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Freeride Skiing History
In the last few years, ski resorts worldwide have witnessed the birth of a new generation of skiers and boarders who choose not to stick to the restrictive barriers of the piste. Freeriders prefer the thrill of deep powder, crud and open terrain. However, the extra adrenaline fix enjoyed by freeriders does not come without risk. This handbook will attempt to highlight the safety precautions that should be taken by anyone wishing to pit their wits against the untouched mountain.
Although freeriding has been around longer than piste skiing, in the past it has mostly been enjoyed by advanced/expert riders who have spent longer mastering their technique before graduating to the more demanding off piste terrain.
Recent advances in ski and snowboard technology has seen a mass of riders unshackled and paroled for early release to the backcountry. The result has been a massive increase in virtual beginner and intermediate skiers / boarders being able to experience the buzz of freeride.
The most important thing to remember before you take up freeriding is that it is completely different to piste skiing or boarding. Before you think to go off piste you will need these three essential items:
Avalanche transceiver: Transceivers serve two purposes. They emit a continuous signal that can be tracked in case of an avalanche, and you can change it to 'receive' to help locate and rescue anyone caught in the slide.
Avalanche probe: You need a probe to help locate a person's exact position, i.e. how deeply buried a person may be. Digging off track even by a foot wastes valuable time. In an avalanche situation every moment matters and lives depend on speed of rescue.
Avalanche shovel: Time is essential. Upon locating a buried person a light collapsible shovel will help save someone's life.
Note: Once buried in an avalanche for more than 15 minutes, a person's chance of survival drops by 50%. Every second is crucial.
Freeriding can be a risky business. Every year, avalanches kill many freeriders. However, it is a mistake to think that the majority of these skiers and boarders are victims of huge, landscape crushing waves of snow. More often it is the smaller and more prevalent windslab avalanches that brutally surprise freeriders. The sad thing is, the presence of windslab or slab avalanches are relatively easy to predict, if only freeriders are aware of what to look for.
Wind is a key indicator to how likely an avalanche is to occur. If there is no wind, snow is distributed evenly. If there is even a moderate wind, snow is deposited in sheltered areas referred to as lee slopes. The greater the wind and the snowfall, the more dangerous these snow deposits become. Unfortunately, these are not the only conditions that allow an avalanche to occur. Where a ski area is subjected to long periods of sun and high winds, large amounts of snow can also be deposited on the lee slopes.
On these lee slopes the wind packs the snow together in a cohesive mass. The situation becomes especially dangerous when the snow fails to bond with the slope. The lack of bond or ‘weak layer’ can exist within the snow pack for a long period of time and may stay dormant long after snow has stopped falling.
Worryingly, windslab avalanches occur most frequently on slopes of between 28 to 45 degrees, the ideal inclination for skiing and boarding. Slab avalanches require very little disturbance to occur. Often the weight of one rider will be enough. Although less frequent, on very steep slopes it takes even less to trigger an avalanche, in some cases all that is required are adverse weather conditions such as a storm or rapid rise in temperature to create a potential killer.
As a winslab avalanche begins, the whole slab moves at the same time breaking up. The deeper the snow, the more dangerous the avalanche is. However, freeriders should be aware that a relatively shallow avalanche could be fatal.
This is a type of avalanche that could level a city block but fortunately it is very rare. Powder avalanches occur after heavy snowfall and begin on slopes of over 45 degrees. Ironically, powder avalanches may start off small but build up to colossal proportions as they meet other small unstable areas of snow. As this occurs repeatedly, an avalanche will quickly become unstoppable. If they travel over a long distance on a steep slope the avalanche can become airborne and attain speeds of up to 250mph. At the front of the avalanche an awesome vortex will form that can uproot large trees and small buildings. The result: Total destruction.
During periods of warm weather, water from melting surface snow can permeate through the snowpack to a weak layer. As the layer becomes more saturated it gains weight and cannot support itself. If the snow is on a smooth grassy slope there is little friction and a large-scale ‘full depth’ avalanche may occur. If you get caught in such an avalanche you have practically no chance of survival. The snow is heavy and devoid of air spaces. It clentches its victim in a vice-like grip. As it stops moving the snow cements and becomes almost impenetrable. In this scenario, south facing slopes and hot days in spring are the most dangerous places a freerider could be.
Note: Even though there is a science to a slide, predicting avalanches can be extremely difficult because you simply don't know what's beneath the snow. A slope can be made unstable from weak layers metres under the surface.
On fresh powder days, post-heavy snowfalls, you are likely to ride the nicest terrain there is. These days make the blood boil with excitement because conditions are perfect for freeriding, but extra caution is needed as risk of avalanche is higher.
Go out in small groups. The weight of multiple freeriders at any one time can cause instability on the snow, which is dangerous not only to your group, but to others around you. If in doubt, ride a slope one at a time to a safer place, such as behind a big rock.
Never enter or traverse the slope above others. You could trigger a slide which would bury your friends, others and possibly yourself.
Check the ability of all those you are freeriding with. There's nothing worse then doing all the prep and then being compromised by somebody who is not of the same standard as the rest of the group. It puts everyone else in danger as well as him/herself.
Assess the terrain. Most avalanches happen on slopes between 28 and 45 degrees, but they can also happen on lesser or steeper slopes.
If it's warm, leave first thing in the morning. Temperature change is the cause of many natural avalanches (especially after fresh snow has fallen).
In the Alps, winds from the South and West deposit the most snow. This results in North and East facing slopes becoming prone to slide due to unstable layers formed on the lee side.
Always find out which areas are prone to avalanche and don't ride them.
Look out for trees. In deep snow a deeper bowl or 'tree well' will often form around the trunk. Freeriders can get into trouble when falling into a tree well. So be sure to allow a couple of feet distance between you and the tree when skiing or boarding.
You'll be safer freeriding with a qualified mountain guide (IFMGA) or an appropriately qualified professional instructor. These guys know whats going on in the backcountry so all you have to worry about is an audience to enthral in the bar with tales of your day.