Big mountain skiing is a technical style of the sport that involves navigating many different types of steep and challenging terrain. It can occur off-piste or at the resort and requires an advanced or expert skill level.
I’ve been skiing for decades, and I’ve tried virtually every style of the sport. I’m a fan of big mountain skiing and have first-hand experience with what is involved in it.
In this post, I’ll explain in detail what big mountain skiing is. I’ll help you better understand what type of conditions, terrains, and challenges this style of the sport involves so you can give it a shot or leave it to the experts.
Let’s get into it.
Big Mountain Skiing Defined
Big mountain skiing doesn’t technically have an exact definition. It’s not like an Olympic event with specific rules and regulations that dictate how it happens. There are big mountain skiing competitions, but they don’t always follow a strict format.
Instead, big mountain skiing encompasses various technical terrains and conditions that advanced and expert skiers enjoy. So it’s definitely not a beginner version of the sport. It involves some of the steepest and most extreme conditions you can imagine.
Big mountain skiing looks at a very difficult section of the mountain that most skiers wouldn’t even think about going down and turns it into a playground for high-level skiing. It’s very technical, and this makes it dangerous.
Freeride and big mountain skiing are synonymous terms. They both describe the same style of skiing and terrain and require the same equipment. You’ll hear them used interchangeably to describe the same thing.
Big Mountain Skiing Terrain
You can take the literal meaning of “big mountain” to envision the types of terrain and conditions you might encounter when big mountain skiing. This can include really steep terrain that is full of natural obstacles.
Big mountain skiing terrain can include steep bowls and faces, cliffs, chutes, cornices, bumps, dropoffs, and trees. If it looks difficult and challenging and is on a steep face of a mountain in or outside of the resort, it fits the bill.
Big mountain lines often involve dropping a big cliff or navigating through a skinny chute surrounded by rock faces. There isn’t much room for error, so skiers need to be highly skilled with adequate safety gear at all times.
Some resorts have access to what would be considered big mountain terrain, but it’s often done in the backcountry and off-piste settings as well. Most of the extreme big mountain situations I’ve been in have been away from the resort.
Big Mountain Skiing Conditions
The rugged nature of big mountain skiing leads to highly variable conditions. You can find just about anything except for groomed runs when you want to take a freeride line. This means that you need to be prepared for anything.
Big mountain skiing can lead to fantastic powder skiing opportunities if there is fresh snow. And even though this can mean unforgettable and untouched lines, it also means that the avalanche risk becomes greater.
Steeper slopes can also slough off snow, which can cause hardpack or icy conditions. A bowl full of powder can turn into an icy chute in a second when you are big mountain skiing, making the conditions somewhat hard to predict.
A big mountain section of the resort will have avalanche mitigation measures in place. But big mountain skiing in the backcountry comes with very real avalanche risks. Steeper, untouched slopes increase the risk of avalanches pretty significantly.
Who Should Go Big Mountain Skiing?
If you are an advanced or expert skier who wants a good challenge and isn’t afraid of some of the most technical terrain and conditions you can experience, you are a good candidate for becoming a big mountain skier.
If you are a beginner or intermediate skier who has never attempted extreme terrain before, you shouldn’t go big mountain skiing. You don’t want to get in over your head and ski outside of your ability levels because this can be extremely dangerous.
Many different people enjoy big mountain skiing. If you love powder and getting away from crowds, big mountain skiing provides amazing opportunities for both of these. As long as you are highly skilled, you can handle it.
Big Mountain Skiing Equipment
If you want to take big mountain skiing seriously, you need to invest in big mountain or freeride skis (read our review for more). This type of ski is big, stiff, and aggressive to be capable enough to handle extreme and variable conditions.
I also recommend getting high-performance freeride boots to help you ski to your best abilities in big mountain situations. These boots will have a stiff fit that leads to excellent power transfer and response for power and precision on the mountain.
Other than that, you need to wear a helmet at all times and ski with an avalanche beacon or other safety gear if you are in the backcountry. And if you are in the backcountry, you might need skins or a good ski backpack to hike into big mountain areas.
Big mountain skiing is extremely fun, but it’s also incredibly challenging. You need to be a confident, experienced skier even to consider charging into this style of the sport. But if you’re up for it, it’s entirely worth it.
I enjoy the freedom and creativity involved in big mountain or freeride skiing. You aren’t limited to going down an established run at the resort and can push yourself to try new and exciting lines down impressive slopes.