Skiing down untouched slopes covered in fresh powder snow – freeriding is simply the purest form of skiing. Over the last couple of years, off-piste adventures like freeriding have experienced a boom. Today, more and more skiers are attracted to their favourite ski resort’s untouched powder snow slopes.
Have you ever wanted to give freeriding a try? In this article, the team at CheckYeti gives you an insight into this action-packed activity, explains what type of equipment is needed and tells you where you can tackle your first freeride adventure together with an experienced ski instructor.
What is freeriding?
Freeriding is a form of skiing or snowboarding in open terrain away from groomed slopes. Strictly speaking, this means that the very first skiers were freeride skiers, however, powder snow skiing was only formally recognised as a sport in the 70ies. Since then, freeriding has gotten more and more popular, particularly in recent years, and it continues to evolve through new ski models and improved equipment.
Freeriding used to be combined with ski touring, meaning you’d go up the mountain on your skis before skiing down through the powder snow. Nowadays, however, skiers can access numerous off-piste routes via ski lifts. Hence, there is no need to buy expensive climbing skins for touring skis anymore which is one of the many reasons why the number of freeride enthusiasts is steadily increasing.
What’s essential when skiing or snowboarding in a freeride zone is mastering the right technique for skiing in powder snow. The movements you have to do when skiing in powder snow are very different from those you do on groomed slopes. As such, skiers trying to freeride for the very first time should be accompanied by an experienced guide. Guides do not only know their resorts like the back of their hands, but they’re also able to teach beginners the right technique for skiing in deep powder snow.
Nevertheless, experienced freeride skiers can also learn a lot from the experts. Freeriding means much more than just sweeping through deep powder snow: steep backcountry descents and jumps over natural obstacles are also part of this sport and make it what it really is – an adrenaline rush-inducing experience amidst majestic mountains.
What do I need to pay attention to when freeriding?
Ski routes are descents that are marked and secured, but not groomed. Descents like these are ideal for trying out freeriding as the alpine dangers are similar to those on groomed slopes. Nowadays, secured ski routes can be found in numerous ski resorts – they are marked in dashed yellow or red lines on the resort maps.
Safety is the highest priority when it comes to freeriding, as ignoring alpine safety instructions can have serious consequences. Even beginners should always inform themselves about the risks and about possible natural hazards prior to a freeride tour. Hence, a preparatory avalanche course is highly recommended. In such courses, freeride skiers learn all theoretical and practical aspects related to safety. Participants learn how to ski safely in freeride zones, what the different types of snow conditions and descents entail, how weather conditions affect freeriding, how to prepare for an off-piste tour, and the correct use of safety equipment.
CheckYeti Tip: Schools in the Swiss freeride hotspot of Adelboden offer not only guided freeride tours but also preparatory avalanche courses for skiers, snowboarders and snowshoe hikers.
Avalanche danger levels
In 1993 the European Avalanche Warning Services (EAWS) published a five-level European avalanche danger scale to help estimate the risk and danger of avalanches. Each of the 5 levels describes a different avalanche risk. During an avalanche course, one learns to assess risk situations according to said scale. The 5 danger levels are: 1 (low), 2 (moderate), 3 (considerable), 4 (high) and 5 (very high). Not only holiday-makers but also ski resort operators and authorities use the scale to assess danger levels. Freeride skiers should, thus, also always keep in mind the current danger level and follow the instructions of local instructors and/or staff.
For reasons regarding environmental protection, many ski resorts block access to certain hillsides or descents. Skiers should always comply with these obstructions as they often serve the purpose of protecting endangered animals. Also, try to act calmly when near a forest so as not to frighten wild animals.
What kind of equipment is needed for freeriding?
In order to be able to fully enjoy a freeride adventure, one’s equipment has to match the requirements of the area as well as the weather conditions. Aside from skis, ski shoes, a helmet and ski poles, freeride skiers should adapt their clothing to the current weather conditions. Whatever the weather may be like, clothing should always be breathable and water-repellent. Since freeriding takes place on ungroomed areas, it is important that skiers have their safety equipment on them so as to minimise the risk of injury for themselves and others.
