Freeriding means skiing off the beaten track, whether you head to the edge of your favourite run or seek out truly untouched slopes. The discipline really started to take off in the mid-1990s, with international competitions and widespread coverage. You can try freeriding almost anywhere you find fresh snow: under a chairlift, in the woods, between two runs, in a valley...
Freeriding offers a sense of pure freedom, an unlimited choice of different slopes, and access to the very best powder snow.
As freeriding becomes increasingly popular, ski resorts are adapting to suit the needs of off-piste enthusiasts. For example, there are devices installed at the start of the ski lifts' to check that avalanche transceivers are working correctly.
Many ski resorts, including Morzine, have special freeriding zones marked on their maps. For example, at the end of the Chamossiere chairlift in Morzine, there is a popular off-piste area with excellent northern exposure.
The off-piste slopes in Morzine (and Avoriaz) are manned by expert technical staff who work to ensure the highest levels of avalanche safety by fencing off at-risk areas when necessary. In my experience, some of the most evocative routes include The Border, near the Mossetes chairlift; the Brochaux wall, near the chairlift of the same name; the Combe des Marmottes, reached via the Fornet chairlift; the Crozats; and the Pschott.
Compared to traditional skis, freeriding skis must be manoeuvrable, float over fresh snow and prevent sinking.
To get the right level of buoyancy, the central part (under the boots) should be 80-140 mm wide with a flat profile. A minimum width of 110 mm is best for deep fresh snow.
Just like standard skis, the sidecut determines the skier's turn radius. An 18 m sidecut, for example, offers short, rhythmic turns, while a 27 m sidecut lets you link larger turns at speed.
The word camber literally means curvature, referring to the longitudinal profile of the ski. Camber means that the ski forms a bridge when the tip and tail are resting on a flat surface, such as a table. Rocker determines the structure of the rest of the ski, excluding the waist, creating that classic banana shape with the raised tip and tail.
Freeriding skis have a very low or nonexistent camber compared to standard skis. Rocker at the tip is essential for keeping the ski out of the snow and preventing falls; tail rocker is less vital. Rocker contributes to the manoeuvrability and buoyancy of a good pair of freeriding skis.
Finally, you need to choose the correct length to achieve good manoeuvrability and easier turning. Skis 10-15 cm shorter than the skier's height are considered short. They are extremely manoeuvrable for linked and short turns, but can become unstable when increasing speed. A 5-10 cm difference keeps the skis stable and precise at high speeds.
To start freeriding, I recommend choosing skis your own height, 90 to 105 mm wide, with a small sidecut, a slight camber and a reasonable amount of rocker. These skis can be used on all types of snow, including on the slopes.
The right skis are nothing without the right bindings. They need to be safe, lightweight, stable, and attach to your skis in the right place. The bindings on the market today offer an extremely high level of performance and safety. Their weight varies from 500 g to 3000 g.
If you just want to spend some time on the slopes, weight should not be an issue. However, if you are planning a day of ski touring in Morzine, carrying 3 kg on your feet or shoulders can get very tiring!
To get the most out of freeriding in Morzine, stability is absolutely key, especially for high speeds and wide turns. Your bindings should therefore include hard springs, between 12 and 14 kN; a locking system on the toe and heel pieces (as similar as possible to the classic and effective Alpine ski bindings); and a sturdy connection hub (between the toe and heel pieces).
Where the bindings are mounted on the skis affects your skiing style. Freestyle skiers install their bindings towards the front, freeride skiers position them towards the back, and all-rounders keep them in the centre. Installing the bindings according to the instructions on the skis, or shifted by 1 cm, will help you to float over the snow and stop the tips from sinking.
Finding the perfect boots can be a real challenge. There is a huge range of products on the market, and the choice can be overwhelming.
Boots are a very personal thing, so I recommend trying out different products, sizes and fits in one of Morzine's sports equipment stores. Don't rent or buy based purely on a recommendation from a friend: you probably don't have identical feet!
Rigid plastic boots are designed for the slopes, as their smooth soles make it almost impossible to walk, and they can also be fitted with lifts for racing. Ski touring boots are very soft and lightweight, but do not offer much grip on the front and sides. Finally, freeride boots combine advanced Alpine skiing performance with manoeuvrability and safety, letting you walk comfortable during your off-piste outings.
