What is alpine skiing and how does it work?

December 23, 2014

Alpine skiing is one of the most beautiful and exhilarating sports on Earth. But what is it exactly? And how do you do it?

What is alpine skiing and how does it work?

What exactly is the alpine?

The word alpine originally referred to the Alps, a well-known mountain range in Western Europe. But the word has evolved over the years, and now generally refers to very high mountains, and in particular, mountains with a tree line. The tree line is a horizontal line where the altitude of a mountain becomes so high that trees can't actually grow there, making the landscape wide open and almost entirely rock, ice and snow. When people refer to alpine skiing, they're generally talking about skiing that takes place above the tree line, in very remote, high altitude settings.

Powder skiing versus groomed trails

Believe it or not, even in the alpine, there are groomed trails. Ski resorts groom trails from the top of the mountain to the bottom, but in the case of alpine skiing, these trails are less for recreation and more for access and safety. They allow you to find a spot to "drop in", meaning to find a spot to go off the beaten track and into the back country. Groomed trails also provide a safe route for anyone to get back to the bottom if they change their mind about dropping in or they find themselves alone or with very minor injury. Of course in the case of any remotely significant injury, help should always be sought out before descent. This brings us to safety.

Once you've dropped in, the fun begins. Alpine skiing has its own set of gear and techniques, including longer, wider skis for deeper snow, and much more insulated clothing for the harsh conditions. You'll have to learn how to stay above the snow, navigate the mountain without any signs or trails, and avoid hidden obstacles like cliffs and rocks. The rewards are incredible. The view is astonishing and the skiing itself is the best you'll ever experience.

Getting to the alpine

There are two main ways to get to the alpine. The first and most common is gondolas or chair lifts. The second is a helicopter lift. This is a lot more expensive and challenging, and generally only done by experts or even professionals.

Safety in the alpine

Never go alpine skiing alone. Ever. Many people die every year because they go at it alone. And under no circumstances should you go into the alpine without the guidance of a local expert and the proper equipment to be located in an emergency. The temptation will be there to set out on your own, but it is of the utmost importance to travel with a local guide the first few times you ski on a new mountain.

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