someone back at the chalet or hotel when you are going and where. Also, what time you expect to return.
12) Beware the Heuristic Traps
We have a whole feature on heuristic traps, The Whumph Factor - explaining how victims of avalanches took risky 'rule of thumb' decisions according to an extensive study by Ian McCammon, National Outdoor Leadership School, Lander, WY, USA. Read more here. This is a brief summary of the four most common traps:
'I've ridden here before and it's always been fine.'
The trap: FAMILIARITY
You feel safe riding an area because you've done it before and it's never avalanched? Well, if there is unstable snow pack and the slope is steep enough, then it may not be safe at all. Hence, familiarity should never breed contempt ie underestimation of danger..
'See those guys are doing it'.
The trap: SOCIAL PROOF
As there's a group of six riders ahead of you on the ridge or doing the powder you're heading for, then it must be ok. Right? Wrong.
'We made the plan last night to do it.'
The trap: COMMITMENT
Just because you planned to do it, didn't drink last night and woke up at 6am, doesn't mean you shouldn't cancel if the avalanche risk has racked up.
'Untracked powder. Woohoo.'
The trap: SCARCITY
It's powder. And it's untracked. Last one down gets the chopped up lines. Powder fever can mist all rational thoughts especially when you see someone ahead who's going to take your lines. First one down, though, could be first one in the avalanche.
Along with these four Heuristic Traps, there are additional emotive ones including Leadership Trust as in following someone who seems to be an expert or know what they are doing ;Peer Pressure, going along to be accepted as part of a group and not wanting to be the weakest link; Social Security, as in feeling safe because you are with others; andbeing Bulletproof because you have the avy saftey kit such as an ABS bag and so feel protected riding potentially dangerous slopes that you wouldn't consider without equipment (see above).
13) Apply the Jeremy Jones Five Red Fag alert system
Rather than fall into the Heuristic Traps, apply the Five Red Flag observation system. care of legendary backcountry snowboarder, Jeremy Jones (below). Here are his words of avy wisdom. When we asked him how he'd managed to avoid any major incidents or injury, he replied, 'I call it ride to live another day; don’t take a chance and not be able to live the next day by doing something stupid'.
'Have you heard of the Five Red Flags? The red flags are simple visual clues that are a sign of potential avalanche danger. I use these observation techniques more than anything else to judge avalanche conditions in the backcountry
'It starts from the second I wake up. When I look out the window on a powder day I see my first red flag – new snow. If I see the trees outside sway in the wind now I have two red flags – new snow and wind transported snow. Seeing recent avalanche activity on the side of the road driving to the trailhead makes three red flags.
'Watching shooting cracks break off of my ski tips skinning up or small slabs peel off my board as I am bootpacking makes four.
'Before I even get to the trailhead I can use the red flags to make decisions as to where I can safely go that day. As the red flags pile up my terrain plans continue to change. Digging a snow pit to analyze the snowpack is also valuable but it is these simple and quick observations that can be used over and over that are the most important.'
14) Do an avalanche awareness course
Be prepared for two days digging in the snow to study the pack, burying and finding kit; then classroom tutorials analysing maps, calculating gradients, checking slope facing directions. You won't qualify as a mountain guide, but you will have a better ability to read the terrain and a more profound basic knowledge of the stability of the snow and potential for avalanches.
15) And, finally, check that you're covered insurance-wise and make sure you have the emergency rescue service on speed dial.
Above all.. STAY SAFE, RESPECT THE MOUNTAIN
AND SO HOW DO YOU SKI POWDER?
From doing untracked at the sides of the piste to ducking under the fencing for open powder bowls to touring the backcountry, the thrill of shredding the powder is totally addictive. Looking at pictures of face high pow in Japan, as below, and who wouldn't want to be riding in the white room?
Crested Butte Mountain Guides in Japan
Of course, it's not as easy as it looks. Although it is certainly getting easier for skiers with fatter waist skis and rockered tips. But, often, just when you think you've got the hang of shredding the powder one day when the snow is fresh and cold, you lose it the next going off piste when it's warmed up and become deep and sludgy. And, in the spring, if you think that's it as far as off piste skiing goes, remember it's not over till it's over and the grass is growing. Spring skiing back or slackcountry or corn/spring snow is as good as cold powder. Grab a guide to show you.
10 TOP TIPS FOR SKIING POWDER
1) Old school powder purists will say it's cheating, but skis with wider waists and rocker help to create that float effect you get with snowboarding.
2) Like snowboarding, try and keep your weight equal on both skis.
3) Speed is your friend. It's hard to turn in deep powder if you go too slow.
4 ) Get a rhythm going. Skiing beside someones else's tracks can help - Check it out looking back from the bottom.
5) Ski in the trees. Great for making you get your turns in to avoid splatting against a trunk or branch. So best to start with more widely spaced ones..
6) Face down the fall line rather than try and go across the slope.
7) Push against the soles of your feet in powder rather than rolling onto sides as when edging on the piste.
8) Unweight evenly on the skis when you turn.
9) Keep you hands forward.
10) Stay relaxed and reactive. And smile!
Check out Darren Turner at Insight ski coaching and founder of the Ski School App for some of the best tips on how to ski powder:
Here's one of his advanced lessons:
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