When I first moved to Colorado, I explored the mountains of the Centennial State by hiking in the summer and skiing in the winter. One of my favorite parts of these adventures was sitting down at home with a map and planning where I would hike and ski. I would study the trails, follow the contour lines, imagine the views, memorize the intersections, and plot out my route for the day.
After a few years of exploring, and with the advice and guidance of some more experienced hiking and skiing partners, I began to look at the trail maps differently. Instead of focusing on the trails themselves, I started looking at the space between the trails – the off-trail (or off-piste) area of the maps. In snowsports, there are groomed trails and then there is everything else – glades, trees, powder, bumps, open bowls, and other terrain that is skiable but might not have a formal trail name or designation on the map.
Are you looking to move past the groomed runs and maybe onto more challenging slopes? If you’re a snowrider looking to broaden your horizons to different parts of the hill, here are a few basic ideas to get you started.
1. Buddy Up
Whenever you are tackling a new area on the ski hill, going with at least one other person is prudent and practical, especially in the trees. Having a buddy can help you navigate the fresh terrain, whether it’s an open bowl, a bump run, or a new section of the mountain. If you get into trouble or get hurt, your buddy can go for help. Plus, it’s more fun to share the thrill of exploration with a friend!
2. Follow All Ropes and Signs
The primary job of ski patrol is to keep customers safe on the mountain, and one way they accomplish this is to close certain terrain with ropes and signs. Always heed those signs – they are there for a reason. The snow cover could be too thin, there could be a cliff or steep drop-off, or there could be active avalanche control work happening. Definitely explore off trail but never duck a rope.
3. Be Aware of Conditions
Depending on the day, or even at different times on the same day, an ungroomed bowl could be soft, forgiving powder or icy boilerplate. Wind, sun, and temperature all have a significant impact on the snow conditions, which can result in a drastically different experience off-trail. Be prepared and know ahead of time what kind of condition the snow is going to be in before you go. If you aren’t sure, check the resort’s grooming report, or better yet, ask a ski patroller about the condition of the area you are thinking of skiing.
4. Practice your Stance
One of the hallmarks of an advanced snowboarder or skier is the ability to ride a variety of terrain all over the mountain. Groomed runs tend to be predictable and forgiving of a poor stance. In bumps, trees, or other ungroomed terrain, you can’t get away with poor position. To be successful in varied terrain, you need to have a centered to slightly forward stance on your board or skis. Additionally, you need to have the leg strength and endurance to negotiate uneven terrain that can throw you into the back seat. Practice your stance on the groomed runs first before exploring off-trail.
5. Take a Clinic
Many ski areas offer clinics or classes on advanced skiing and riding – bumps, steeps, trees, and more. Many techniques, including balance, steering, edging, and pressure, can be practiced on the groomed trails first and then translated into the off-trail terrain. Check out the lesson programs at your local hill – consider signing up for a class that will better prepare you to discover an expanded variety of snowboarding terrain.
6. Take a Backcountry Course
If you do want to challenge yourself further, you may start thinking about skiing and riding in the backcountry, outside the resort boundaries. These pursuits are attractive because there are fewer people, the snow can be better, the views are inspiring, and because of the sense of accomplishment you will achieve. Before you head out, though, be prepared and take a backcountry skills and/or avalanche class.
Once you start exploring the parts of the map between the trails, you’ll look at your upcoming ski day through a much different lens. As with any active outdoor pursuit, there are risks in participating. Please be smart and responsible out there, and have fun!