“Keep left or you’ll fall in the hole,” says Dave Norman, directing his four pupils as they ski through knee-deep powder above the French resort of Meribel.
Norman, a 56-year old from Lancashire in the U.K., is a guide for Snoworks, a training outfit that’s part of an explosion in off-piste skiing triggered by advances in technology and safety equipment. With even moderately skilled skiers able to access remote mountain terrain, skiing away from well-manicured slopes has become one of the fastest-growing pieces of the industry that’s globally worth more than $70 billion a year.
“Skiing deep powder is an addiction,” said Phil Smith, founder of Snoworks, which offers courses everywhere from the Alps to the Tian Shan mountains of Kyrgyzstan. “Growth kicked off when ski design changed.”
Once considered too risky for most, the off-piste obsession has been fueled by the development of shorter and wider skis—allowing skiers to float more easily through deep, powdery snow. Additionally, bigger side cuts, which make it easier to turn even on steeper slopes, opened up the market, said Smith.
Also, avalanche beacons, shovels and probes—once the preserve of experts or ski guides—are becoming standard, said Stephan Hagenbusch, vice president of global sales at ski-gear maker Black Diamond & Pieps. The increasing popularity of back-country skiing—where skiers venture further away from the groomed runs of resorts—is a key driver of the business owned by Clarus Corp., he said.
‘Bragging Rights Have a Big Impact on What People Do’
Of the 23,000 British snow-sports enthusiasts surveyed by the Ski Club of Great Britain in 2018, 42 percent went off-piste, up from 36 percent five years earlier.
For some, that involves little more than skiing the strips of deeper snow between groomed runs, while for others it means following trails between high mountain huts for a week or more. At the extreme end of the scale, for 1 million pounds ($1.3 million), up to 12 skiers can hire a super yacht to go heliskiing—downhill skiing reached by helicopter instead of a ski lift—for a week in Greenland with James Orr.
Going off-piste is being driven by both a desire to get away from increasingly crowded slopes and to recapture a wilder, purer form of skiing. For some it’s become cool and glamorous.
“People are seeking the experience of free nature, away from the hustle,” said Martin Edlinger, a ski guide and mountain rescuer in Austria’s central Styria region.
That’s making it more difficult to find pristine snow, said Thomas Dietrich, another Austrian ski guide, from the country’s westernmost province of Vorarlberg—on the border with Switzerland.
“When I was young you’d still have virgin-powder slopes long after the fresh snow fell, but today, with those wide new skis, every kid is going out there because it’s so easy,” he said.
While definitive statistics are hard to come by, Geneva-based Laurent Vanat, who advises resorts from Switzerland to China, estimates that about 3 million people a year ski off piste globally. Even in China, where many resorts in the fastest-growing major ski market depend on artificial snow, there are initiatives to explore off-piste potential in remoter locations such as the Altai Mountains, he said.
Still, the adrenaline rush that comes with floating through pow-pow and freshies—jargon for fresh powder snow—carries risks.
“There’s the human factor: big egos, people who like the risk,” said Smith of Snoworks. “Bragging rights have a big impact on what people do.”
Daniel Loots, communications manager at the Ski Club of Great Britain, which organizes off-piste holidays for some of the roughly 1 million Britons who ski regularly, agrees.
“Powder fever is one of the bigger risks,” he said. “People think they’ve got to enjoy it before it goes, and they’re jumping in without knowing the conditions.”
During the first weekend of February, there were a number of fatal avalanche accidents across the Alps, including eight deaths in Italy. In Switzerland, weak layers in the snow pack in the cantons of Vaud and Fribourg compounded the risk as up to 50 centimeters of looser snow fell, said Benjamin Zweifel, an avalanche forecaster at the Institute of Snow and Avalanche Research in Davos, Switzerland. Three skiers died. The death of 15 people this season in Austria prompted the government to highlight spending on protective forests and barriers at an end-February avalanche summit.
Nevertheless, serious accidents haven’t increased in parallel with the higher number of off-piste skiers as advances in mountain rescue match those in ski technology, said Zweifel. The incidents that have taken place have been skewed toward two demographic groups: men aged between 20 and 30 and between 40 and 50, the institute found.
Some resorts are using off-piste to lure visitors. Verbier, the ritzy Swiss resort less than two hours from Geneva, bills itself as the freeride capital of the world. Lift operator Televerbier SA said it promotes avalanche-controlled, off-piste itineraries within the resort.
“The tourism industry has realized that the piste skiing market is saturated and that there’s more growth in touring and free-riding,” said Austrian ski guide Edlinger. “This also gave some resorts a new lease of life.”
–With assistance from Bryce Baschuk.
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