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    The Joy of Freeride

    More and more skiers and boarders are heading off the ski resorts' groomed slopes and into the soft snow to escape the crowds and float down the mountainside on perfect powder instead. Ski holiday expert Patrick Thorne explains the appeal of off the beaten piste skiing. 

    With freeriding, the clue is in the name – the idea is you feel free and you're riding over the snow, on skis or a snowboard. The name sounds good, and the experience lives up to it. There is nothing really that gives me more of a sense of freedom than floating through pristine powder on a blue-sky day with magnificent scenery ahead. It really is living the dream, making you feel like you’ve done something right in your life to find yourself in this happy position.

    Of course, for most of us just escaping to the mountains, taking in the view and whizzing off down a perfectly smooth machine-groomed piste gives us a fantastic sense of freedom anyway, but freeriding takes it one step further.

    First Freeride Turns

    • I started skiing on a school trip as a teenager before the word "freeriding" had been coined, but I still remember even then on early trips to the magnificent ski hills around Innsbruck, the desire to get off the groomed runs and into the unknown territory I saw off the side of the pistes. Once I did, the fun level went up another notch from an already wonderful experience.

    • Later in life, I have come to appreciate the pure joy and sense of freedom of "floating" down a virgin powder field in near silence, away from the quiet clunking of the lifts, the sounds of other people or even the jolly music that might be coming from a mountain hut. It's a very special feeling.

    • Of course, however much we wish for it, the snow isn't always perfect powder. Not living in the Alps, we usually have our week or two of escape to the mountains pre-booked in winter and it is very much a matter of luck as to whether those weeks coincide with fresh snowfall. We live in hope, diligently studying the snow reports are forecast as our holiday draws near.

    Full On Freeriding

    For the full freeride experience there may also be a little work involved to reach the top of the descent. You can often traverse across to the start of a freeride route but for some, you may need to unclip your skis or board and carry them on your shoulder up a boot-packed ascent to the start of a particularly fabulous itinerary. I've done this many times and it's almost always worth it.

    The fitter and more skilled you are the more of the mountain is open to you, but the good news is that for those of us less accomplished there's still plenty of terrain we can ski. You don't have to be expert, just "good intermediate" to get started.

    You can stack the odds of finding fresh powder (and be on the safe side!) by signing up for a freeride skiing course.

    First Track in Obertauern
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    Staying Safe

    Safety is, indeed, the big factor that has to be considered as the pay-off to be made for heading off the groomed runs. The danger does increase both from avalanches above and hazards hidden in the snow below. Just heading off the pistes without planning and preparation is a definite no-no.

    Freeride tours for beginners will include learning how to use the essential avalanche transceiver, probe and shovel, as well as the rudiments of spotting potential dangers. Even after many years of freeriding I would not consider a fully off-piste route without having a guide along checking that the run was safe to tackle on the day.

    The Power of Snow

    With the pressure of our everyday lives, our eternal connection to technology, and the fact that modern snow sports gear has made it so much easier, it's no surprise that freeriding has soared in popularity. While we used to try to balance with "tips up" on deep snow on thin piste skis for much of the last century, there are now "fat" skis that are much easier to steer through powder. Of course, snowboards were made for it.

    As I've grown older, I have inevitably become less carefree and more safety-conscious, if I am honest with myself, maybe I've become a lazier skier. On a regular day, I will stick to the groomed runs, and linger longer than I used to over a coffee on the terrace of some mountain hut, just happy to be there.

    But when I push myself to go freeriding the fun always steps up several notches as I head off into the pristine powder. I find myself laughing to myself as I float and bounce down on the powder, being transported back to my younger self through the power of snow!

    How Do You Prepare For Freeriding?

    Freeriding typically takes more energy than skiing on groomed slopes, so it is definitely a good idea to be as fit as you can be before heading off on your holiday, then remember to do your morning stretches before you start the day on the slopes to warm up.

    There are additional safety concerns to be aware of when you head off the prepared slopes. These are detailed below.

