Two things are learned as a pre-teen living through a British winter. Snow is amazing at accelerating a £5 plastic sledge to breakneck speeds, and you can hide dog shit inside a snowball if you’re careful enough with your sister’s woolen gloves.
Now I am not about to take on Devil’s Drop on a sledge that my mate Darren Walker nicked from the corner shop – nor am I about to lob a snowball full of shit at the aforementioned corner shop owners’s Ford Cortina over a mix-up about a Curly Wurly – but the question of steepness is still at the forefront of my mind.
I was recently standing at the top of the Hari Kari run in Mayrhofen, geographically and spiritually opposite the Penken Funpark. At the top of this infamous piste – marketed as the steepest groomed run in Europe – is a marker proclaiming a gradient of “78%" accompanied by a warning red triangle and a graphic of a man essentially rag-dolling his way down a cliff. Not that you can make him out too well; he’s covered in stickers of skulls & crossbones and Euro-sounding mountain shops (Bennji’s Shred Emporium etc). If you’re a middle-aged holidaymaker about to stare his intermediate skiing demons in the face, this is what you see.
Now I don’t often boast, but I could have straightlined the Hari Kari whilst giving Paul Potts a piggy back. Switch. Because in no way does it represent even the mildest test of riding skills for even a recent graduate of side-slipping. I did notice one thing though: the Hari Kari was steep enough not to have formed moguls. On the day I was there it had formed the most perfect hard, crisp, not-quite-icy sheen, perfect for chucking those backside overturns that allow you to get faceshots on what is otherwise a terrible run. It was actually pretty cool as it turned out.
What is the steepness sweet-spot we snowboarders are after? What magic set of numbers capture the imagination like a sleazy announcer describing the curves of Miss Argentina in a bikini?
So it got me thinking: what is the steepness sweet-spot we snowboarders are after? What magic set of numbers capture the imagination like a sleazy announcer describing the curves of Miss Argentina in a bikini? Personally speaking, I’m entirely oblivious as to the measurements. I know some cat tracks that are like getting stuck on a travelator in Terminal 3, and I’ve stood at the top of some frighteningly steep couloirs wearing a pair of Oakley A-Frame goggles (which whistle when you go fast enough), ready to get them hitting the high notes like an opera singer.
But I’ll be damned if I know what steepness I like. So I turn to the internet. First off, I look up what is universally regarded as the world’s shittest snowboarding day out: a trip down The Wall between Avoriaz and Les Crosets. 33 degrees steepness, apparently. An Olympic-standard superpipe? 15 or 16 degrees. And how about the famous Bec des Rosses face in Verbier, the classic last stage of the Freeride World Tour, and a run that genuinely fills the salopettes of some of the best powder hounds on the planet? 55 to 60 degrees.
There’s a chance that measurement was taken using the iHandy Carpentry app on an iPhone. It’s certainly an upgrade to the A-Frame method, but isn’t pulling out a phone and getting the spirit level on the slope a bit ‘Mr Logic from Viz’?
No. What I’m after is a rule of thumb. Recently I was out with a ski guide in Sainte Foy. He showed us how to guess a slope’s steepness - and likelihood of avalanche - by putting his ski poles together and measuring the angle of the sun - a long and complicated procedure. When he finished and realised we were all holding snowboards, he gave us the international “I’ll get my coat" look. Anglo Saxons, he might have thought as he sparked up another Gouloise Blonde in resignation, and not an angle-measurer amongst them.
So how do you get an accurate (ish) measure of a slope? If I’m honest, I still have no idea. But I’m taking a leaf out of Xavier de le Rue’s book. “When I straight-line," he said in a recent interview. “After a certain speed I spread out my arms a bit and then lean on the air. It definitely gives more control. And once you reach that speed, it normally doesn't get much faster."
That’s sound advice from a legendary hellman, and it works on nursery slopes too.