What is Big Mountain Skiing? (How to Start)

by Simon Knott | Posted On: March 28th, 2022
Mountain Skiing

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Skiers’ enthusiasm for the different ski disciplines is endlessly variable, as their personalities. For some, skiing is a few groomed runs in the morning followed by a lengthy lunch, while others are drawn to hard aerobic workouts during ski touring. Like many sports, skiing attracts personalities who are driven to push the boundaries of their knowledge and skill of the sport to the absolute limit. It would be easy to assume their motivation is to flaunt their ability but often they are quite selfless and driven purely by the will to conquer more difficult terrain.

For an accomplished skier, big mountain skiing is a natural progression, where all the constraints and regulations of the resort are removed, and all the risks must be assessed solely by the big mountain skier. But what exactly is big mountain skiing? What sort of equipment do you need? How do you get trained?

Big mountain skiing emerged as a new discipline in the early 1990s. Big mountain skiers are usually experts and demonstrate their skill on steep, often rugged terrain. They jump from different mountain features, as well as negotiate chutes, cliffs, wind lips, and steep powder terrain.

Big mountain skiers search out steep complex terrain which offers jumps from cliffs and outcrops, as well as plenty of powder. Descending at speed big mountain skiers search for the best line down the mountain and take in features such as wind lips (cornices Europe), chutes (couloirs Europe), and spines, the soft vertical ridges created by the wind.

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Although the pace is fast it’s not so much about competition but more an expression of creativity and fun in an amazing environment. Big mountain skiing appeals to thrill-seekers and those who enjoy conquering their fear. Big mountain skiing was originally developed in the 80s and 90s from extreme skiing.

How To Get Trained In Big Mountain Skiing?

There are several solid big mountain ski courses available, where you will learn the best techniques from experts. Often the courses are based on a ski guide training program but with the tuition of extra skills so that the trainee leaves the course confident enough to make knowledgeable decisions and to be self-sufficient in the backcountry.

Some of the Skills you will Learn on a Big Mountain Skiing Course

  • Advanced terrain recognition skills and understanding the snowpack characteristics of that terrain.
  • Safe mountain travel technique
  • Safe Cornice control
  • Crevasse rescue
  • Cliff mitigation
  • Steep Skiing tactics
  • Self-preservation tactics in extreme terrain

Requirements for the course include a recognized Alpine ski touring qualification or solid experience of Alpine ski touring and excellent all-round skiing ability including double black diamond runs.

Good Sense and Big Mountain Skiing

skiing
Photo by Georgio licensed under CC BY 2.0

Become a Very Good Skier First

Big mountain skiing is an advanced skill. If you don’t have the basics of being an excellent skier in the resort, then you will quickly become a fish out of the water with big mountain skiing.

To be accepted on big mountain skiing courses you are expected to have an Alpine ski touring qualification and be able to ski any of the runs in the resort. Additionally, a good level of experience on steep powder is also a prerequisite. So, aim for these qualifications first and then look to big mountain skiing.

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Develop your Judgement

If you cannot find a course where you live, find an experienced skier, who is happy for you to tag along and who can teach you the essentials of big mountain skiing. Building from your own experiences you will develop a good sense of judgment but recognize this isn’t going to happen overnight.

Assessing the Risk

If you had the choice between falling down a crevasse and making a bad line down a chute, everyone would pick the last. However, to avoid falling down a crevasse you must understand how they are laid out, so you can avoid them.

So, it’s not all about skiing, a large part of big mountain skiing involves reading the terrain and continually assessing the risk. Has the terrain changed? What is the weather doing? What is the avalanche risk? What do we do if there is an avalanche?

Look Ahead

Keep a good perspective on what’s happening ahead. If you are looking just a short distance ahead, you will be receiving a lot of immediate information but because it’s so close you will have little chance to react to it.

If you extend your field of vision to 75 m you will still receive some immediate information but more importantly, you will be able to assess the terrain at a distance and also have plenty of time to react to it. With a field of vision at 75 m, the rate of information coming in is also a lot slower, enabling you to make better judgments and act on them.

Straight Line out of Trouble

Sometimes the only way down is straight down. A tight upper section of a chute leaves little alternative but so long as you look ahead and make a judgment about killing the speed, a straight line can be the best way. Ideally, the straight line should be as short as possible with adequate space afterward to take control with wide turns.

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Never stop Observing

When you find someone who has a technique you admire and talks the talk as well, take time to soak up as much of what they say and do as you can. This doesn’t necessarily have to be live, you can be watching them perform on TV.

Analyze the different movements and techniques they use, such as stance, route choice, and skis, and start to adopt them in your own repertoire. This won’t happen immediately, you will need to watch again, and try again until it feels right and becomes second nature.

Which Skis for Big Mountain Skiing?

There is a lot of crossover in the techniques and skills of big mountain skiing, extreme skiing, and freeriding. The type of skis you choose for big mountain skiing will be determined by the steepness and ruggedness of the terrain you will encounter.

However, a common theme of big mountain skis is the width to provide as much stability as possible and at the same time good performance in powder. Skiers often choose a single-core design, which has enough flexibility to dampen vibration but at the same time enough rigidity to provide stability at high speed. It’s not unusual for big mountain skis to have an underfoot width of 120 mm underfoot.

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