Downhill snowsports

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Off-piste alpine skiing in Blue Sky Basin, Vail, Colorado

Downhill snowsports, which include skiing and snowboarding, are popular sports involving sliding down snow-covered terrain with skis or a snowboards attached your feet.

Skiing is a major travelling activity with many enthusiasts, occasionally known as "ski bums," planning entire vacations around skiing at a particular location.

Understand[edit]

The idea of skiing is very old. Cave paintings depicting skiers date back as far as 5000 BC! Downhill skiing as a sport goes back to at least the 17th century, when the first recreational ski club opened in Australia. The most common type is Alpine skiing, where the foot attaches to the skis at both the toe and the heel. (Nordic skiing or Telemark skiing, where the heel remains unattached, is mostly used for cross-country skiing [that is, skiing on a flat surface], although it's possible to use it downhill as well.)

Snowboarding is much newer, although people made their way down slopes by tying flat boards to both feet as far back as the 1920s, it wasn't until 1965 that the first modern snowboard was sold. Snowboarding was invented and largely popularized in the U.S., but today it has international followers, although nowhere near as many as skiing.

Since very few people live near a snow-covered mountain, most skiing happens at ski resorts, which offer the skiing location, equipment rental and sales, dining, and lodging all within a small village.

Sometimes nearby resorts that can be skied with the same ticket are grouped together.

Alternative ways of downhill skiing are Telemark skiing and snowboarding.

Planning your visit[edit]

On the mountain itself, the one thing you have to purchase is a lift pass. This ticket serves as your admission, and lets you use the ski lifts to get from the bottom of the mountain back up to the top.

Naturally, you also need some equipment.

Unless you're only going for a single day, you need lodging.

And because you'll be getting a good workout, you will probably want some food and maybe a nice drink.

On the slopes[edit]

The mountain is divided in to various trails (also called "runs" or "pistes" [pronounced "peest" in British English and "pihst" in American English]), each of which is graded according to its difficulty.

There are also beginners' slopes, also called bunny slopes, which are very short and very shallow. Some may be reserved for classes, but otherwise they are open for anyone to use. Although bunny slopes are good for a little bit of practice, they can actually be difficult due to their shallow grade and lack of length.

At the bottom of the slopes are lifts that take you to the top of the mountain. When you queue up to use the lift, your lift pass will be scanned to make sure it's valid for that day and time (although staff may not opt to scan it every single time). Then you just ride the lift back to the top of the slope, and head down the slopes again.

There are almost always multiple lifts and often crossing trails; if you're not careful, you could take the wrong lift and end up not where you started. Be sure to look at the mountain's map before going anywhere so you can be sure of where you should go on your way down, and which lift you need to take to get back up.

Grades[edit]

There are different rating systems in different parts of the world, and none are standardized; don't assume an "easy" trail on one mountain is the same as an "easy" trail on another mountain!

Be sure to check the legend and rating system at each mountain before going out on to the trails.

In North America, the usual scale is:

  • Green circle – easy
  • Blue square – intermediate
  • Black diamond – difficult
  • Double black diamond – very difficult
  • Orange/yellow oval (or other symbol) – terrain park, with jumps, half-pipes, or other obstacles

In Europe a similar color system is used, but not always with the shapes:

  • (in some countries) Green – easiest
  • Blue – easy
  • Red – intermediate
  • Black – difficult
  • Double or triple black diamond – very difficult
  • Yellow – an "ungroomed" trail which is left in its natural state and is not regularly patrolled

In Japan a color system is also used, although it may vary at locations catering to foreigners:

  • Green – easy
  • Red – intermediate
  • Black – difficult

Buy[edit]

Whether it's your first time or your hundredth, the one thing you must purchase is a lift pass. It's your admission to the mountain, and your ticket to use the ski lifts to get back to the top.

Lift passes are almost always available in single-day, multiple-day, and season passes. Discounts may also be available for children, students, large groups, etc. As with any bulk purchase, a multiple-day or season pass will usually save you money if you use it enough.

The other thing you'll need is equipment. This largely falls in to two categories: skis/snowboards, and cold weather clothing.

For skiing, you need the following:

  • Skis – these come in matched pairs, one for each foot.
  • Ski boots – these specialty items have hooks that attach the toe and heel to the skis, and keep your feet from leaning side to side. Most modern boots are closed with buckles for a tight fit.
  • Optionally, ski poles – these are used for balance as well as propulsion.

Snowboarding requires a somewhat different set of equipment:

  • Snowboard – strictly speaking, this is actually two pieces of gear: the flat board with upturned ends, and the bindings that strap your boots to it. Bindings must be adjusted for your stance, depending on how widely you stand and the angle of your feet. Depending on whether you ride "standard" (left foot forward) or "goofy" (right foot forward), the front foot will be set at a larger angle than the back foot, making it non-symmetric.
  • Snowboard boots – unlike ski boots, these are stiff front-to-back, but allow movement side-to-side. They're usually very large and stiff. Some have laces, but a ratcheting wire system is simple to use and becoming more common. Generally they don't attach directly to the snowboard's bindings, but are simply held in place with a ratcheting strap.

