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How and When does one begin going off piste?

post #1 of 5
Thread Starter 
While I still enjoy and love being on the groomed runs, I am starting to wonder what it would feel like being able to blend more with the mountains and being in the "backside" where it's quiet and peaceful.  Hence my question - how do one begin the off-piste experience?

A bit about myself, girl, 25 years old, relatively fit. I ski very comfortably and relax on most red runs in Europe with long/medium and short turns. I can ski down black runs in Switzerland with not much problem or fear, but to be honest, I am not 100% myself relaxing when I am on the black like I am on the red. Never tried a mogul run, although I do love the occasional bumps on the slopes and sometimes even do a little jump on them. Have been working with an instructor with racing background to perfect my carve turns this season with quite a few different drills. From time to time, I would ski the ungroomed next to the actual piste just to have fun. I guess my question is, am I ready to go off piste? And how do I proceed?

I have skied on days where there is a snow storm going on with powder, but there is still the hard base underneath the fresh powder on the piste. How different is it to actually go off piste and ski on things that were never prepared?  Do I simply call up the ski school and tell them that I want a guide to ski off-piste, but what if it turned out that to be a complete disaster off-piste?  Keep in mind that we usually do one-day trips or two-day weekend trips with skiing since everything is easily accessible here, so while I understand the ideal option may involve a 3 or 5 consecutive days of progressing to the off piste, this doesn't seem to be a viable option for me at the moment.

Anything that I can practice on my own before my first off-piste experience? One last question, I am currently on some 6x cm waist carver, do I need a different pair of skis to go off piste?

post #2 of 5
Hi Princess,

The first step is to recognize the dangers involved in going off piste. In the Alps, above tree line, dead fall and tree stumps under the snow surface are not a danger, but rocks, crevasses, cliffs and avalanches are a bigger threat than on pistes. And there's always the danger of getting lost or in need of assistance. Finally, insurance is an issue. In the US if you need help off-piste you will get rescued for free in most places. In Europe, the custom is that you pay the bill.

Most of us start going off-piste blissfully unaware of all of this. The lure of fresh powder can be quite strong. Our first forays off piste are typically to what is sometimes called "side country". These are areas where we are technically going off-piste, but remain very close to the pistes and can easily return to the lifts at the bottom. When you can view the off-piste drainages from the pistes (this means that on a large scale you can see where you enter and where you come out), it's very easy to go into these areas without a guide and find your way out. You will also typically find some tracks of other skiers to help guide you (but be aware that those tracks are no guarantee of safe passage - you could be following the tracks of a doomed soul or going into an area that was safe but no longer is). The beauty of side country vs "back" country (true off-piste skiing) is that you can usually get back to the pistes fairly quickly if you've made a mistake.

Emotionally, you are ready to go off-piste. Practicing in the on-piste ungroomed fresh powder is a great start. Skills wise, I'd prefer to see you a bit stronger in the bumps and on the black runs. You won't be skiing bumps off piste, but if you're strong enough to handle the bumps and the blacks without reservation, then you can handle most of what you could run into off-piste. A good guide (either a professional or a more experienced skier) should be able to find "side country" type off-piste runs that are within your current ability and will minimize the amount of hiking/traversing. Although I've often gone "off-piste" in the US alone, I've made an effort either to hook up with other people or be within sight/sound of other people. That's still bad behaviour. My official advice is never travel off piste alone. It's cool to be out there all by yourself in the peace and quiet, but it really sucks to waste valuable ski time looking for lost/potentially injured people.

In general, you will find deeper powder off-piste than on. But conditions can vary greatly off-piste. In general, carving skis will sink deeper into powder and be more difficult to turn than all mountain or powder skis. If the off-piste snow is more than a 1/2 meter deep, you'll probably enjoy it more with fatter skis. Use your on snow powder experience to judge what you're comfortable with and ask others who have been off piste what the conditions are like if you can't test them in areas close to the pistes.

