This article isn’t going to give you specific spots in specific resorts – I haven’t been to enough resorts for that. And besides, the challenge is finding spots yourself; if a powder spot was public knowledge, it wouldn’t be one of the best in the resort…
First of all, what do I mean by powder spot? To me, a good powder spot is somewhere you can go to get some good, fresh powder; somewhere to get good lines. Of course, you can get amazing lines right next to the piste, sometimes. In fact, if it’s been snowing really heavily, you can get some awesome freshies right there on a marked run, if it hasn’t been groomed yet.
But you’ve got to balance this up with the usual resort traffic. Is it still a good powder spot if it’s tracked out by the time you get back to the top? That depends on how good the line is, and how much it jeopardises you’re ability to score other fresh lines that day…
What you’re aiming for here is a collection of descents. Ideally you’d have a catalogue of areas you can go, in-bounds, to get good lines. You want that catalogue to have as many pages as possible. You want areas you can rely on to stay fresh as long as possible. You want to be ahead of the game – because you want as many fresh, deep turns as possible.
Research before you go
There are a couple of things you can do before you get to resort, from home. Maybe not the most effective, but worth considering:
Ask around. It’s unlikely that people are going to spill their beloved powder stashes on the Internet, but if you’ve got friends on forums, people who know a place well, they may help you out. Pointers for where to start perhaps? A ‘general’ area? Or maybe places not to waste your time with. Every little bit of information can help. They might know the best guides in the area for you to look up…
Find a good guide book. Whilst guide books don’t detail all of the ‘secret’ off-piste areas for a resort, they do give an indication of whether or not a resort is generally good for “freeriding” or “powder”. I’ve written a bunch of reviews for the wsg, for resorts in the Portes du Soleil area, and where possible I tried to point out good off-piste areas.
It’s no guarantee, but a guide book can (a) help you pick a good resort for freeriding and (b) potentially highlight some useful areas of off-piste.
Find good stuff whilst you’re there
Bring someone who knows the area. I know, that’s not always possible. But let’s say you and some friends are discussing possible destinations, and fresh powder is high on the want-list. If some of the group know one of the destinations well, or even just a little, you’ve got a better chance of finding good lines.
I can’t thank Simon enough for his guidance in Fernie. Yeah we would have found stuff had he not been there; stumbled into some good places, and walked out of other, less good places. But when we were on the first chair up with 40cm of fresh waiting, he took us straight to great spots. And he knew how to string them together. Bingo! You just don’t know that if it’s your first time in a resort.
Ride with a local. Alternatively, you might know someone in resort, someone who lives or works there. Hook up and go for a shred. Or perhaps you’ve made friends with some locals, or some seasonaires? Your friends or locals might not be available on a powder day, but if you’re out riding with them and they’re willing, explore. Lay the ground work for the day when it does snow. Know how to get there, where the run out is, safety issues to bear in mind. Local knowledge.
Become knowledgeable – return to the same place. Recently, I wrote about the question of whether or not to return to the same resort. One of the upsides is that you will build knowledge of the area, knowledge of the off-piste. You can invest time exploring, knowing that it will pay off in the future. Get your own local knowledge. If you’re going to do this, make sure you pick a good place to return to!
Be inquisitive. Scope the place out when you’re on the lift. Research the piste map. Ask a liftie “where’s that chute lead to? What’s it like?” Take note of where others are heading, why is there a boot pack leading off over there? Correlate that with the piste map, where might it be heading? Fortune favours the bold. If you don’t look and try, you won’t find something that the other 99% of people have eyed from the lift.
If that means some hiking, some up-hill walking, so be it. Don’t be put off by the extra effort, if it leads somewhere good, it will be more than worth it!
Hire a guide. Hiring a guide for the day is a great way to explore the mountain, safely. They work on the mountain, which means the know the place well and they’re up there regularly. They’ll probably know if an area has been tracked out recently, or whether it’s worth investing the time to get there. And ask them questions. Learn stuff. You’re paying for their time and experience.
I’ve been on a guided day, the Snow Safari Tour in the Lenzerheide/Arosa area. A combination of using resort lifts and a bit of short hiking. 5 or 6 good descents, all linked together, well planned. It was awesome. It felt like the real deal.
Last season a group of my friends took a freestyle lesson in Avoriaz with Laura Berry. There’d been some decent snow, so toward the end of the lesson she asked if they wanted to go and find some freshies… She took them on a couple of line, not far from the piste, an area they just hadn’t considered. Easy access in, easy out. Good stuff.
Use a specialist holiday company. I’m sure there are some good examples out there – experts will know the local backcountry better than anyone and have all the gear you’ll need.
Be safe. Don’t take risks you don’t understand. Above I wrote “fortune favours the bold”; that doesn’t mean be irresponsible. Within your limits – go and look, walk a bit, hike a bit, be inquisitive. Within your limits.
Don’t go exploring if you don’t have the experience, or the proper avalanche safety equipment. There’s a lot at stake; not just your own safety. Equipment wise, if you’re venturing into unknown areas, the absolute minimum is an avalanche transceiver, probe and shovel. You need to know how to use them too.
If you are inexperienced with off-piste and backcountry safety but still want to explore the mountains and get better off-piste lines, the guide options above are a great way to do that, safely.