If you can ski blue runs and the occasional red run competently, and are reasonably fit, I want to let you into a secret - go off piste in the spring.As the season progresses into early spring in the European Alps snow structure undergoes an interesting change. Snow that was cold and powdery and crystalline because the daytime temperature stayed below zero, now turns into what most people call slush or sugar. During the daytime the sun raises the ground temperature where its rays hit the mountain, and the snow crystals break down into nothing more than blobs. This starts at lower altitudes, but as time marches on this snow belt moves to the higher ground and eventually on to the glaciers.
What interests us is the quality of this stuff if caught at the right time.Spring snow, known as corn in the US, is not as exciting as powder snow, but it is wonderfully flattering. The night time temperatures continue to drop below zero, so by morning the snow is frozen solid. Given an hour or two of warm sunshine, and the top layer, perhaps an inch or so, thaws out and turns a mountainside into one naturally made prepared piste. There are no icy patches, no bumps, and no other man made obstacles.
High up on the glaciers the transition also takes place. Fresh snow that has fallen earlier in the year and concealed crevasse openings, now thaws and freezes many times to form solid bridges over what would otherwise be lethal man traps. This means that the glaciers can be skied early on in the day in comparative safety.So if you decide to take a late holiday and find most of the snow in your resort base gone, pack a picnic and go ski some glaciers or anywhere else in the white blue yonder. Use the lift system to get as much height as possible and go up with the first lifts of the day.
Find out about the safety of the area before you go, and if necessary, take a large scale map. On no account must you or your party ever attempt glacier skiing on your own without a guide unless you have thoroughly checked the state of the area or the lie of the land with qualified local knowledge. If you are in any doubt hire a guide who is familiar with the terrain. It will cost you money, but weighed against the possibility of an expensive rescue operation should you fall down a crevasse, or even death, a guide wins hands down.Most ski shops will rent you a pair of skins and some randonee bindings. The skins unroll and stick to the bottom of your skis.
They are man made and are like bristles that will only let the skis go forward so you can walk up hills without sliding backwards. The bindings attach to the ones already on your skis, and allow your heel to come up. Once you are at the top and ready to push off they go back into your rucksack. Never try to ski down with the skins on. They can ruin a good descent!.
There is not a great deal of technique to be dealt with. You should keep a wary eye out for the lie of the land, as it is still quite easy to end up in a cul de sac even with the aid of a large scale mountain map. Make sure the weather is clear and sunny with a good forecast; if the weather should close in you will be on your own.Be extra observant with looking ahead, and make sure there is nothing on the slope ahead that could be a danger.
Some of the terrain will be steep, and some will be easy. Because the snow surface is so forgiving you will find it the nicest stuff you have ever skied on. So much for the difficulties of skiing off piste!..
Simon Dewhurst has taught downhill skiing in North America, Scandinavia and the European Alps for 35 years. He currently runs a ski chalet agency in the French Alps. His book "Secrets of Better Skiing" can be found at http://www.
ski-jungle.com If you have any comments about the above article, he will be happy to answer them.
By: Simon Dewhurst