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Off piste skiing – what type of snow conditions do you get off piste?

A skier in deep snow whilst skiing off pisteNot all snow that you’ll find off piste is the same. This is a definitive guide to the different types of snow that you can encounter, how the conditions off piste can change and how you might deal with them

Off piste skiing (read my earlier posts) often conjures up images of blue skies and deep fresh powder snow covering the faces of skiers as they turn through the forest or jump off cliffs. Every skier that works or lives in a resort for a winter season is waiting for the days when after a heavy snowfall, the sun comes out and untracked powder snow is waiting for them on the mountain. On days like this you better be the first one in the lift queue, as everyone in the resort will be eager to get up and make ‘first tracks’ in the snow.

Sometimes, after a really heavy snowfall the marked ski runs will not have been ‘groomed’ and it will be possible to ski deep powder snow on your favourite run! Skiing in deep powder snow can take a little practice to master but if you get the chance to start off by staying on the marked ski runs then it’s the easiest and safest place to be.

Skiers today expect to enjoy well groomed ski runs in all of the major ski destinations. The technology available to the resorts now ensures the ski runs are well looked after and artificial snow making facilities even help to keep those icy patches at bay. The consistency of the snow which we now ski on the marked runs is excellent and although Mother Nature still has a massive say on how much snow will fall, many resorts can ‘guarantee’ snow all through the winter season.

When we ski off piste though, we will encounter whatever conditions are prevalent at the time. There are many factors that effect the type of snow we find off piste including, recent snowfall, temperature, wind, slope aspect and the depth of snow lying on the ground. Whereas the resort authorities can keep the marked ski runs in good condition during all kinds of weather scenarios, anything outside this boundary is untouched and therefore exposed to constant change.

The different snow conditions you might encounter when off piste skiing

(and how we might deal with them)

Fresh Powder Snow: Fun Factor 5/5

Powder snow is usually found very soon after a snowfall and can come in different depths and consistency depending on the weather. Very deep powder snow that is light in consistency is considered to be the best snow to ski in. This occurs after a heavy snowfall, often for several days, in cold weather with little or no wind. Although this kind of snow is great fun to ski, it takes some adaptation of technique to master. It is also one of the most dangerous periods for avalanches and huge caution should be taken when skiing in these conditions. Sometimes referred to as ‘bottomless powder’, really deep snow can feel like there is nothing underneath as you literally float though it as you ski down. If you are starting off for the first time in powder snow then a depth no higher than your ski boots is a good marker. Unfortunately you can’t just order this up at will so find a good ski instructor that’s qualified to teach off piste and they will take you step by step through the whole process.

Old or Skied Powder Snow: Fun Factor 3/5

If the temperature remains cold (below freezing) then the snow can remain in a state of ‘powder’ for days and even weeks after a snowfall. This also depends on the slopes aspect and in the Northern Hemisphere, north facing slopes in the winter months will avoid the sun and keep the deep snow fresh for a longer period. Finding these slopes takes some local knowledge and good mountain awareness, often it also means some hiking to access these more remote spots. But in many resorts, especially at higher altitudes, it is possible to ski untracked powder snow many days after a snowfall. Where skiers have already skied on the powder, they leave tracks which cut into the snow. These tracks stay there until it either snows again or the snow melts. When the snow is still fresh, it is possible to ski over the tracks and enjoy your run. If the snow ‘consolidates’, usually by warming up in the day and re-freezing at night, then the tracks harden up and make skiing through them difficult. At this point my fun factor goes down to 2/5!

Skiing off piste on quiet slopes

Wind Blown Snow: Fun Factor 2/5

When it snows heavily in high winds the conditions can become tricky to ski in. Often a ‘crust’ can form on the top layer of snow which is too weak to support a skier. The skis break through this crust into a softer layer below. It can be really hard to make turns in this type of snow as the top layer creates massive resistance against the skiers boots or leg even through the skis are moving in the softer layer. You have to be a strong skier with excellent technique to manage in this type of snow and even then, it’s not always fun! This kind of snow can also occur days after a fall of fresh powder as described above. If the wind starts blowing or the sun warms the top layer of snow then the crust can form at any-time. When the sun warms the top layer of snow it will create a melt, this can re-freeze at night again. This produces a similar type of crust on the top layer of snow causing the same issues for skiers as the wind blown version. When the process of melting and re-freezing continues for several days uninterrupted then you get what’s known as a ‘transformation’ into…

Spring or Corn Snow: Fun Factor 4/5

After the constant transformation of the snow caused by warmer days and freezing nights the top layer of crust becomes harder and thicker until it can fully support the weight of a skier. Providing there are no embellishments (like ski tracks) in the snow, the top layer forms a very smooth surface which can be easily skied on. Depending on the temperature the snow can be a little hard packed first thing in the morning but as the sun slowly warms the snow and melts the very top layer, a velvety soft surface is formed. This is a dream to ski on and even relatively inexperienced skiers will enjoy these conditions. If the sun warms the snow too much then by the afternoon slush can form. Try and avoid skiing on this as the skis cut through the snow leaving gashes which freeze at night and ruin the smooth layer that has formed. Spring snow can occur any time during the winter season but it is more common in March and April with longer days and more stable weather conditions.

These are some of the most common forms of snow conditions which you might experience when skiing off piste. Due to the nature of snow and mountain weather there is an array of snow conditions which can be found. One of the joys of skiing off piste is to experience these varied conditions and learn how to deal with them efficiently and effectively. You cannot always guarantee fresh powder snow on your skiing holiday but you can enjoy many different snow conditions off piste along as it is safe to do so. Think about hiring a fully qualified mountain guide or an instructor that’s qualified to take skiers off piste to get the most out of the conditions. They can help to improve your technique and show you the best terrain at the same time. <

Notes on guides and instructors:

Mountain Guide: Different from a ski guide, a mountain guide is a highly qualified professional that is trained in all aspects of mountain leadership. They are qualified to guide skiers off piste, on glaciers and if necessary, with the use of ropes and crampons. Typically it can take up to 7 years to qualify as a mountain guide and if you choose to ski with one you’ll find that they are very experienced mountaineers. Their knowledge of avalanches and snow conditions is second to none.

Ski Instructor: There are several levels of qualification for ski instructors. If you would like to ski off piste with an instructor check their qualification to make sure they have the necessary licence. Ask the ski school office or your instructor directly if they are qualified to teach off piste skiing.

Insurance: Always make sure that you are insured to ski off piste. Some policies exclude off piste skiing on them. It is important to ensure that you are covered for recovery on the mountain, hospitalisation and repatriation.

This post was written by Robert Stewart of The Skiing Department Blog. Robert is a qualified ISIA ski instructor and professional Alpine skier and his blog has the latest information on many different aspects of the sport, from beginners skiing tips to ski clothing reviews. He can also be followed on Twitter @skiing_blog

Related posts:

Off Piste skiing – an introduction
Technique for off piste skiing
Off piste mountain safety
Caught in an avalanche off piste
Essential equipment for off piste skiing

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