Calling up the ski school and asking for a guide is a good idea. A good guide will find terrain that suits your ability or at least be able to get you back to civilization quickly and work with you on the pistes to help get you more ready for the next attempt. Depending on where you go and the current conditions, there may be plenty of terrain choices available for 1/2 or full day trips that are well within your ability. Most European schools will either have places to take you where you won't need special gear and training for off-piste trips or provide loaner beacons and training before you go. Eventually, you will want to at least get basic gear like a beacon, a shovel and a probe and learn how to use it. It wouldn't hurt to read up on basic avalanche awareness before you start venturing off-piste.
post #3 of 5
 So I have a question that may be a stupid one but here goes... What exactly constitutes off-piste skiing? For example, sometime in the next year it is my utopian plan to get a pair of boots (from Phil, naturally), get out to Alta, get an instructor for 3-4 days and take me from a comfortable-on-black skier to the next level up. I can surmise that an ungroomed black or double black run is not considered off-piste. Are the areas like the castles, bowls, chutes and designated glades (no interest in tree-skiing really, not into obstacles...) considered off-piste because they are not cut and prepared trails, or is off-piste and backcountry skiing really when you are off of marked or patrolled terrain? 
post #4 of 5
It's a good question Ken. In Europe, it's called off-piste. In the states, it's called back country. They're not really the same thing. The "inbounds" terrain for many European resorts just dwarfs the US resorts and a lot of it is above tree line. The tree line in the Alps is generally lower (about 8K feet vs 10-11K for the Rockies?). Many places in Europe mark their runs with markers in the middle. Keep the markers in sight and you'll generally be within maintained and patrolled terrain. Wander too far from the markers and you will leave groomed and skier packed snow, but you might have an "interesting" experience even though relative to a US resort you would still be inbounds. In the US, most trails are defined by trees on the sides of the run and "back country" is stuff outside of the resort boundary. Some US resorts have "back country like" terrain within resort boundaries. Wolf Creek and Powder mountains for example have drainages that are not lift served but technically within the resort boundaries. Crested Butte's North Face area and Alta's Catherine's section are other examples of "back country like" terrain that are short hikes off of lift served terrain. But I'd consider real off-piste/back country skiing in the US to be like going off the back side of Jackson, hiking the Tetons and ending up a long way from the resort when you're done or hiking the other side of the Cottonwood canyon from AltaBird.

Alta is a lot like the Alps in that there are whole areas like the castles that are labeled like a run on the map, but are really just sections of the mountain where you have a lot of freedom to roam. Many of these areas have clumps of trees or terrain features that you can use to "create your own trail". You're right, there are no cut trails. They're not groomed, but they are avie controlled and patrolled. So it's a somewhat safer version off-piste skiing. Still, these areas are vast enough that it is easy to feel alone or even get briefly separated from your skiing partner.

Alta is a good place for comfortable on black skiers to move up to the next level. Between the runs that are marked and the places that are there to be found if you know where to look (e.g. cutting through 40 feet of OMG tight trees to get to a sweet open chute) there are lots of options. Some places are easy to find yourself over committed to (e.g. Lone Pine) while others have plenty of escape routes. If you can handle the gnar at Alta, the only thing you'll need for true back country skiing is the safety knowledge and gear. Do note though that Alta does not make a distinction between double blacks and blacks. If it's black and you can't see where it goes, before you choose to proceed consider that whimpering won't get you down safely and climbing back up may not be an option.
post #5 of 5
 Thanks Rusty. I had been wondering about that for a while. I haven't ever skied out West but I did ski in Europe as a kid (was not very good then) and remember those broad spaces. Wengen and Courmayeur, I think. Thanks also for the Alta pilgrimage advice. I was hoping to maybe get out there before this season ends but it looks like it will have to wait til next year. I have a friend who is an instructor up at Whiteface, where I have done most of my recent skiing, and I think the best thing I have learned from him is how to listen to someone who knows the mountain and the conditions so that I stay out of trouble. It is advice that I always plan to follow even as I aspire to "handle the gnar..."
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