RIDING THE DEEPEST POWDER SNOW IN THE ALPS
With advances in equipment and better managed off-piste terrain, the demand for off-piste skiing has grown greatly in recent years. For those accessing deep powder, the broad grins that they wear are in no way contrived – powder skiing / boarding is the ultimate in snow sports. Floating over banks of untracked powder takes some experience and should always be accessed with local guides and safety gear. But for those needing the ultimate experience on snow, off-piste is where it is at.
Austria is reputed to have the first and second snowiest ski areas in the Alps, both of which are in the spectacularly good Arlberg ski region. This region in the north west of Austria is hugely fortunate, as regional weather systems sweep across Switzerland and Germany and are jacked up by the peaks of the Arlberg – the result is mammoth snow accumulation throughout the winter. Some resorts are famed for their off-piste, others are more of a local’s secret.
Off-piste skiing involves riding snow away from marked ski pistes. This can be as simple as a short cut that involves a route between ski pistes or can involve commutes to undeveloped valleys and remote bowls. On the perfect day, off-piste involves floating over deep, virgin powder snow on steep terrain. Advanced skiers and boarders can make riding powder snow look effortless, and it is. The catch is that it takes a good skiing ability to perform in powder snow, otherwise it can be an exhausting battle to unlock the required technique.
Off-piste skiing is everywhere - it can be lift-accessed or require touring skis, a helicopter drop or a trudge up a slope in boots. Off-piste exists where new(ish) snow has fallen and the Pisten Bully hasn’t reached. There are dangers involved and it isn’t the case that proximity to slopes and lifts offers a degree of security, whilst rescue is generally less easy off-piste than on-piste. Safety gear is mandatory and a local guide is not just essential for safety, they can really enhance the experience by exploring the best local stashes.
There are specialist skis on the market that can shortcut the transition from piste skiing to powder skiing. They are lighter and offer a larger footprint allowing them to float on the snow easier. That said, powder skiing requires some straight-line confidence so it remains a reasonably elite pursuit.
There are also specialist schools who can help skiers and boarders to transition from piste skiing to off-piste powder skiing. They can ease the learning torment, teach the correct techniques and introduce risk assessment and safety techniques to those new to off-piste riding.
Steep and snowy would be a good rule of thumb when locating the best off-piste locations in the Alps. The Arlberg is famed for its off-piste skiing with record-breaking snow accumulations and epic, steep terrain. There are numerous guiding services and the ski hire shops have safety equipment and specialist off-piste skis. If we had to choose any location in the Arlberg for off-piste skiing it would be Stuben am Arlberg – it has ridiculous amounts of snow and a north facing, steep ridge beneath the Albona, that seems to go on forever.
Innsbruck would be another destination that we rate very highly for off-piste skiing. Just to the north of the city centre is the Nordpark ski area which has precipitous chutes and a great snow record. On powder days, the city reverberates to the thunder of avalanche detonations on the slopes above the city. Axamer Lizum, the highest ski area in the Innsbruck locality is one of the best off-piste areas in the region with great tree skiing and some epic, open powder faces.
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