Under the Ropes
What Does ‘Off-Piste’ Mean Anyway?
The feeling of exploration, a search for fresh lines, or just escaping the crowds? Whatever it is that drives us to ride the backcountry, and wherever you may be venturing, we’re all after the same thing: a unique riding experience.
While a love of powder unites snowboarders the world over however, the way in which freshies are patrolled and accessed varies dramatically from country to country. Have you ever wondered, for instance, why you can seemingly ride whatever slopes you like in France – even after a snowfall – but in America they threaten to confiscate your lift pass if you duck under the ropes? And if resorts in the States take such a hardline view, how do American snowboarders ever get to ride powder? Are the guys in the videos simply breaking the law?
It’s a confusing situation, and us globe-trotting snowboarders need to keep in mind that the concept of ‘backcountry’, or even just ‘off-piste’, can vary depending on the host nation. Here is the low down on the local etiquette, region-by-region…
It might seem unfair to lump those poor Canucks in with the Americans, but let’s be pragmatic about it: their snow scenes are very similar. Resort culture throughout North America actually differs more from East to West than it does North to South, since rules are governed more by the size of the mountains and the type of snow that falls on them than the people themselves.
The average altitude for Eastern resorts is under half of those in the West, and likewise annual levels of snow in the East are far lower. From the unobtrusive but icy hills of Quebec, Vermont and New Hampshire, to the remarkable powder-laden peaks of British Columbia, Colorado, Utah and California, conditions really are a world apart – and that’s before we contemplate the freakish climate in Alaska. The more Eastern provinces and states just don’t have the terrain to worry about serious backcountry travel, whereas those closer to the Pacific offer almost limitless backcountry riding with the help of sleds, cats and helis. This last fact is key: for the most part serious powder riding out West is done in the ‘backcountry’ i.e. out of the juristiction/liability of a commercial resort. However some resorts are now offering access to the backcountry too.
For me, one of the most grating things about North America is the way laws change from state to state and province to province. Whether it’s drinking, gambling or driving, you cross a state line and the local law become the norm. Of course, this applies to snowboarding as well. Whilst some states or provinces allow you to access the backcountry from their lifts, others will definitely not. In Colorado, for instance, you could end up spending a night in jail if you leave the resort boundary on a freshie mission, whereas the authorities in British Columbia take a more relaxed ‘at your own judgment’ approach. Many resorts in Tahoe are now installing backcountry access gates with signs stating things like “Proceed at your own risk" and I quote, “You may die". These gates allow you to go exploring further afield but without the backup of the resort’s safety services.
Whilst backcountry rules are fairly variable throughout this continent, the law surrounding ‘off-piste’ – meaning areas of ungroomed snow that are within the resort’s boundary ropes - is clear-cut: ride it if it’s open. If it’s closed, it’s usually due to avalanche danger - and the patrol team are likely to be placing their dynamite at the exact moment you’re thinking “Man that looks good!" Can you imagine cutting a closure and hearing an eardrum-shaking bang above you? It could be the last thing you ever do. Resorts in North America take their avalanche control work VERY seriously, and if they catch you ducking a rope on a powder day you are certain to lose your pass - at a bare minimum. The best way to enjoy North America’s backcountry is to avoid the resorts completely and search out places that are easy to access on foot or, even better, on the back of a snowmobile.
Holding the number one spot internationally for super-accessible backcountry terrain, Europe has it going on! From Spain’s Sierra Nevadas up to the Hallingdal Valley of Norway, our local continent has a real medley of riding options. However, this many countries presents a huge array of different cultures, and therefore a variety of local laws.
Much like North America, Europe’s geography and weather systems bestow some diverse snow conditions. Fortunately for us, when it comes to big mountain policies the Alpine nations (France, Switzerland and Austria) set the tone throughout, with the other Euro countries often happy to follow suit.
The distinctions, if any, between off-piste and backcountry are hazy. “Where does the ski resort end?" you might well ask, “and who rescues me if I hurt myself off-piste?" As you probably know, some of these resorts are amongst the largest in the world, so how could we expect patrol staff to control all the terrain accessible from the lift? By and large, resorts in Europe try to make safe any areas that directly affect their trails and the people on them. This usually includes pitches directly above, or leading onto, their groomed runs, as well as those small off-piste areas found in between.
Snowboarders in Europe are privileged. In most resorts it is NOT illegal to venture in search of powder (with some National Park-based mountains being the exceptions). Many ski areas will give you the freedom to make your own decisions, whilst providing you with solid avalanche advisory information. This culture originates from a long history of comprehensive mountain education, whereby locals and visitors alike are taught to respect and understand the etiquette of their mountains.
Having said that, mistakes are still made and the consequences can be more severe in some countries than in others. One moment of crap judgment when riding off-piste in the French Alps can easily create a life-threatening situation. And if you set off an avalanche in France that ends up killing someone, you’re likely to be up for a manslaughter charge – not the best end to a powder day! So if you prefer to err on the side of caution, don't leave the corduroy in Europe unless you are 100% certain of all mitigating factors. But come on, really… where’s the fun in that?