I recommend choosing boots with overlapping flaps on the upper, 3 or 4 hooks for excellent foot support, a plastic flex rating of 100-120 for men and 80-90 for women, and Vibram soles to move safely on the snow.
This combination should provide excellent side and front grip during your descents, ensuring good steering and cushioning your feet no matter the conditions (including on uneven ground). Alpine skiing boots are a suitable alternative for your very first freeriding outings in Morzine.
Whether you are freeriding or hitting the slopes, poles will help you keep your rhythm when changing direction. Small baskets are fine for the slopes, but they will sink into deep snow and provide less grip.
I recommend choosing poles with large baskets (Ø8 cm). The baskets are interchangeable, so you do not need to buy more than one type of pole.
Even experienced freeriders will occasionally fall and lose a ski. In soft fresh snow, skis can sink so much that they vanish entirely. Ski ribbons (3 metres long) are released when the ski becomes detached from the bindings, helping you find it in the snow. If you don't want to spend hours searching and digging, I think ribbons are a very worthwhile purchase.
Freeriding essentials: rucksack, avalanche transceiver, shovel and
As technology advances, ski equipment is getting lighter and more powerful, but the techniques have remained the same.
The following list lays out the basic equipment you will need for any off-piste excursion.
You should buy (or rent) a rucksack to hold all your other equipment. There are many different rucksack brands and capacities (expressed in litres) on the market. Be sure to pack your rucksack carefully so you know where to find everything.
You should also use all of the straps to hold it close to your body. There are typically three: one in the shoulder area, one on the chest and one at the hips.
When choosing your rucksack, it is worth looking into an avalanche airbag. Airbag rucksacks look like traditional freeriding rucksacks, but they are equipped with airbags to prevent the skier from sinking in the event of an avalanche, increasing their chances of survival. Some brands that produce airbag rucksacks include Ortovox, ABS, Black Diamond, Mammoth, Millet, Vaude and Deuter. Each company uses different detonation techniques, but the physical principle is always the same.
However, this system cannot guarantee survival. When triggered, the rucksack increases in size to float on the surface of the avalanche. But how does it work? In the event of an avalanche, the freeride skier needs to pulls the emergency cord to inflate the airbag. In just a fraction of a second, the airbag will fill with around 200 litres of air.
Avalanche transceivers or beacons must be worn on the inside of your clothing (on your thermal top) and be kept on and charged. They consist of a radio transceiver with a fixed frequency of 457 KHz and 3 modes: off (no activity), transmitting (TX) and receiving (RX). Check the avalanche transceiver is transmitting when you are near an off-piste area.
In the event of an avalanche, the transceiver can be used as a receiver to pick up signals from skiers in difficulty. To use the avalanche transceiver correctly, I recommend taking a training session in one of the ski resort's special practice areas.
Shovels are available in a variety of different versions and colours. I do not recommend plastic shovels, as they tend to splinter and break. Instead, choose a top-quality product that can be taken apart to fit into your rucksack.
Probes are long, thin, rigid, folding rods, which are used to probe the snow in search of buried skiers. They are a fundamental tool for the final stages of the search process, once the location of the victim has been narrowed down. Much like the aforementioned equipment, it is a good idea to practice using your probe in the field.
Last but not least is your mobile phone, which should be kept charged and stored inside your jacket. Cold temperatures can reduce your phone's battery life. Placing the device in a warm pocket where it is exposed to your body heat will improve its performance. Remember to save the Morzine emergency number to your contacts.
You should also keep a basic first aid kit (the sort you can buy in the pharmacy) in your rucksack, equipped with plasters, bandages, gauze etc., to deal with any minor accidents when skiing off-piste in Morzine.
It is always a good idea to keep a few tools on you to fix any minor damage: a screwdriver, some duct tape, a couple of screws, some string, a Swiss army knife, etc.
No safety system is 100% foolproof.
Freeriding, like ski mountaineering and other winter sports, should be a group activity. Always check that your equipment is functioning correctly, consult the avalanche bulletin, and inform a friend, relative or the safety officer or technician for the off-piste area of your plans and the number of people going freeriding.
Avalanches occur when a mass of snow or ice suddenly starts falling
down the slope towards the valley. They are caused by changes within the
snowpack, when the internal stress reaches a breaking point or when the
force of gravity acting on the snowy slope exceeds the cohesive force of
As it falls, the avalanche may collect other masses of snow, causing it to grow and reach speeds of over 300 km/h" (source: Italian Wikipedia).