All the other gear you need is not specific to the sport, but is just meant to keep you warm and safe:

  • Snow pants – available as regular trousers or the less common "bib" style (like overalls). They consist of multiple layers with insulation to keep you warm. The outside is wind- and water-resistant, so that the snow and weather won't make you cold or wet. Zippered pockets keep your possessions from falling out if you take a spill. Ventilation zippers let you get airflow to keep cool (remember, you're getting a workout).
  • Snow jacket – like snow pants, it's layered, insulated, and made from specialty fabrics to keep you warm and dry. Features the same zippered pockets and ventilation zips as well. An extra feature on some is a special hook for your lift pass; this puts it front and center so it's easy for staff to scan. Most jackets also have a hood, which should be large enough to fit over your cap and/or helmet.
  • Gloves – your extremities need special care, particularly when you'll be sticking them in the snow repeatedly to get back on your feet. Ordinary gloves just meant for keeping warm won't suffice; as soon as they get wet, you'll be in worse shape than if you weren't wearing them at all! Look for cold- and snow-rated waterproof gloves specifically designed not to allow any water inside. Straps help them seal to keep snow from getting in the opening, or to seal against your jacket. Extra straps attach them to your wrists or jacket so you can take them off without losing them. You can also get inner linings made from different materials designed to retain heat. Small pockets on the back of the hand are meant for inserting a chemical warming pad.
  • Socks – these serve to protect your feet from rubbing against the boots and getting sore, as well as keeping them warm and dry. Never wear cotton socks, as cotton soaks up and retains water (both sweat and snow), not only making you miserable but also putting you at risk of frostbite. Instead choose wool, synthetic, or wool/synthetic blend socks with a good fit (no loose fabric, especially around the toes and heel).
  • Goggles – aside from keeping snow out of your eyes, goggles also act as sunglasses. (Remember, the sun is out, there's less atmosphere between you and it than normal, and snow reflects additional sunlight in to your eyes.) As with regular sunglasses, look for good UV protection and polarization. If you wear glasses, you'll have to get extra-large goggles designed to fit over your glasses (which can be expensive), buy prescription ski goggles (also expensive), or wear contact lenses or do without vision correction.
  • Head and face warming – The least standardized element, this can be just about any warm winter cap that you have. The best choice would be something wind-proof, as a stiff breeze can rob you of a lot of warmth in this vital area. Face protection is also very important, as your nose, lips, and ears can become cold and frostbitten very easily. Various types of balaclavas, ski masks, caps, and face scarves all help to protect your mug.
  • Helmet – less for protection against cold than against hard-packed snow, ice, and any other obstacles you may run in to. Although many people omit them, professionals and amateurs alike have died from head injuries, so think twice before passing on one! Make sure your helmet will fit when you're wearing a cap, or else it won't give you the protection you need. (Likewise, if you think you may remove your cap at some point, make sure the helmet won't be too loose.)
  • Layered clothing – underneath your snow outfit, you should dress in layers. Your base layer — the one closest to your skin — should be chosen carefully to keep you dry. Cotton soaks up and holds on to water (sweat and snow) so avoid wearing cotton as your base layer. Instead, wear thermal layers (longjohns) made from warm materials, or "performance" clothes designed to wick away sweat so you stay dry (and therefore warm). Above that, consider putting on an additional T-shirt or thermal layer just in case; then you have it if you need it, and can take it off during the day if you get too hot.

Buy or rent[edit]

The choice is up to you; obviously, renting incurs a high cost if done repeatedly, but is a good choice for a beginner when you're just giving the sport a try.

Do without[edit]

See also Stay healthy below

A few items are not strictly necessary or can be substituted, but not many.

Wearing regular sunglasses, or no eye protection, is possible if it's overcast and not too bright out.

If you're visiting a "warm" location (air temperatures above freezing) and tolerate cold well, you may be able to skip some of the layered clothing and face/head protection.

Beyond that, it's not a good idea to skip any of the equipment. Although "warm" mountains always have beginners who think they can get away with just wearing jeans, you run a real risk of frostbite and permanent injury doing this, not to mention being miserable after your jeans soak up several hours worth of snow.

Do[edit]

There are many types of skiing within alpine skiing, from contests to downhill (going straight without turns) to moguls (going around the bumps). Cross country skiing is usually also available. Nowadays most resorts allow snowboarders as well, but if you plan to do so double check beforehand.

Most resorts also offer a variety of other activities such as horseback-riding and ice skating. There are also usually great stores for shopping and wonderful restaurants in the area that are worth looking into after a day of hitting the slopes.