With so many peaks crammed into such a small country, NZ has almost as many backcountry options as the whole of Western Europe. Regrettably, many of these are completely inaccessible. Even with a helicopter there are still hundreds of unreachable peaks that the average snowboarder will never ride. I’m sure Jeremy Jones has managed a few ‘first descents’ down that way but the rest of us can only dream.
The backcountry/off-piste culture down in New Zealand is a cross between that of Europe’s and North America’s. Whilst resorts do have a clear-cut boundary and will close avy-prone terrain within this area when necessary, they generally don’t object to people crossing the boundary line when accessing the backcountry. Like France, Switzerland and Canada, NZ resorts endeavour to provide their punters with the best information possible regarding the latest snow conditions, and leave the rest up to you. They do not take responsibility for your safety outside of the specified resort areas, and should you get lost you become Search and Rescue’s problem rather than the Ski Patrol (although it’s often the same guys in the end).
The Kiwi resorts that give you the most freedom are those set in the national parks. Since the resort doesn’t own the land itself they can’t tell you where to ride - although they can stop you using their lifts if you piss them off by doing something genuinely stupid. Funnily enough, this is the opposite to most Northern Hemisphere countries, whose national parks are strictly protected and where you can only ride in certain designated areas. In NZ, these parks are there for people to enjoy, and they make the perfect playground for backcountry exploration. Snowmobiles however are strictly forbidden!
… a.k.a. Japow. And rightly so! Anyone that has read a snowboard magazine at some point in the past five years will know of Japan’s immense powder reputation. The freshies are consistent and are just waiting to be claimed - to put it mildly. Many snowboarders are also aware that Japanese resorts take a rather different approach to backcountry and off-piste riding, which can be used to their advantage. Most famously, Japanese Buddhists view the trees as a sacred home to spirits and until recently it was frowned upon to ride through them. Ever since Dave Seone and friends stuck a very American finger up at this local tradition, however (in the classic ’92 film Riders on the Storm) the floodgates have opened. Western riders have flocked to Japan amid tales of empty tree lines, and now even local Japanese snowboarders are beginning to challenge authority.
Traditionally, resorts in Japan consider off-piste and backcountry to be the same thing. The difference between shredding a sweet tree line in between two runs and actually hiking out of the ski area seems quite simple to me, but in Japan these differences have not been properly defined… yet. Either way, off-piste or backcountry, many resorts will not allow it.
Perhaps the language barrier is behind this lack of a clear definition? More likely, however, it is the huge difference in culture. Generally speaking the Japanese are conformists; they abide by rules and stick to terrain that’s open. This means resorts find it very easy to manage avalanche prone areas. I say “manage", what I actually mean is “close". “Manage" would imply they actually do something about it, like ski-cut or throw a little dynamite. What they really do for terrain that’s over 30 degrees with a foot of fresh is just rope it off. Incredible! Imagine if this was Europe or North America; there’s a rope across your favourite powder face all day long. You cruise past once, maybe twice. By midday the run is still not open. How long would you hold back for? And how many tracks would you expect to see cutting under the rope? Not in Japan. If it’s closed, very few people will take this risk and cut the closure. That is, until recently.
With the slow but steady increase in Western visitors each year, Japanese resorts have had to begin re-thinking their strategies. Some resorts have taken the initiative and started to open their off-piste terrain. A select few have even installed backcountry access gates. Unfortunately, the majority of the lift stations have still not seen the light. Some of them are actually limited by the government’s classification of the land they’re using (being National Parks), whilst others just don’t have the staff skill level to perform avalanche safety work. Even with these inconveniences Japan is still an amazing place to ride. Not only do they have some of the world’s best powder, but also some of the world’s loveliest people. Japan should fully be numero uno on every snowboarders trip list!
Home to the formidable Andes, South America gets just as much snow as many popular European destinations. Argentina and Chile both have extreme mountains offering an abundance of freeriding opportunities - in and out of the resorts’ boundaries.
Compared to the other aforementioned regions, South America is probably the most relaxed when it comes to backcountry and off-piste regulations. Off-piste terrain rarely seems to close and there is no obvious boundary line to worry about crossing. Whether this is a good or bad thing you can judge for yourself. It certainly grants you a lot of freedom, but it also puts a higher degree of pressure on the decisions you make. The bonus of riding at a resort that consistently closes its more exposed slopes is that you’re almost always safe (out-of-control skiers aside). When riding in South America you feel a little less secure about the freeriding decisions you make, in the knowledge that some faces may have been overlooked. This is not a comment on the competency of the resort’s patrol staff, just a simple observation of cultural differences.
In light of this, when exploring these Latin American resorts be sure you know your stuff. Also, talk to the locals - they’re extremely welcoming and there’s nothing more helpful than a good bit of native knowledge.
Stay safe and make good decisions, but most importantly take the time to understand the local culture of the country and resort that you’re riding in. Appreciating why things are the way they are goes a hell of a long way.
Keith Stubbs is an ex-pat Brit living in New Zealand. As an instructor, occasional competitive rider and part-time writer, Keith has notched up thirteen winters over the past eight years, visiting many international resorts. He currently rides for Rome Snowboards and runs a training course for Ruapehu Snow Academy in NZ.