|For those of us who have never
skied outside the US, a trip to Europe can be quite an awakening.
Having snowboarded at a professional level for over 3 years in the US, I
felt pretty comfortable that I could ride whatever came my way. My
specialty is backcountry travel, so on my recent trip to Norway, I
decided to go to Hemsedal with a few locals to give European off-piste a
try. Needless to say, what I encountered was unexpected...
Knowing that we were going to a "resort", I had already
made up in my mind what to expect. My views were quickly changed when
they handed me an avalanche beacon, shovel and probe. Yes, these are the
tools I'd normally carry when traveling in the backcountry, but we were
heading to a resort! Immediately, my blood pressure increased as I tried
to mentally prepare myself for the now unknown. As we continued to gear
up, I was getting a tad nervous considering that most of the people I
would soon trust my life with didn't speak much English.
Our first run of the day took us down 40-50 degree tree covered
slopes with waist-deep powder. Slough management was a constant
necessity as my legs burned something fierce. This started out as a
dream come true type run until we got about a quarter of the way down
when I noticed the trees begin to grow increasingly close
together--barely wide enough to fit my board through, much less anything
else. The group I was riding with consisted of one other snowboarder and
5 telemarkers. But these were not ordinary knee-draggers, these guys
were unreal! Far better than ANYONE I'd ever seen ski in the US, and
I've seen a lot! These guys were ripping through the trees, taking 20'
drops and landing between trees without breaking stride. As much as I
disdain skiing, I couldn't help but watch in awe as they cruised past me
several times while I tried to dig myself out of the bloody creek I kept
falling in--it pays to be a local and no where NOT to go...
"warm-up", it was time to go off-piste (I thought that WAS
off-piste). We took a lift up to above tree line into total white out
conditions. After walking past a big yellow sign that appeared to be
trying to warn us of something (luckily, I can't speak or read
Norwegian), we dropped off the back side of the mountain into what has
to be some of the most incredible skiing in the world. We dropped into
perfectly spaced trees with knee to waist deep pow, completely untracked
with 10 foot drops everywhere you looked. The riding was truly epic
(except for the occasional creek that lured me in several times like a
harpy), the stuff Warren Miller movies are made of. Face shots galore.
After about 15 minutes of this "punishment", we reached the
bottom where we had to take a taxi to get back to the ski resort. Upon
reaching the base, I insisted that we go back and got no arguments. We
took the lift back up to the top and started hiking over the ridge when
a group who had gathered at the sign began yelling at us. Quickly we
learned that two skiers had just triggered a hard slab about 50 yards
from where we just were and were buried. Ski patrol went over the ridge
to look for them and suggested that everyone go find somewhere else to
play. We headed back down to the base in a somber mood realizing that
those two guys could have just as easily been us. A sense of mortality
always tends to ruin an epic pow day like this. We made several more
runs that day within the ski area boundary before heading down for the
very crazy apres`-ski activities at the Hemsedal Cafe (a must-do).
It was here that we found out that one of the men buried didn't make it.
Snowboarding in the backcountry of Europe can be one of the most
rewarding experiences of your life, and on a good pow day, I'll almost
guarantee that it will rival anything you've ever done in the states.
But go prepared, always be on the lookout, and always travel in groups.
If you've never skied in Europe, then you've never truly skied. And if
you think you're good here, a trip to Hemsedal may have you thinking
twice after the first run. Be careful out there.