Ski resort areas are also frequented during the summer months because of their numerous hiking, mountain bicycling, etc. opportunities.

Learn[edit]

Teach yourself[edit]

Before hitting the slopes, you'll need to get dressed. Most of the equipment is simple and straight-forward to put on. The legs of your snow pants have an inner layer that tucks inside your boots, and an outer layer that goes over top to keep snow from getting in. Snow jackets may have similar layers to seal your gloves.

If it's convenient, you may be able to take what you need with you (e.g., wallet for purchasing lunch) and leave everything else in your car or hotel room. Otherwise, there are usually coin-operated lockers where you can leave your street clothes, valuables, etc.

Getting around in skis is pretty easy. Lay the skis on the ground, and then simply step in to each one toe-first. They'll click in to place, and it releases the catches that keep them from sliding around when they're unattached. Once you have them on, you can shuffle around on flat ground or even move uphill a bit by pushing off like an ice skater does, or using poles if you have them.

Snowboards are a bit different. Strap in your front foot (left if you ride standard, right if goofy) and leave it attached all the time, but leave your back foot free to push yourself around on flat ground.

Getting on to a lift isn't difficult. After queuing, when you're second in line, you'll wait behind a marked line so the preceding chair can pass in front of you. As soon as it does, shuffle your way up to the next "wait here" line. The chair will come up behind you, and you just plop your bottom in to it as it scoops you up. Lift your feet so your skis/snowboard don't drag until you're up in the air.

Getting off lifts is a bit trickier. As you approach the top, there's a bit of an uphill so you don't catch your skis/board, followed by a flat section. On skis, just point your skis straight forward; on a snowboard, turn sideways so you're facing straight, put your back foot on the board next to the bindings, and put your weight on your front foot. As the chair moves forward it will give you a bit of a push down the hill, and you're off. Once on flat ground, move out of the way as soon as you can so that others can dismount without running in to you.

Many beginners have a hard time dismounting without falling, so don't feel bad about it. But, if you do fall, try to fall forwards away from the lift and other people. If you stop too close to either, the lift operator will slow down or stop the lift to make sure no one gets hurt, which delays everyone else. It's a normal (sometimes frequent) occurrence, particularly on beginner slopes, but it's good etiquette to do your best not to delay others.

Now it's time to head downhill. On skis, beginners are often taught "french fries (skis parallel to each other) to go fast, pizza (skis pointed towards each other downhill) to slow down". This basic technique is enough to let you regulate your speed and even do basic turns. As you get more advanced, you should learn how to stop and turn by keeping both skis parallel and sliding sideways, much like how ice skaters stop.

On a snowboard, you first need to stop and strap in your back foot. Once you do this, you can try to stand up, although keeping your balance while doing so may be difficult. For beginners it may be easier to hold your board in the air and roll over on to your stomach, so that you can stand up backwards instead of forwards.

For snowboarders, "forwards" means turned to the side with your lead food (left foot if standard, right if goofy) furthest down the hill, and your back foot furthest up the hill. Likewise, "sideways" actually means having your chest or back facing straight down the slope. To go very slowly or stop, you can turn sideways and slide down the hill with the long part of your board digging in to slow you down. Turning is done by "carving" in with your toes or out with your heels. As you get more advanced, you can learn to control your speed by making S-turns back and forth to lose speed rather than sliding or stopping.

Lessons[edit]

Virtually all ski resorts have a ski school where you can sign up for lessons. It's recommended that you learn to ski at a smaller, cheaper mountain nearer to your location before going off to a major ski resort, so you won't have to pay a large fee (at least for a skipass) to just use the bunny hill (which would be the same more or less anywhere).

Some tips that can help you in choosing a right skiing school:

  • It helps a lot if a school doesn't allow new members to join a group in the middle of a course (i.e. on the 2nd and later days of group training). This guarantees that you won't repeat the same basic set of exercises every day.
  • It's best if your instructor is a native speaker of your first language (or another language you are very fluent in); otherwise, most instructions are "do like me", but it's difficult for him to explain what exactly you are doing wrong or what you should change in how you ski.

Stay safe[edit]

See cold weather.

Skiing takes place in some of the most treacherous terrain in the world under very cold conditions. Be sure you are properly protected against the cold so you will not suffer from frostbite or hypothermia. When you are skiing you will be exposed to the elements all day and need to act accordingly. If you feel particularly cold, particularly if you begin to shiver, call it a day and head indoors to warm up.

When the sun comes out, the reflection from the snow around you can cause serious problems as well! Be sure to wear snow goggles or sunglasses to protect your eyes from snowblindness and wear sunscreen to protect yourself from sunburn. Snow can reflect more than 50% of the light that hits it, so wear sunscreen even if it's cloudy outside! You'll thank yourself later.

