Freeride: a passion for powder

A growing number of skiers and snowboarders are going off the beaten path in search of off-piste descents where they can make their tracks in virgin powder. Freeriding is no longer a niche sport for intrepid adrenaline junkies. Freerider Dominik Tauber, winner of the 2016 BMW Powder Ride Contest, talks about his passion for the sport and his BMW Powder Ride prize of a trip to Iceland.

Matthias Fend
Alexander Zimmermann

He checks his equipment one last time. Adjusts his goggles. Tightens his bindings. Nothing is left to chance. One last deep breath, and the descent begins. In seconds he has vanished in a cloud of glistening white crystals – fresh powder underfoot, blue skies above, and straight ahead: the ocean. “That was insane. There are no words to describe what it’s like to go from a mountaintop all the way down to the sea.” Dominik Tauber knows what he’s talking about. The 25-year-old has stood on countless summits; he has skied thousands of kilometres of groomed runs and many more ungroomed ones. Tauber is a freerider. That means he has no need for pistes. And if need be he can also do without ski lifts.

With his spectacular photos showing plumes of glistening powder snow, unspoiled mountain landscapes in the glow of the evening sun and mountaintop views of a snowboarder above a blanket of cloud, Tauber took the title in this year’s BMW Powder Ride Photo & Video Contest. This is an annual event organised by BMW Mountains, and the entrant who submits the most spectacular freeride photo or video while at the same time conveying the true spirit of the sport is rewarded with a week for two in one of the world’s top freeride meccas – with a wide range of activities thrown in for good measure. It was the work of Dominik Tauber that earned the top prize from the 2016 jury. So he and a friend got to spend a week in Iceland – and experienced some of the most spectacular runs of his freeriding career. Where else can you ride a snowboard all the way down to the ocean? “That’s something you only get in Iceland and Norway – which is why these two countries are such favourites among freeriders,” enthuses Tauber. So what exactly is freeriding?

Freeriding is less about high-speed descent and racing the clock and more about the purity of the experience.

From chairlift to airlift: a helicopter transports Dominik Tauber and Gabriel Mojon to Iceland’s unspoiled mountain summits.

Freeriding is less about high-speed descent and racing the clock and more about the purity of the experience. For freeride skiers and snowboarders alike, it’s about solitude in unspoiled nature, the search for spectacular runs and being the first to leave tracks in virgin snow. There’s something almost meditative about it. Tauber sums it up in a single word: “Magical.” For him there’s no better place to switch off and enjoy nature. It’s not the adrenaline rush that attracts him, but rather the tranquillity and the concentration that freeriding demands.

Tauber was born and raised in southern Germany, not far from the Swiss border. But increasingly he felt the lure of the mountains. He wanted to be surrounded by snow, all year round if possible. So in 2010 he moved to Hintertux in Austria – a ski resort with a glacier that guarantees snow 365 days a year. “I soon got to know the right people, the region and the best spots.” Spots is the term freeriders use for the most rewarding locations for off-piste descents.

The panorama of Iceland’s mountain summits is in itself a reward for freeriders before the run even begins.

Just like the island itself, the BMW Powder Ride prize trip is full of surprises.

Just like the island itself, the BMW Powder Ride prize trip is full of surprises.

These days Tauber works in a local ski hire shop and spends every free minute in the mountains, especially during his lunch break. Although he is not a freeride pro who earns a living from the sport, one thing is for sure: he’s a true freeride freak and powder junkie. Like most freeriders, Tauber started out on conventional groomed tracks. But increasingly he succumbed to the allure of off-piste powder. “I blame it on a TV series about freeriders,” he remarks with a smile. One day he decided to venture beyond the marked ski runs. “To begin with, you go just a couple of metres off-piste. Then suddenly you get your self-confidence up and start looking for routes of your own.” For freeriders there’s none of the stress that often goes with skiing on a crowded piste. “You can sit down in the snow at the top, enjoy a nice cup of tea, and nobody cares whether you head off down in five, ten or 15 minutes.”

But for all its spectacular qualities, the sport is not without danger. Avalanches pose an ever-present risk that has to be taken into consideration. “I never go out freeriding without first thoroughly checking the wind, weather and avalanche reports. Obviously, you’re constantly aware of the risks, which is why you need to be as well prepared as possible,” explains Tauber. In addition to warm clothing, gloves and goggles, his basic equipment always includes an avalanche probe, a snow shovel and an avalanche transceiver – a device he has never yet had to use, but better safe than sorry.

For Tauber, the weeklong BMW Powder Ride trip to Iceland was a dream come true. Being airlifted by helicopter to the island’s summits, instead of hiking up on a splitboard, diving into crystal clear water and relaxing in little-known hot springs far from the well-trodden tourist routes – all that was as much a part of the magical experience as the variety of runs chosen by the team from BMW Mountains in collaboration with local professionals from Viking Heliskiing. And the BMW X1 proved a faithful companion on the trip – just as with Tauber’s chosen sport, the vehicle was able to demonstrate its off-piste capabilities away from the smooth tarmac of the island’s roads. Next Tauber is hoping to make fresh tracks in the virgin snows of Norway, Canada and Alaska. For wherever there are mountains and snow, the freeriders will follow.

Sweden also offers unspoiled mountains, spectacular descents and unique ways to experience nature – and a week’s heliskiing and BMW X1 Adventure await the winner of the 2017 BMW Powder Ride Contest. The sport of freeriding is gaining popularity and has become one of the ski industry’s biggest growth markets, as Andreas König of the German Ski Association (DSV) explains. This comes as no surprise to Dominik Tauber. “When I show friends my pictures of freeriding and the mountains, they’re often amazed. These are views few people ever get to see in ordinary life. And most people who give it a try are quickly hooked.”

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Lucky winner of the 2016 BMW Powder Ride Contest: Dominik Tauber (left) with his fellow freerider, Gabriel Mojon.