Avalanches can be either spontaneous or provoked. An avalanche is spontaneous when it is triggered by specific factors, such as a rise in temperature or the weight of the snowpack. Provoked avalanches fall into two categories: accidental, when a skier involuntarily detaches the snowpack with their weight; or planned, when explosives are used to clear dangerous areas of the resort, e.g. Morzine.
When skiing off-piste, safety should always be your primary focus.
The avalanche bulletin is a fundamental preventative tool for the public (professionals and mountain enthusiasts) that explains the avalanche situation and the snowfall on the slopes. The European Avalanche Danger Scale, provided in the table below, can help you assess the likelihood of an avalanche.
|Probability of triggering an avalanche||
tions for hikers,
and off-piste skiers
The snowpack is generally well-bonded or loose with no tension
|An avalanche could generally only be triggered by very heavy additional loads on isolated external slopes. Only small natural avalanches are possible.||Generally safe conditions for ski trips.|
The snowpack is generally well-bonded and moderately bonded on some steep slopes.
An avalanche could be triggered by heavy
additional loads, especially on steep slopes.
Large natural avalanches are unlikely.
Favourable conditions for ski trips,
but there may be hazardous areas.
The snowpack is moderately or weakly bonded on many steep slopes.
An avalanche could be triggered by light additional loads,
especially on steep slopes.
Medium natural avalanches are possible in certain situations, and even large avalanches in very specific circumstances.
|The possibilities for ski outings are limited and good avalanche assessment skills are required.|
The snowpack is weakly bonded on most steep slopes.
An avalanche is likely to be triggered by
light additional loads on many steep slopes.
Many medium natural avalanches are likely
in certain situations, and sometimes even
|The possibilities for ski outings are extremely limited and very good avalanche assessment skills are required.|
5 VERY HIGH
The snowpack is generally weakly bonded and mostly unstable.
Many large natural avalanches are likely,
even on moderately steep terrain.
|Ski trips are generally not possible.|
Skiing off-piste can be very difficult if you don't know the right techniques.
Even the most experienced skiers, who have achieved a good level on the slopes, may have trouble with their first turns on fresh snow. The snow conditions can vary greatly over the course of the same descent: from powder to crust and compacted, hard, spring-like or heavy snow. Skiers may also encounter a variety of landscapes: woods, couloirs, steep or flat terrain and valleys.
Caution is key: everyone should know their own abilities and limits. Good freeride skiers can adapt their manoeuvres to suit the conditions in front of them. Successful freeriding therefore requires technique, adaptability, experience and practice. I recommend taking a ski lesson in Morzine to help off-piste descents come naturally.
The first rule of skiing downhill is to keep your speed and your skis under control, no matter the snow conditions. The second rule is to always choose landscapes and slopes to suit your abilities, physical fitness and experience. The last rule is to stay vigilant and learn how to read your surroundings and any meteorological changes.
When you make your way to the freeriding area, leaving the beaten track behind, you may feel like your legs suddenly have a life of their own. This loss of control is the result of holding all your weight on one leg, which will cause you to lose your balance and fall. You therefore need to focus on distributing your weight between both your legs. Still struggling? Try keeping your knees and feet closer together. This will help your skis act as a single unit, floating more easily over the snow.
When I hold freeriding lessons in Morzine, my students often ask if they should be leaning backwards. The answer is fairly straightforward: no!
When skiers go from perfectly groomed slopes to skiing off-piste, their nerves often make them lean back and stay close to the ground. In this position, they will not be able to control or turn their skis, and falling is inevitable.
While freeriding, you should try and find the courage to lean forwards onto the tongues of your boots and bring your knees closer to the tips of your skis. Your knees will give you the right leverage to successfully change direction.
Your arms play an essential role in keeping your skis out of the snow. To prepare for a new turn, raise your arms/elbows upwards and rotate them towards the next turn. Your arms and elbows will carry your shoulders forwards, your shoulders will carry your torso, and your torso will carry your hips and the legs.
During your first outings on fresh snow, this movement will be somewhat exaggerated to help you learn to turn. With a little practice, your movements will become more understated and harmonious.
For freeriding, your movements should be smooth and gradual. The motions are primarily perpendicular to the ground (bending and stretching) on a solid base.
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