    In terms of clothing, freeriders tend to have slightly looser, thinner, lighter skiwear than the on-piste skier. That's because your body will need to move more within your clothing and there's a greater chance of snow flying everywhere, so you want freedom of movement and lots of protection to avoid the snow getting through your outer layers and soaking your clothes.

    What's the Difference Between Freeride and Alpine Skis?

    You can freeride on any skis or snowboard, but these days manufacturers produce skis especially designed for off the groomed runs. There are two main types known as "Freeride" and "Powder" skis.

    You can usually rent this type of ski in-resort in Austria and most shops will allow you to switch between powder skis one day or freeride or piste skis the next for one package price.

    If you buy your own equipment, it can be tricky to decide what to get unless you want to bring two or three different pairs of skis on holiday – expensive to buy and heavy to carry! One solution is the "All Mountain" ski which is not as wide as freeride or powder skis but - as the name suggests -designed to perform on all types of terrain including freeride. However, those completely hooked on freeriding might argue this is a compromise and go for freeriding skis only!

    We are Snow_Obertauern
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    How about Weather and Safety Considerations?

    It's vital to know exactly where you're going. A freeriding course teaches you the basics of the terrain including avalanches and other dangers, while a local guide can show you the best places to ski at the time of your visit, ensuring a safe and fun experience. Even if others are planning your route, it is wise to plan and prepare by studying maps and weather conditions the evening before as well as talking to locals who know the area.

    One particularly useful feature at many Austrian ski resorts are the so-called "Freeride Checkpoints" usually positioned near the start of the main freeride areas, providing live information on snow and weather conditions, avalanche danger and slopes that are especially dangerous. This information is also available online of course. Many resorts also offer free "parks" where you can practice the use of avalanche transceivers as well as probe and shovel techniques to simulate a search in deep snow.

    Finally, check your travel insurance. Some policies include skiing off the groomed slopes as standard, for others you need to add it as an option, with an extra premium, but it's important to have it to be safe.

    snowpark Obertauern
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    Can You Freeride Everywhere?

    You can head off the groomed slopes at most ski areas unless the terrain is specifically marked as closed. However, it can be very dangerous to do so unless you are with a guide who is familiar with the area.

    Many Austrian resorts operate a kind of halfway between full off-piste terrain and slopes that have not been prepared by machine but are relatively safe and (when open) have been checked for avalanche risk. These "freeride routes" or "itineraries" are safer to ski without a guide and a good way to practice freeriding.

    Some resorts have built a particular reputation for freeriding and are also home to particularly legendary descents, often involving a short hike from the top of a lift to get to the top of a fabulous freeride run.

    Obertauern for example, known as Salzburg's snow bowl, is a nigh-altitude ski village with a reputation for great deep snow from November to May. There is a wide range of freeride trails here from relatively gentle slopes around Hundkogelbahn to challenging steeper runs at Zehnerkar and Seekarspitze. One of the highlights is the Gamsleiten-Nord route that leads freeriders through a very challenging steep, narrow channel.

    Obertauern has Freeride Checkpoints near the summit stations of Hochalmbahn and Kringsalmbahn lifts, local ski schools provide freeride courses, including advice on tour planning, how to ski in unsecured terrain, snow and avalanche awareness and the correct use of avalanche transceivers, shovels, and probes. Local guides can also lead you to the best spots during your stay.

    Learn more about Obertauern
    Gamsleiten 2, Obertauern
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    About the Author: Patrick Thorne

    Patrick Thorne has been writing about ski resorts for nearly 40 years. In the early 1990s he became the first person to locate every ski area on the planet, eventually over 6,500 places in 80 countries. He has visited more than 300, freeriding and ski touring at many of them. Patrick has written a dozen ski books including the best-selling "Powder", a guide to the world's 50 best ski runs. He has edited InTheSnow magazine and website for more than a decade and contributes to numerous other magazines, newspapers, and websites. Aware of the impact of climate change through personal experience, he set up SaveOurSnow.com in 2004, dedicated to reporting on the ski community's battle with rising temperatures. Patrick lives in the Highlands of Scotland on a croft with his own small hill where he can go on a mini ski tour or freeride when it snows. 

    Patrick Thorne
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