1 February 2019

Ready for powder? Discover the best freeride tips

We’ve witnessed a revolution in skiing and snowboarding in terms of equipment in the last few years. Lighter, more technical equipment, and even some that boldly promises to make the sport easier; it’s true it may be tempting to try and emulate the feats we’ve seen in videos, without realising the process required to get to that level.

In my opinion, there are two main categories that can be divided into an infinite array of options. There is a wide range of choices available for skiing on and off slope and for activities like downhill skiing. Whichever option you choose I should mention a mistake you mustn’t make and that is skipping stages. It’s crucial to move up the scale. The whole process of achieving what you aspire to is not an immediate one, and you have to accept this without getting too frustrated.

I’ll quickly tell you about my journey. Since I was a child I’ve done a bit of everything, including skiing, snowboarding, telemark skiing, Nordic skiing and so on. I gradually gained confidence and my technique improved when I came up against new challenges.

Why am I telling you this? You have to experiment and constantly put yourself in unfamiliar situations, so that your motor skills improve as much as possible, understanding and accepting where your limits lie. The learning process is ultimately a daily one, and the more time you spend on the snow, the greater your internal factors will be, without you even noticing.

These internal factors will also include the equipment that can be a further extension to your body. Essential safety equipment, including a shovel, a probe and an AVD, not to mention an ABS backpack.

  • Open one of the Skitude apps. It’s always a good idea to keep a record of your route. You also have an SOS button, which you can enable in the actions section. This will automatically send your coordinates to the resort’s safety service or the emergency services.
  • A good shovel should be hard-wearing so that you can dig properly with it without it breaking and light enough to be carried in your backpack. The handle is important; a short handle won’t give you any leverage to move large amounts or even blocks of snow. Some have holes that can be handy if they’re used to make an anchor point.
  • The probe is a bar, usually made of aluminium that can be folded up in sections. It’s important to make sure it has a neoprene handle, or any other material that prevents it from slipping out of your hand. I’d choose one with a cable rather than a rope, as this will give it greater rigidity and it will stay in better condition during the long months it’s not in use.
  • An AVD (Avalanche Victim Detector) is a device that works as an emitter; if a skier is buried they can enable the device in receiver mode to make the search quicker and easier. It’s vital to check that it’s working properly before every session and undertake search training to become as efficient as possible. (I’d like to recall that these days AVDs without three aerials and marking systems are becoming obsolete and they need to be upgraded)
  • The ABS backpack, despite not being a completely fail safe system, will allow your body to float much better in an avalanche of powder snow.

Whilst all this is true, shouldn’t attempt to go down a mountain without first clearly understanding several concepts, something I’ll call external factors. These fall into two categories: fixed factors, those we can identify in advance, and variable factors, like various meteorological conditions.


 I advise you to seek out people who can teach you specific concepts related to the fixed factors, those that no longer vary once they exist on a mountain side; you can then move on to interpreting them (it’s important to check out the area in summer).

Some of the fixed factors are listed below:

  • The terrain (a forest, a narrow couloir, a meadow); how the snow grips will depend on the land.
  • The features of the terrain: rocks that absorb heat and become a point of fracture, solitary trees that may have an effect, if there are concave and convex areas and so on…
  • We should regard slopes over 25º as potentially dangerous, whilst slopes less than 20º mean a low level of danger. However, on slopes over 45º there may be purges, which are triggered spontaneously.
  • The direction the mountain faces is key; the sun won’t have the same strength on the east face as on the west face, nor will the consistency of the snow be the same; the danger of avalanches being triggered will be much greater on the north face than on the south face and the snow will be colder and less consistent.

The variable factors include the following:

  • The amount of snowfall: the stability of the blanket will be depend on this, especially during and after the snowfall itself. A fracture may be caused by an overload of snow and the breakdown of weak lower layers.
  • Rain: depending on its temperature when it falls, it can superficially moisten the upper blanket and reduce the consistency of the snow, or reach the base of the blanket and make it temporarily unstable.
  • Wind: depending on its strength and direction, it can build up large amounts of unstable snow, as well as areas with erosion where the blanket is weak or even non-existent.
  • Ambient temperature: above-zero temperatures for a short period of time can heat the snow until it moistens, and so there may be purges due to the water between the grains.
  • Types, powder snow, spring snow, hard snow and surface crusts.

To define these variable factors more specifically, there are different tests to help us to read the signs and make the right decisions. I’ll go through two tests that are quick and easy to do below.

Source: 2008, Desnivel magazine

Compression test

  • This involves separating a block of snow about 30 cm long and 30 cm wide, with a maximum height of 120 cm, leaving the lower part clear.
  • Hold the shovel above the block and striking it repeatedly with harder and harder blows.
  • Begin with ten blows with from the wrist, continue with ten blows from the elbow and finish with ten blows from the shoulder.
  • Look out for any fissures or breakages as you overload the column.

We’ll define as “unstable” a break appearing and the block sliding out of the column between 1 and 16 blows, as “doubtful” a break appearing between 17 and 20 blows and the block sliding out more slowly and, finally, as “stable” the breakage surface being uneven and the block being gradually compressed after more than 20 blows.

The extended column test

  • Block size: 30 cm long x 90 cm wide x 120 cm high (maximum).
  • Place the long side parallel to the slope.
  • Strike it at one end in the same order (wrist, elbow, shoulder).
  • Read the test as “unstable” if a fracture appears after one or two blows, indicating a high degree of propagation. If you need more than two blows for the fracture to cross the block, or the fractures don’t cut it, you should read it as “stable”.
Source: http://lauegi.conselharan.org/boletin-de-prevision-de-aludes

Remember to use Skitude to check out the conditions at the resorts, track your activity with your Apple watch or smart phone and share your activity in 3D with all your friends.

Bear in mind that zero danger does not exist. Remember, you’ll often return home without having carried out the activity you proposed to do; never regard this as a failure. Carpe diem!

Enjoy the snow,

Bertran Montoya Deymes, Skitude Ambassador.

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