A big part of skiing is about technique and tactics. SnowTrex discussed this complex issue with Max Holzmann, chief instructor at the German Ski Teacher Association (Deutscher Skilehrerverband, DSLV). In part 4 of our series, the state approved ski instructor gives expert advice on how to ski a safely off-piste.
Skiing off-piste is a lasting trend among winter sports fans. Searching for new terrain off the beaten path, leaving one’s own traces in the untouched powder snow, and a feeling of flying – an experience with its very own level of pleasure. Our ski expert Max Holzmann goes into raptures just talking about it: “Deep powder skiing really makes for the most relaxed skiing possible – that’s why it’s so much fun! The pleasure of skiing increases with every turn.”
However, in order to enjoy complete indulgence, a good skiing technique and appropriate respect of the terrain are necessary. Before starting, every deep powder snow enthusiast needs to be made aware of the risks on the mountain and prepare accordingly.
Assessing danger correctly
In part one of our series, we talked about subjective and objective dangers for skiers. Holzmann knows that these aspects become especially important when skiing off-piste: “Objective dangers in particular play a major role when it comes to skiing off-piste. The greatest possible objective danger is an avalanche. However, a snowslide may also be caused by skiers themselves, which is why one has to be extra careful off-piste.” Up-to-date avalanche reports help in assessing the danger. They are available on a ski area’s website and via avalanche apps, but info panels and warning signals also show the avalanche risk level right in the ski area. After all, every slope has to be assessed separately.
Recognising ski spaces
It is especially important to be able to differ between the following two areas: secured and unsecured skiing space. “Secured skiing space is always described, marked, and characterised as safe by the ski area’s operator. As off-piste skiing is very popular, there are also secured off-piste areas: Unprepared pistes one can use for off-piste skiing, but which are still in a secured skiing space. These areas only have a low risk of avalanches.” The mountain rescue service is always active and ready within a secured skiing space. In unsecured skiing spaces, however, reaching the accident site and rescuing victims is more complicated.
Ski routes and variants
One should always read the piste map carefully and pay attention to the markings. “Ski routes or variants are not necessarily in a secured skiing space. However, whenever a ski route is mapped in the piste plan and marked as a piste, mountain security controls the area and is active there. A dotted line shows an unsecured ski route, a sold line marked in black (sometimes also with a number) is usually in a secure skiing space, but it is not a prepared piste.”
Behaviour in deep powder snow
Free skiing space is unsecured terrain, and skiing there is only ever at one’s own risk, although one rule is essential: to strictly keep all aspects of risk management in mind. “Before starting, the risk level for avalanches has to be assessed and the necessary equipment has to be packet. Whenever we as ski instructors leave the piste and prepared skiing space, we always carry emergency equipment. Yes, it’s called emergency equipment. In order to educate people about the different terms, I always point out the differences: it’s not security equipment, but emergency equipment. Security is only based on how the situation was assessed, not on the equipment!” The basic equipment must contain an avalanche transceiver, a sensor, and a shovel.
Holzmann also has legal advice regarding the aspect of security: „In open, unsecured skiing space, a careless skier can act grossly negligent. When skiing in a group, the person who has the most experience is responsible for the rest of the group. That means he has a guarantor’s obligations. He can bring along friends, ski unsuitable descents, trigger an avalanche and thus compromise their own and others’ safety. As soon as such grossly negligent behaviour can be proven, the guarantor is fully liable.
As soon one is aware of the risks on the mountain and has carefully examined the terrain and the avalanche report, it is finally time to go. As unique as off-piste skiing might be, one has to follow the same technical rules as when skiing normal pistes: matching the three important elements of track, speed, and movement. It is important to keep one’s balance, stay in the chosen track, and not to exceed controllable speed. Especially being able to adjust the movements in turns is essential when skiing off-piste.
The art of deep powder snow skiing is even described in schoolbooks. Clearly, there is more than one golden rule to follow when it comes to skiing powder. There are still several important technical tips that are worth memorising. Ski instructor Holzmann advises to stand on the ski in a centred position in coordination with the track setting: “Do not ski in too large of an angle, but rather according to the fall line. A certain speed leads to momentum, which then again helps in the turns. Of course, it is important that one always skis controllably. Once you master the timing of turns, you can truly enjoy deep powder snow skiing.”
Deep powder snow skiing should not be exhausting, Holzmann stresses. “Fun in the powder is created when you make the right movements in the right moment. The up-and-down and back-and-forth movements when taking turns are significant. Stretching for relief, flexing for steering, stretching again for relief. Added to that is the classic ski-turning. A constant switch from tension to relaxation helps your muscles to work for a very long time. With the right motion sequence at the right time you can ski deep powder snow for several kilometres.”
Broad skis are the key
Another effective aid in deep powder snow skiing is the equipment. “Current deep powder snow skis with mid-widths of 100 mm and more simplify skiing immensely. Once you add active movement, skiing curves in the deep snow is made easier.” When it comes to mastering deep powder snow, Holzmann is sure: “The greatest efficiency comes from the equipment.”
Every time before enjoying off-piste fun, the area and the most recent avalanche report must be checked. Additionally, every off-piste skier must bring the correct emergency equipment. In deep powder snow, broad skis cause a higher buoyant force, and the momentum caused by high speed makes taking turns easier. With the right timing in taking turns and dynamic up-and-down movements, deep powder skiing over several kilometres is no problem.
Our DSLV expert
Max Holzmann is a state approved ski instructor and executive board of professional training in the German Ski Teacher Association (Deutscher Skilehrerverband, DSLV). His areas of responsibility are the contents of training courses, the respective assessment levels and levels of difficulty in all training stages from level 1 to the state approved ski instructor exam in the disciplines motor skills, methodology, and theory.