At some time, every adventurous skier will feel the limitations of groomed runs and will wish to broaden their horizons and head into the backcountry. And for good reason, the off-piste experience takes the skier away from the crowds and closer to nature. Any seasoned off-piste skier will agree that the best feelings are to be found away from the domain, skiing fresh tracks on big descents. The powder dream remains a dream for most, however for the well prepared and ambitious skier, exhilarating and rewarding experiences await!
Off-piste skiing should always be approached with caution and respect. Using a qualified mountain guide is the best way to explore the backcountry, because he/she will select the best routes given the conditions of the day and will prioritise finding the best snow (preferably powder). You can’t beat ‘local knowledge’: the guide’s presence will allow the skier to concentrate on their ski technique and enjoying the moment, rather than have to cope with complex decision making and navigating.
However if you do venture off the pistes with friends, please consider the following tips:
• There’s safety in numbers, never ski off-piste alone.
• Don’t blindly follow tracks.
• Make sure you are aware of the snow conditions and the avalanche danger.
• Make sure you are properly equipped. Each member of the group must carry a shovel, a probe and a transceiver.
• If you are venturing a long way away from the domain, let someone know where you are going.
• Make sure your insurance covers the rescue off piste.
• Use the terrain in the safest manner. Firstly to minimise the avalanche danger and secondly to use the different aspects and find the best snow.
• Be aware of how snow conditions change throughout the day, especially in spring.
• Have knowledge of your proposed route
Whether skiing independently, or with a guide, here are a few pointers to help you make the transition from piste to off-piste:
A big topic but in brief: Wider skies offer greater flotation in powder. It’s down to your personal preference, how much flex there should be in your skis. Soft skis turn more easily and are wonderful in soft snow, whereas stiff skis can be ‘driven’ faster and more aggressively. Your weight also matters, if you are light, a softer ski will be relatively less flexible and vice versa.
Most good quality downhill boots are suitable for off-piste with the exception of race boots which are too stiff. Your boots should be comfortable and well fitted. They should feel supportive and firm, but without pressure points. Many boot-fitting services opt for a very tight fit, so beware. If a professional boot fitting service leaves your feet aching, then don’t hesitate to take them back.
Downhill ski boots offer more support than touring boots, so it’s better to have both pairs, and save your touring boots for touring only.
Maintaining good balance is everything. Gravity is unfriendly to the misaligned body, being out of balance puts us at war with the forces of nature. As far as possible your body should be relaxed, so you are able to respond to changes.
When we sense the lack of control, our legs become rigid and insensitive to the feedback that the terrain provides for us. Our shoulders and neck tighten; our jaws clench and our heads jut forward. We think that rigidity gives us stability, however usually the opposite is true. So stay relaxed, and your body will stay adaptable to whatever lies ahead. Skiers sometimes use the phrase ‘strong muscles, loose joints’ to describe the ideal posture.
The stance used off-piste is not dissimilar to the one on-piste. Knees bent with a light forward pressure on the shin, facing down the fall line. It is a common myth that one should lean back in powder. In most cases don’t, this will drastically reduce your control and pump your legs to boot. Only in the very deepest of snow is it necessary to lift the ski tips.
Being in good shape will improve you performance and make your skiing safer and more enjoyable. It is very important that you are fit and strong before venturing off-piste. If you ski only for one or two weeks a year, then it takes time for your joints and muscles to strengthen, even if you are an expert skier. So always begin slowly for your first few days and warm up properly on the piste at the start of the ski day.
Before your ski holiday, hill walking, cycling and running are good preparations and will improve knee stability and aerobic fitness.
The skiing techniques that you use off-piste are built on the techniques you use on-piste. Sometimes the snow conditions are such that they are scarcely any different. However in conditions such as powder and crust, new skill sets are needed.
Off the piste, the skier should begin to equally weight both skis instead of reducing the weight on the up hill ski to turn. He or she needs to begin to rise and compress on each turn. This is very different to piste carving. Rise up as you initiate the turn, this reduces the pressure on the skies and enables you to turn them. Then compress (downwards) as you exit the turn. This creates the distinctive ‘bobbing‘ motion.
Ski poles should be forward and the placed early in the turn. Especially on steep ground, the pole becomes the centre of the turn radius.
When you're skiing in the back country away from the crowds, you will constantly come across snow conditions not found on the pisted runs. You'll come across :
• Powder - some light, some heavy, some deep and some shallow. Learn to ‘bounce’ or ‘bob’. Weight and unweight the skis, this will help you turn. Remember to keep the skis fairly close and to push both legs together with a single ’piston‘ motion.
• Crust - some hard, some breakable. Keep your weight equally on both skis. Make your turn radius constant and even, this will minimise the chance of the crust tripping you over. Sometimes it is possible to ski lightly to stay on the surface. When travelling slowly or at stand still a small jump or double pole plant will raise the skies enough to begin your turn.
• Hard Pack - Piste techniques apply.
• Thin snow, with rocks protruding. Ski ‘lightly’ and slowly.
• Ice - Piste techniques apply; make sure that you have sharp ski edges. Keep your body upright, do not lean into the slope
For each of these conditions there is a way of coping with them. Those techniques are perfectly learnable with practice.
IFMGA / UIAGM / IVBV
The IFMGA / UIAGM / IVBV symbol is the logo of the International Federation of Mountain Guides Association.
Nick, Olly and Matt are all fully-qualified UIAGM Mountain Guides and members of the British Mountain Guides Association.
The International Ski Instructors Association is the world body for professional ski instructors.
The ISIA was formed in 1971 and there are currently 39 member nations representing the very best in ski instruction around the world.