By Sam Masters
The 18th Century French philosopher Voltaire was the first to propose that humans should journey into nature as an essential foundation of their wellbeing. Ripping powder in the big mountain environment was precisely what he had in mind.
It’s no surprise that many skiers and snowboarders regard big mountain riding as the purest expression of their respective sports. Snowboarding was pioneered outside the ski resort boundary by the sport’s founding fathers– at least if you believe the mythology in the Burton brochure. Big mountain skiing is similarly a healthy antidote to the regimentation of racing. The outerwear is more flattering, too.
We all admire the spectacle of the Olympics and X-games. The preparation required, however, is more epic than a James Cameron film. Millions are spent preparing courses. Spoiled athletes whine because the half-pipe is a fraction of a degree off vertical. Big mountain riding is an alternative for those who crave a simpler, purer fix.
The Cantabrian mountains are well endowed with this natural terrain and form a gateway to some of the best big-mountain skiing in the country. No one ever learned how to ski by reading an article, but that’s not going to stop Kingswood from dishing up some top tips...
It’s all about the turn. If you can’t make strong turns in all conditions elsewhere on the mountain then you won’t have much luck when things turn ‘big’. Become a strong skier first – then worry about conquering the steeps.
Riding like a pro is deceptively easy. At least according to snowsports guru Alex Guzman; “I think the best thing to do is to carefully observe pro skiers for what they are doing in different conditions: body position, line choice, edging etc...” Watch, analyse, copy; repeat. If you look like you are doing it properly then you are – there is no score card.
Alex Guzman; “if there is one piece of advice I offer to people wanting to improve their skiing in any form it would have to be to look ahead. This slows the sensory information entering your brain, giving you more time to react to what lies ahead. Try this: next time you drive your car look 10 metres past the bonnet and see how fast everything appears. Then look 50m to 100m ahead and watch as everything slows down.”
The straightline – when in doubt, point it out.
The straightline (figure 11s) looks spectacular, feels great and is usually the safest way out of a tight, rocky section. Best to keep the distance short to start and make sure there is a large area to wash speed when you come out. Extra kudos if you can work a straightline directly into large turns to slow down, rather than skid out like a racer after the finish line. Straightlines are easiest on a powder day; the deep snow will slow you down.
Read the terrain
Really steep terrain obscures your line (i.e. route). At the top all you can see is a disconcerting double horizon; the first dropping away only a few metres ahead, the normal horizon in the far distance. Former NZ Freeskiing Champion Hamish Acland has the answer; “Learn to read terrain at your local hill; look from below, memorise, then ski the picture in your head. Adjust the picture as you are skiing and your line gradually comes into view. Repeat until you nail it. Then try different lines.”
Alex Herbert (Kingswood) - “Fat skis - and I’m not talking 100mm, I’m saying 120mm or more underfoot - will give you the jump on the jibbers.”
Big mountain skiing is a little like surfing. Sometimes it’s more important to know how not to drown rather than how best to surf. Your first duty in the big mountain environment is to get back alive. Think of your safety and those of your companions before you contemplate how hard you rip on your new skis.
Good judgement comes from experience. Unfortunately experience mostly comes from bad judgement. Cheat the system by hooking up with an experienced skier; the fastest way to learn about snow conditions and – vitally – the location of secret stashes. Never blindly follow someone who just appears to know what they’re doing. Never, ever follow someone’s tracks assuming they’ll lead you to safety. Admittedly this practice is more dangerous in Chamonix than Round Hill.
It’s easy to forget in the mountains that you are in a potentially deadly environment. This is particularly true if you leave the resort boundary. “It’s a sunny day, what can go wrong?” Wily big mountain skiers avoid catastrophe by keeping a wary eye the continually changing weather, snow conditions and the group dynamic. Common sense is about as sexy Gran’s underwear but worth deploying selectively if it prevents you winning a Darwin Award.