If you didn’t already know, the best way to experience snowboarding is in the deep stuff: powder. Pristine and glorious white, a single fresh dump can get you hooked for life and opens up a whole new world for your riding. No longer are you limited by crowded pistes or packed parks. Once you have the basics mastered you can experience making the most of a blizzard, getting neck deep in exotic places like Japan and, of course, exploring the secret nooks and crannies of our own Portes du Soleil.
Sadly for some, the first taste of freshies can be frustrating, exhausting or even terrifying. Here’s a handy guide to get you started off piste and on track to the absolute best part of our sport: total freedom.
But first of all, a couple of points on safety. There’s so much to say on this that I could write a whole series of articles on the matter, but for people just starting out I’d say you could distill the really important stuff into two key points: knowing where you’re going and having the right safety gear (as well as knowing how to use it).
The best way to accomplish these is by going out with someone who knows what they’re doing, both in terms of where to go and some good knowledge of avalanche safety, i.e. a qualified guide or a seasoned local. Everyone should have a minimum of an avalanche transceiver, shovel and probe stashed in a lightweight pack (available to rent from shops in town) and when riding, if there’s any doubt as the where you’re headed, it’s best to make a bee-line back to the piste.
Where To Begin
It’s no good expecting to make huge turns if you’re yet to master a blue run without crashing, so make sure you can comfortably get down a red piste at a good speed before you start heading out of bounds. Once you can, look just to side of the piste to start making your first tracks, something the steepness of a good blue or mellow red should be good to get started.
Wait for a day when there’s a good amount of fresh snow lying around and look for patches without loads of tracks – getting up early is a good way to achieve this!
One more tip before you actually get going: you’ll want a board that’s big enough to float over the snow. A dedicated powder board is best, but an all-mountain snowboard on the larger side for your height/weight should be more than good enough. It also helps if you alter your stance and move both bindings back slightly towards the tail.
The biggest myth about riding powder is that it’s all about leaning on your back leg to keep the nose of the board from sinking into the snow – this is only true if you’re not going fast enough! Relying on this technique means you end up steering with your back foot – bad – and will have your back thigh cramping up like a Channel swimmer right after breakfast!
Whilst you don’t have to be absolutely maching it down the fall line all the time, you should be confident enough to commit to having enough speed to stay centred over your board – just like on the piste – and letting it float above the snow on its own. That way you’ll have more control in the turns and you’ll find yourself far less fatigued by lunchtime.
Always remember – speed is your friend!
If you’ve got the speed and balance dialed then turning isn’t actually too different from on groomed pistes: it’s all about staying centred, initiating with the front foot and finishing with the rear. With practice it actually becomes far easier than turning on the afternoon’s rutted mogul fields.
Once you’re confident, you can start adding some flair into the simple art of turning: sharp turns down banks feel and look amazing if you hold the line and don’t skid too much, but nothing beats the feeling of cranking your board completely sideways mid-turn and letting yourself get completely enveloped for a second in your own spray. Welcome to the white room!
One of the most exhausting parts of learning to ride off piste is simply getting back on your feet after a spill – you can spend hours wallowing around and punching your arms into nothingness trying to find something to push against.
Although it might be tempting, try not to take your board off unless it’s absolutely necessary. Not only is it already the most stable platform you have at your disposal, but trying to put it on again in deep snow can be just as tiring! Align yourself with your feet downhill and go slow, taking deep breaths before trying to pack the snow so that you can push away from the hill and back onto onto your feet.
If that doesn’t work then try and reach down to your board with one hand and push with the other, giving yourself less work to do. Most importantly, try your best not to get too frustrated or panicked as this will only make you more exhausted and the task more difficult!
One of the best parts of riding powder is getting well away from the beaten track, but that doesn’t always mean you’ll have the best lift access! You might find yourself having to hike for fresh lines occasionally, and there’s a few points to remember in order to make the most of it. A wise man once told me to save save your energy on the way up to get more rad on the way down.
Before you get going it’s best to lose a layer or two, as you don’t want to get ultra sweaty whilst walking only to freeze when you pause at the top. My rule of thumb is always to feel a little chilly when you start and remind yourself that you soon start warming up!
Make sure each foothold is firm before you put your full weight on it, as flailing around or falling over is way more tiring that packing a step in. Go at a steady pace that allows you to keep your breathing regular and don’t feel rushed by anyone else in your group. Always think of how good it’ll be at the top rather than how hard it is in the moment!
Of course there’s way more to riding powder than these six ideas, but if you use them as a starting point then you should be getting some of the best days of your life in no time! When you’re learning, always remember it’s meant to be fun – if you feel yourself getting tired or frustrated, just pause and take a look around at where you are. Could be worse right?