Ski terrain can often be very dangerous and can lead to hazards that can potentially injure or kill a careless skier. Do not ski any terrain that is above your skill level and pay attention to all signs and Ski Patrol instructions. Also heed avalanche warning signs and avoid areas where avalanche buildup can occur. Also always ski in a group or let someone know where you are.

If you injure yourself on patrolled terrain, ask a fellow skier to fetch the resort's ski patrol for you. Lift operators can help contact them. Mark the location of an injured person by planting skis or snowboards in an upright cross just uphill.

See also Altitude sickness.

With children[edit]

Normally children are accepted to a skiing school from 3 years old.

When choosing a destination and accommodation to travel with a 1..1.5-years toddler, consider the following aspects:

  • dining in your hotel is much easier and time-saving than going out. Consider half-board packages or at least a hotel with its own restaurant (but not full-board, as you'll likely prefer to have lunch in a restaurant near the slopes)
  • distance from hotel to skilift matters twice, as it will count twice as much in reducing your time on the slopes, compared to skiing without children (in the case parents change in babysitting in the middle of the day)
  • make sure you'll have enough activities for a toddler at your destination (and even better at your hotel): child-friendly swimming pool, open-air playground; rent sleds and ride him on a small children's slope
  • apres ski is rarely compatible with travelling with a toddler—you'll likely find yourself looking for quieter streets and cafes in the village
  • make sure there is no apres-ski disko or bar that can be heard from your hotel (or at least from your room) in the hours a toddler normally sleeps
  • make sure there is a babysitting service and/or a kindergarten, and the personnel there speak your toddler's native language

On a budget[edit]

In general, Alpine skiing is not the cheapest of activities. However, as with most travel activities, careful planning ahead can save you a good deal of money.

  • Prices vary greatly among different countries and specific resorts, so make sure to look around. For example, in Europe, resorts in Austria tend to be more expensive than those in nearby France. Some resorts have a stronger focus on students or young people than others, which often results in lower average prices and more budget options for accommodation and food.
  • Avoid holidays. Many destinations get crowded during national of even regional holidays and prices tend to rise according to demand. When traveling to another country for your ski-trip, make sure to look up national holidays there.
  • Last minute bookings of course come with the risk of unavailability, but can save up to 30% or more.
  • In many cases, group holidays are cheaper as group accommodations (e.g. 6 or 10 people) are available in many resorts and are often cheaper per person.
  • Check out all-inclusive or at least combined deals, which provide one price for accommodation, rental of equipment and ski-passes. This can be especially interesting if you don't have ski equipment of your own. In some cases, transport (or at least regional transport from the airport or a major train station to the resort) can also be included.
  • In many resorts, apartments are at least as readily available (sometimes even more so) as hotel rooms. If you're on a budget, it often pays off to prepare your own meals.
  • If possible (and not much more expensive), consider accommodation very close to the pistes. It will allow you to head home for lunch instead of being forced to eat out.
  • If you're making your own way to the resort by car, consider taking at least the most expensive foods/ingredients and other supplies with you. Note that many ski resorts are a good drive away from cities or "normal" villages. Supermarkets and shops in the resort (especially in smaller ones) can be rather pricey.
  • If you're renting your equipment, check if your materials are covered under your travel insurance. If not, consider taking an insurance at the spot. Many rental shops offer that option for a rather small fee (e.g. <10 euro in France). It's not at all uncommon for a ski or stick to break and costs of replacement or repair are often high.

Destinations[edit]

Major skiing destinations include:

Africa[edit]

Asia[edit]

Europe[edit]

North America[edit]

Canada[edit]

United States of America[edit]

  • Bear Paw
  • Big Mountain [1]
  • Big Sky [2] - This is a large resort area located 45 minutes south of Bozeman. This has two mountains, lots of lifts, including "The Tram," a gondola to the top of Lone Peak. Pick a clear day for an unparalleled view of the Spanish Peaks and incredible expert skiing. Winter and summer resort activities available.
  • Blacktail Mountain [3]
  • Bridger Bowl [4] - 20 minutes north of Bozeman, this is a locals' mountain with 7 lifts. Most of the mountain is intermediate level and above, including "The Ridge," a hikeable area to the top of the mountain and accessing a wide variety of expert terrain.
  • Discovery Basin [5]
  • Great Divide [6]
  • Lookout Pass [7]
  • Lost Trail Powder Mountain [8]
  • Maverick Mountain [9]
  • Montana Snowbowl [10] - Located 20 minutes from Missoula.
  • Moonlight Basin [11]
  • Red Lodge Mountain Resort [12]
  • Showdown, Teton Pass [13]
  • Turner Mountain [14]
  • Yellowstone Club [15] - A private ski and golf community located next to Big Sky.

Oceania[edit]

Australia[edit]

See Winter sports in Australia

New Zealand[edit]

See also[edit]

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