Freeriding is now more accessible than ever. A combination of new ski design and improved safety have made heading off-piste a real option – even for families!
Freeriding famously got a lot easier a few years ago as wider, lighter skis made floating over powder more instantly achievable even for those without much knowledge of technique in deep snow.
Responding to the growing demand for freeride terrain, but conscious of the potential dangers, ski resorts have been improving their safety precautions for those freeride virgins who want to veer off-piste every now and then but lack the training or experience to be able to do so safely. The answer from many of these resorts is to create clearly marked freeride zones, which are designed to be as safe as they can be – often accessed by gates and only opened when conditions are right.
A number of resorts also have avalanche transceiver training parks where you can practice finding buried units to simulate an avalanche rescue and there are also usually special classes where you can learn the basics of freeride technique.
“We’ve been booking lots more family ski holidays where everyone’s keen to explore easy freeriding,” confirms Richard Sinclair, CEO of specialist ski holiday travel agency Sno.co.uk. “Freeriding lets you explore the real alpine wilderness out behind the back lifts and on the edge of the pisted ski areas, but there’s no such thing as ‘safe backcountry’ so take local advice and a guide, especially if you’re taking children off-piste. Safety is too easy to overlook when you see some untracked ‘easy’ freeriding. Only last December in Val d’Isere a small avalanche was set off by a family skiing between two pistes . . . personally I would only take kids freeriding with a local guide – be careful.”
Young boarders in La Clusaz. Credit La Clusaz Tourism
Check ski insurance
It’s easy and normally safe and fun, to get carried away on your ski holiday and head straight off into the powder. But accidents can happen even on the gentlest terrain, so it’s important to check that your travel insurance covers freeriding, in fact check that going off-piste doesn’t automatically invalidate your travel insurance – it’s quite likely you’ll need special travel insurance organised by an organisation like the Ski Club of Great Britain.
Rent safety gear
Heading off-piste properly equipped can be expensive if you buy it all, plus it’s still more equipment to eat up your baggage allowance, so renting can make more sense and it has got easier this winter at Ski Republic stores which have created freeride departments within its shops at Val d'Isère, Tignes, La Plagne, Les Arcs, Val Thorens, Verbier and Zermatt.
They’ll rent you off-piste safety equipment from €20 a day including backpacks with avalanche airbags, shovel, probe and ARVA avalanche rescue systems. Helmet hire is free to all customers and body protectors are also available to hire.
Best resorts for family freeriding
If you want to forget piste skiing altogether and enjoy a full off-piste adventure you can sign up with British tour op Le Ski, who are working with the New Generation ski school in Val d'Isere again, to target aspiring adventurous skiers, including families with teenagers, for beginner off-piste courses.
“We’ve had a long friendship with New Generation and are really pleased to have teamed up this year to offer an exciting adventure skiing week which we hope will entice people to challenge themselves safely, and showcase the incredible off-piste that Val d’Isère has to offer,” said Le Ski’s MD Nick Morgan.
Freeriding skiing at Val d'Isère. Credit OT Val d'Isère
The holiday costs £1199 and includes flights, transfers, a week’s stay in one of Le Ski’s chalets with three-course meals and unlimited quality wine, a six-day Espace Killy ski pass, three days of New Generation’s off-piste instruction, and hire of an avalanche safety pack.
If you want to divide up and learn your family freeriding separately (adults in one group, children in another) then freeride courses for children-only could be the answer, and they’re available in the French resort of La Clusaz for children aged 8 to 18 years old courtesy of the Evolution2 ski school in an exclusive partnership with the Freeride World Tour (FWT). To take part, children must be able to ski reasonably well already. Five days of three-hour off-piste lessons cost £175 or a private two-hour lesson is £80.
La Clusaz, one of the Lake Annecy Ski Resorts 50 minutes from Geneva, is pioneering freeriding fun for children right up to world-class level by hosting the final of the Junior Freeride World Tour for the first time on March 29-30.
Junior Freeride World Tour. Credit Lake Annecy Resorts
St. Anton am Arlberg
If you prefer Austrian powder for your family, then Piste to Powder who are based in St Anton am Arlberg, famously one of the world’s leading freeriding area since before the term ‘freeride’ was first coined, are an excellent choice.
The company offer courses for one to seven people including family groups with children aged 12 or over, with everything from single-day sessions for first time freeriders (although must be good skiers on the piste) through to fiv- day courses if your family is already experienced off-piste. Full-day prices are around €115 (£96) per person.
Book a safety course
Henry Schniewind, a UK- and French-based American national, has built a reputation as an expert in avalanche safety, running his popular Henry’s Avalanche Talks (or ‘HAT’ for short) at events like ski shows and in ski shops around the UK each autumn, spreading his mantra “Have fun but be safe” to anyone wise enough to listen.
For the 2013-14 ski season, Henry, a fully qualified ski instructor and off-piste ski guide, is organising three-day programmes in Val d’Isère throughout the season every Tuesday to Thursday. Henry’s Off-Piste Courses in the real mountain environment are designed to consolidate the theoretical knowledge Henry shares in his talks into a practical understanding of safety and fun on the slopes.
“Nothing beats the thrill and sensation of off-piste skiing but riding safe means understanding the conditions and making decisions that can keep you safe, then knowing what to do if the worst does happen,” says Henry. “New ski equipment makes it easier and more fun so there's the temptation to push yourself further off the piste in search of the perfect powder experience. There is a risk, but you can learn to manage it if you know what to look out for.”
Henry Schniewind from Henry's Avalanche Talks
Henry’s courses cover three main areas. First participants learn wise decision making through understanding which slopes are safe to ski and which are not, even if they look perfect to the inexperienced freerider. Second, there is the risk management process of how to safely go up or down slopes that do look safe to ski. Thirdly it’s what to do if the worst does happen, how to manage a crisis quickly and effectively, including learning search and rescue techniques that are designed to maximise chances of survival for victims.
Although these are serious matters, the emphasis of the three days is to have fun and enjoy skiing in the spectacular Espace Killy shared by Val d’Isère and Tignes, which is renowned for its off-piste skiing.
The three-day course is open to intermediate skiers who can ski a steep red run and traverse in deep snow conditions or better and costs €490 per person including guiding and instruction in ski technique and avalanche safety management.
Participants receive a certificate of International Standards of Off-Piste Excellence (ISOPE) that is equivalent to the Canadian Avalanche Centre (CAC) Avalanche Skills Training Level 1 (AST 1) or the American Avalanche Association (AAA) Level 1: Avalanche Fundamentals.