Photo: Element Ski School
How Do You Make The Transition To Skiing Off-Piste?
Issue 46 / 25 September 2020

How Do You Make The Transition To Skiing Off-Piste?

Top tips from Element Ski School in Verbier on how to ski off-piste.

Serena Norton

With Verbier being the holy grail for free-ride, lots of people are very keen to make the transition from the marked pistes into the incredible backcountry terrain. The off-piste experience is so special and unique; taking you away from the busy crowds to more magical and remote surroundings. Enjoy being at one with nature as you experience the epic sensation of skiing powder in the heart of the mountains.

So, how can you make the transition from on-piste to off-piste? If you are new to skiing off-piste or are keen to venture further afield then the best way to do this and have the ultimate experience is to book an off-piste instructor for a day. You just can't beat local knowledge, while improving ski technique to experience the best snow in the mountains and find those hidden gems! Element Ski School in Verbier are renowned for their private off-piste lessons, with a team of experienced off-piste coaches who know the resort inside-out. Below are a few important tips from Element to help maximise your experience in the backcountry, ensuring you have one of the best days on the mountain.

1. Equipment

It is true - the right equipment makes a huge difference in skiing. If you can experience the day on a wider pair of skis, it's going to make it easier and definitely more enjoyable. Wider skis float much more easily on top of powder and are generally softer than on-piste skis. Ideally you should go for at least a 95mm under foot ski as this can massively help you create those epic arcs in the snow. It is always handy to get advice on the best skis for that particular day and the snow conditions.

The other essential equipment for skiing off-piste is avalanche safety equipment. The absolute minimum is a transceiver with a shovel and probe in your backpack. Of course, knowing how to use it is absolutely key when going off-piste - otherwise there's no point in having it! Your off-piste instructor will always teach you how to use this (or give you a refresher if you've used it before), because everyone should always be prepared and have practiced using this vital equipment.

2. Fitness

It is super important to have good base fitness and strength - particularly in your core and legs. This means you can deal with the demands of skiing on an unsteady surface and be able to make constant adjustments. If you lack a strong core, this type of terrain can easily throw you around or make it virtually impossible to ski and create arcs.

If you only ski for one or two weeks a year, then make sure you are fit and ready to ski off-piste, even if you are an expert skier, as it will make the world of difference. It's always great to have a snack in your backpack too, in case your energy levels dip.

3. Technique

The skiing techniques that you require off-piste are built on accurate and effective skills that you already use on-piste. However, any bad habits or lazy technique will be highlighted straight away when skiing off-piste or in more challenging conditions. It's therefore always helpful to get some lessons to brush up on technique leading up to adventuring into the backcountry.

The key to being able to enjoy off-piste skiing is being able to create smooth arcs in a variety of radii and corridors. If your turns are more zigzag, this doesn't work as well and definitely isn't as much fun...

There are many different technical inputs which help you to do this; being able to keep a strong core and remain centred, smoothly turn your skis through the arc, without getting too much edge through the turn. Being able to implement the right technique is so reliant on your fitness levels - so you can be in charge of directing your skis where to go easily. You must also have good speed control and be able to change direction if necessary to avoid rocks, trees or anything unexpected.

We all need to remember to respect the backcountry; it's fundamentally an uncontrolled and potentially dangerous environment. We need to be ready to make decisions, change plans (according to the conditions and circumstances) and always listen to guidance from your coach.

4. Snow Conditions

When you are skiing off-piste, your are not always guaranteed a powder day. However, there are lots of other great snow conditions you can have a epic days skiing in. One thing is for sure - it will always be an adventure. Of course, powder days are unbelievably fun, but you will also find amazing conditions when it's chalky hard pack (great for skiing couloirs) or when the spring snow has just transitioned.

At times conditions can be more challenging, especially when you have crust, hard pack or even ice. But, with the right coaching and technique you can still have an awesome adventure en-route to finding the best snow.

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