Freeride skiing ―or side country skiing―describes a particular type of skiing which takes place on a natural off-piste terrain and includes deep powder snow and steep runs. The term is not only applied to skiing but also to snowboarding. In fact, freeriding is the most essential form of snowboarding. Freeriders don’t follow a marked route. On the contrary, they enjoy the freedom of untracked runs.
The starting point for freeride skiing is generally a ski resort. However, unlike off-piste skiing and slack-country skiing, freeride skiing goes a little further away from the marked ski areas boundaries (the area within or around the resort is known as ‘sidecountry’). Freeriders use the ski resort elevation means to go up the mountain and also may combine this with a short hike uphill using skins or snowshoes, in order to reach untouched powder snow and explore the mountain away from crowds.
Rather than in going up, the focus of freeriding relies on the adrenaline and thrill of the ski descent. “Easy up, wild down” ―the motto of the Skicircus Saalbach Hinterglemm Leogang Fieberbrunn, a freeride mecca in Austria― is what best summarizes the core of this ski discipline. Besides, freeriding involves a deeper immersion in the mountain environment and allows incredible views!
Freeride skiers must have good skiing abilities, as well as some previous off-piste or backcountry skiing experience. Like every off-piste area, the sidecountry is an unmarked, ungroomed and unpatrolled terrain. Freeriders are responsible for their own safety and are exposed to avalanche risks and other hazards like trees, cliffs, crevasses and rocks. Taking an avalanche safety gear (and knowing how to use it) is mandatory.
Ski season ―the period where ski resorts are open and ski lifts are available― varies depending on the location of the resort. Typically, it runs from early-winter to late-spring. However, glacier ski areas usually have an early-opening and some of them are available all-year-round.
When it comes to freeride skiing, snow conditions and snow stability (key to assess the risk of avalanches throughout the day) must be carefully checked before venturing on the terrain. Snow conditions are extremely variable and depend on a series of factors like snowfall, temperature, wind and the depth of the snow on the ground. Several days of heavy snowfall (in a cold weather with no wind) provide the best type of snow for freeriding: deep powder snow. Freeriders love this fluffy fresh snow!
The essential equipment for a freeride skier includes the following items:
Freeriding involves venturing on untouched terrain, where runs are not maintained or controlled at all. It’s very important to be realistic about your skills, experience and fitness before tackling an off-piste route. As a first rule, never go off-piste alone.
Hiring a certified guide is mandatory if you don’t have previous experience outside of piste. It’s also highly recommended if you are not familiar with the area. A guide will help you improve your freeride technique, provide valuable information about the terrain, assess weather and snow conditions and pick the safest scenario for your powder ride.
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