If perfectly groomed green, blue, red or even black runs are no longer a challenge, and you don’t really enjoy having to avoid the crowds on the slopes, then it’s perhaps time to venture off piste to find out what else the mountain has to offer. For thousands of experienced skiers and snowboarders every year, finding the perfect slope laden with virgin snow is the ultimate high point of their ski holiday.
However, it is important to be aware that skiing and snowboarding off piste involve a whole new technique and the learning process can be frustrating and tiring – falling and/or losing equipment in deep snow can exhaust even the fittest of skiers! Read our recent article about off piste skiing techniques in more detail.
To experience the real sensation of floating or, as many describe it, being on a trampoline with skis on, there needs to be at least a meter of fresh snow. This may seem a lot but once compacted by skis or a snowboard, a meter of snow packs down to about 25cms. Don’t be put off though, you can still have a lot of fun in less than a meter!
It is important to remember that perfect powder conditions are ephemeral and can last only a matter of hours depending on the overall weather conditions and position of the slopes. Fresh powder on sun-drenched, off piste runs will quickly turn into heavy, unmanageable snow which will just slow you down and cause you to fall! If you’re not first up on the slopes you’ll have to deal with other people’s tracks which can sometimes reveal rocks or vegetation or can simply just put you off! Unless it’s very cold and there is no sunshine, if you wait until the following day, you’ll be dealing with thicker, heavier snow with a thin ice crust on the surface which is really not ideal at all and is, in fact, quite dangerous. Wind is another important factor affecting off piste conditions as it can blow tons of fresh snow away leaving rocks and other obstacles barely covered by a few millimeters of snow or it can reveal large ice packs making conditions dangerous and unpleasant.
All of these factors mean that finding the perfect conditions can be like searching for the holy grail! If you only ski for one week a year, the chances of having the perfect off piste conditions are very low! This, of course, makes off piste skiing all the more elusive and attractive …
Off piste skiing and snowboarding may be thrilling and exciting but it is not without risks – the most important, of course,is the risk of avalanche – and not only being caught in one but also causing one! It is also vital to remember that under all that wonderful snow, sharp rocks, young trees, rivers or ravines could be lying in wait! Our advice is to discover this new experience with a local guide or at least with someone who knows the off piste area well. Many ski resorts have taken into account the risks involved for off piste skiers and boarders and now offer “itinerary runs” which offer an interesting alternative. These are routes which have been prepared and cleared of dangers such as large rocks and are included as part of ski area meaning they are avalanche secured and are regularly patrolled. For the real powder hound this extra security takes that extra edge off the experience but it certainly makes off piste skiing more accessible to the general public!
Really serious off piste fans can try heli or cat skiing – using either a helicopter or snow cat to access remote areas which are not part of the marked ski area. High prices mean this activity is limited to a privileged few. The rather enormous carbon footprint left behind on the mountain is another unattractive part of heli or cat skiing. In many resorts, these activities are prohibited and in others it is only possible in areas where an environmental impact assessment has been carried out reviewing the impact on local wildlife.
Most ski resorts now fence off areas to protect wildlife, for example in areas where young trees are growing or where it is known that animals are hibernating.
It can be said that off piste skiing is the most natural form of the sport considering the fact that no ski slope maintenance is required and therefore the only proof of human interaction with nature is the beautiful curved tracks we leave behind us...
In general, ski resorts clearly signpost the outer boundary of their ski areas beyond which skiers and snowboarders venture at their own risk…
Are you a powder hound? If so, then why not share your experiences with us on our Facebook page – we’d love to know more…
Being lucky enough to have parents who were crazy about skiing, my love for the mountains started when I was 4 years old on our first family ski holiday to Austrian ski resort of Obergurl. One ski holiday a year was never enough and tears rolled down my face as I looked out the back window of the car on the drive down the valley on the way home!
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