So there we are, standing at the Eisgratbahn valley station, waiting for our guides. Two young men approach us and introduce themselves as Simon and Flo, freeski coaches of the ÖSV (Austrian Ski Club). Based on their clothes alone, we can guess that these two are not classic piste skiers. The twintips - skis bent backwards - also tell us that the boys belong to the freestyler fraction.
But that's exactly why we're here. We want to try out how it feels to take off and perform tricks on skis. The waiting youngsters already know better than us adults. They also recognized Marco Ladner, the Tyrolean freestyle pro and Olympic athlete, who joined the waiting group. So now the snow park adventure can begin. Excited and full of anticipation, we board the Eisgratbahn.
With a few turns on the slope we get going and soon we turn right into a kind of roller coaster of snow. Through steep bends and over waves, it goes downhill for the children as well as adults without stopping. Good ski control is already required here, one gets faster and faster on the narrow track, where the brave ones behind Flo and Simon step on the gas and are up and away in a few turns. With parallel turns, you quickly become a "disturbing object" here, as younger and older skiers whiz past me on the left and right. A fun slope like this is the best and most fun introduction to tricky skiing, you can ski through it in one go, and you don't have to reckon with any major obstacles. If you want, you can also jump over the waves and ski up the banks like in a boarder or ski cross course.
On the next run, we all head for the snow park. But the two coaches don't let us in without warm-up exercises. First, the whole body has to get going before heading over the narrow gate into new terrain. Some of the young participants in the BIG FAMILY Action Days already have a little experience with boxes and kickers, but for most of the parents it is new territory. The youngsters are pleased though that the "oldies" have agreed to join in. While the moms are still a bit hesitant on the edge of the snow park, the dads quickly get into the fighting spirit and want to follow their kids' lead. I also want to know and try my hand at a box - a narrow plastic block over which you can glide if you hold your skis tightly together.
Right at the beginning of this BIG FAMILY Park Day we learn that the interaction of several skiers and snowboarders in the park can only work if everyone follows certain rules. So Flo explains to us that you always have to wait until the person in front of you has safely stood the jump and is out of the landing zone before you start skiing. Also, you must never stay in the landing or run-out area - especially as a group. Flo and Simon always point this out to us. Unfortunately, we also experience how other skiers and snowboarders recklessly sweep through the snow park as if it were a fun slope and thus endanger us and others.
It takes a bit of cheekiness to dare to try ever higher jumps and also ride tubes or rails. Luca, Matteo and Jakob have already participated in the Austria Snowpark Days of the ÖSV (next date at the Stubai Glacier: 15 April 2023) and are already little pros. Even falls can't scare them. Lisanne, the only girl in the group, is a bit more cautious, but then gets bolder as the day goes on and soon dares to do more.
After a refreshment in the self-service restaurant at the Gamsgarten, the two freeski coaches continue the training diligently in the afternoon. While Luca, Matteo and Jakob are already working on more difficult tricks with Coach Simon and to try to make a turn on the boxes and land backwards with support, Lisanne and the parents take it a little more cautiously with Coach Flo, but soon get the confidence to take off properly with a little more pressure on the jump.
When at 3:00 p.m. the shapers (park supervisors) come to close the snow park so that they can get the kickers and obstacles back in shape for the next day, not only the youngsters think it's a shame that this park day has passed so quickly.
On Sunday morning, mountain and ski guide Patrick welcomes us at the valley station of the Eisgratbahn. He practically grew up on the Stubai Glacier and has spent most of his winters here since he was about 10 years old, first as a little racer in the ski training sessions, then as a wild snowboarder until the mountain rescue team took him aside, told him about the dangers off-piste and recruited him into the team. Since 1996 he has worked as a ski instructor and since 2008 as a state-certified mountain and ski guide and is the head head of the Freeride Center Stubai. He knows every stone and every crevasse personally.
Before having fun in the backcountry and making a detour beyond the edge of the slope, you have to know what you're doing. Because just beyond the piste markings lurk various dangers. So Patrick first takes us to the self-catering room on the Eisgrat to educate us on the dangers, equipment and behavioral measures for skiing and snowboarding in the alpine region.
We hear from Patrick the basics of avalanche awareness and also that there is now a wealth of information on the Internet. Nevertheless, there are still avalanche accidents that would not have been necessary if those involved had followed a few simple rules, such as relating the danger level to steepness - because avalanches need a slope in order to descend. But it is the human factor that is critical, says the experienced mountain guide.
While Patrick is talking about dangers and measures, you can tell that the young participants would rather be skiing than chatting. The adults, on the other hand, ask smart questions and worry about their safety and that of their children.
But then it's finally time to go. We strap on our skis and snowboards, set the avalanche transceiver to "transmit" and slowly and one by one pass the mountain guide, who checks that our equipment is in working order. Safety Check is what it's called and should be done at the beginning of every freeride day with all group members. At the Powder Department Checkpoints at Eisgrat and Gamsgarten there is a separate test station for this purpose, so that you can test your equipment independently.
The first run leads next to the piste along a somewhat narrower corridor between protruding rocks towards the Fernau chairlift. The changing snow conditions between soft powder and wind-pressed hard, broken snow are not so easy to master. More skiing skills are required here than on a nicely groomed slope, and it also takes stamina. The adults notice this even before the kids, who are effortlessly taking their turns right behind Patrick.
Before the lunch break, there are two longer off-piste descents with a bit more steepness. Then everyone is happy when Patrick swings off before the Gamsgarten self-service restaurant. The noodles are now urgently needed to regain strength for further runs in the powder department.
For the afternoon, Patrick has come up with a playful approach to a victim search. The "scavenger hunt" with the avalanche transceiver is especially well received by the kids. Their ambition is kindled to find the simulated avalanche victim as quickly as possible. Patrick repeatedly skis ahead, quickly hides his avalanche transceiver, and the participants then try to find it virtually as they pass by. 13-year-old Sven hits the mark three times in a row.
The adults are happy to let the children take precedence in this playful exercise, but get tips for search exercises that can even be done in your own backyard.
After the descent through the "Wilde Grub'n" on ski route no. 14 , this freeride day is unfortunately already over. Although the snow conditions didn't give us a powder day, we all - big and small - enjoyed skiing in open terrain because the adrenaline level is higher when you don't know exactly what awaits you around the next corner. But we also learned that, especially as a freeride beginner, you first have to work on your skiing technique and fitness levels, and then it's best to make your first excursions beyond the edge of the piste with a mountain and ski guide. The guide not only knows the best runs, but also knows what to look out for in terms of safety.