The difference between freeride skis and regular skis is, amongst other things, their shape. Freeride skis are wider in order to allow a stronger bounce and uplift, which facilitates movement in powder snow. While experienced freeride skiers should consider buying their own pair of freeride skis, beginners can simply rent the equipment on site.
An avalanche transceiver is an essential safety feature for freeride skiers. The transceiver helps find people buried in an avalanche. This device works with radio signals and can both emit and receive signals. During a freeride session, the avalanche transceiver should always be kept near the body and set on emitter mode. In case of an emergency, proper use of the avalanche transceiver is highly critical. Therefore, freeride skiers should practice using an avalanche transceiver regularly.
CheckYeti Tip: Many ski resorts have transceiver checkpoints where the correct use of the device can be trained and its functionality can be checked. One of the ski resorts that specialises in freeriding is the Stubaier Glacier, Stubaier Gletscher in German, in Tyrol. Beside 13 marked off-piste descents, the resort also offers an avalanche transceiver training area. Moreover, the ski schools offer freeride tours for beginners as well as for experienced freeride skiers.
An avalanche probe is a device used during the search for people buried by avalanches. It consists of several parts which are all connected with a cord. When pulling the cord, each part interlocks with one another and forms a stick with which one can vertically drill into the snow.
While the avalanche transceiver helps locate an avalanche victim, a probe serves the purpose of high precision locating: the device allows search and rescue teams to assess not only the location of a victim but also the depth at which he or she is buried.
In addition to an avalanche transceiver and an avalanche probe, an avalanche shovel is also an important part of the basic freeride safety equipment. Without a shovel, it is quite difficult to dig deep enough to rescue avalanche victims, as the snow of an avalanche is particularly dense and heavy. The avalanche shovel, thus, has special features: it is quite robust while also being light, small and foldable.
The avalanche airbag system is a reusable rescue device that can considerably lower the risk of injury during avalanches. The avalanche backpack has 2 brightly coloured balloons which are folded and stored in the left and right pockets.
Should a freeride skier be caught in an avalanche, he or she can trigger the backpack’s mechanism by pulling the handle located in the front. In 1-2 seconds, the balloons inflate up to a volume of approximately 37 gallons. This helps the victim stay on the avalanche’s surface and, thus, lowers the risk of being buried in the snow.
Where can I learn to freeride?
Nowadays, more and more ski schools offer guided freeride tours, allowing first-timers to give this trendy sport a try. The precondition for giving freeriding a try is that one should be able to safely and confidently move on demanding slopes. Just like groomed slopes, off-piste descents are also divided into different levels of difficulty. Local ski instructors know their ski resorts by heart and can therefore always choose freeride tours and descents that best suit a participant’s skills. The first step of a beginners’ freeride tour is learning the right powder snow technique. Beginners also have time to get used to the safety equipment and to learn how to use it prior to going out into the powder snow areas. Devices such as avalanche transceivers, probes, shovels and sometimes even airbag backpacks are included in most offers.
The best freeride ski resorts in the Alps for beginners
The Austrian ski resort Warth-Schröcken offers hillsides covered in deep powder snow all around the Arlberg mountain – simply perfect conditions for freeriding. Local ski schools even offer freeride lessons for teenagers during which teens can try out powder snow skiing and learn new tricks alongside other beginners of the same age.
In the Swiss resort of Zermatt, holiday-makers can freeride right next to the world famous Matterhorn summit. No one knows this area quite as well as the local ski instructors do, who’ll help you find the best and most beautiful powder snow descents.
Kitzbühel and the region around the Kitzbühel Alps are ideal for freeride adventures. Many promising powder snow slopes and state certified instructors await curious off-piste skiing beginners in the heart of beautiful Austria.
Whether I’m describing a beautiful ski area or telling you all about the right skiing techniques, writing articles always makes me want to leave for a new adventure, and I hope reading them has the same effect on you!