Tree Skiing: You Love It

December 19, 2014 Katie Marti

Often, when people share photos and stories of an epic run, they’re talking about wide open powder bowls with a view of rocky peaks for days. This is the money shot, the image everyone has in their mind when they sign up for a week of heli skiing or book that family trip to the West Coast for spring break. But it’s not all alpine panoramas and sun above the clouds, you know. There’s an entire bounty of untracked glory below the tree line, and it comes with all sorts of different thrills and challenges. Tree skiing. It’s a thing.

Into the woods Photo: Dave Silver
Into the woods Photo: Dave Silver

There are lots of reasons to stay low, actually. When it comes to heli skiing, trees offer a safe place to shred when flying conditions or avalanche danger take the high alpine out of the equation. Sometimes cloud cover and fog can wreak havoc on a flight plan so that lower landings are all a pilot can access. Other times, guides opt for tree runs to avoid skiing in slide paths when the snowpack is unsettled. And then there’s the promise of secret stashes when the rest of the mountain has all been tracked out.

Secret Stash Photo: Dave Silver
Secret Stash Photo: Dave Silver

Sometimes it’s as though trees are the consolation prize of skiing: the ugly duckling, or the last resort when all the other spectacular, obvious choices aren’t an option. NOT FAIR! There’s a quiet beauty in the woods, protected from the wind and tucked away all sneaky-like. The world disappears and it’s just you, snaking through your own private nirvana. This is where the magic happens as you pick you line and go for it, ducking surprise branches and popping over concealed rocks/roots like a ninja. It’s ninja skiing. You are a ninja. 

Ninja photography Photo: Reuben Krabbe
Ninja photography Photo: Reuben Krabbe

Having said that, there is a certain level of skill required before one can truly have all the fun in the trees. Depending on how well a particular run is gladed, things can get tricky and sometimes downright impossible in the blink of an eye. You’ve got to be able to read the terrain, react quickly and maintain control. Hazards abound, like tree wells and surprise cliffs, so the buddy system is key. Other widely-promoted safety precautions include wearing bright colours, carrying a whistle and stopping frequently to regroup and reassess – basically the opposite of being a ninja.

Pump the brakes! Photo: Grant Baldwin
Pump the brakes! Photo: Grant Baldwin

And, since this post has somehow become as much about ninjas as it is about skiing, it’s fitting to note that some of the most incredible tree runs can actually be found in Japan. Among others, Niseko in Hokkaido is world famous for its slackcountry and backcountry access to deep powder with lots of tree skiing. The difference between Japan and North America, however, is the type of trees you’ll encounter. While our forests are primarily stuffed with evergreen coniferous trees, Japan’s flora tends to be more deciduous, meaning that trees lose their leaves in the winter, creating a sort of hybrid run that’s dotted with trees but still full of light. We get a similar effect over here in forests that been affected by fire.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5aF6hYwm03w&feature=youtu.be

Once you begin to see the forest for the trees in skiing, you open yourself up to a world of fun and excitement.