Ethan and I could sense it was a good day to freeride when we arrived at Dammkar Freeride, Germany’s original freeride resort. The day was clear and cold, the snow everywhere, the tram corral already packed with dozens of local freeriders. Together with guide Wolfgang Pohl-one of the fathers of German freeriding-we rode 4,300 feet up to where rocky spires towered above a powder-choked cirque.
“We wanted to build a fun park here,” Pohl informed us. “But we couldn’t because of the snow chickens.” (Translation: “We wanted to build a terrain park here, but we couldn’t because of the white grouse”-a threatened species endemic to the Karwendel Range.) Down a musty, limestone tunnel we went, bummed that freeriders and snow chickens couldn’t achieve symbiosis, and soon the slopes of Dammkar were laid out before us. There was two feet of fresh powder-and nary a track.
It’s unclear who in the ski world first rode free-it may well have been Glen Plake or Scot Schmidt or somebody who didn’t even realize he was doing it. But Germans, accustomed to co-opting American ski slang such as “kicker,” “twin tip,” and “swallowtail,” assume we use the term “freeride” as much as they do. Which is quite often, I find out. They have no idea how cheesy it sounds to most English speakers-especially with a German accent, especially when “freeride” is used as a noun, a verb, an adjective, and even a gerund. But I don’t think they really care: To them, freeriding is a rebellion, and rebellions are always cool. If skiing in the German-speaking world once meant lots of slalom skis and sharp edges, freeriding is its salvation.
Five years ago-in the dark, pre-freeriding era-Dammkar was ailing. Running the winch-assisted snowcats in winter was enormously expensive, and hardly any skiers showed up. So its owners planned to run the tram only in the summer. It seemed inevitable that Dammkar itself-a steep-sided canyon that gets the most snowfall in Bavaria and constitutes Germany’s longest ski run-would revert to the hike-to slope it’d been in the ’50s, when hundreds of weekenders would form the slow and writhing “Dammkar Wurm” as they huffed up a bootpack.
Then Pohl and Christof Schellham-mer, his partner in his Garmisch-based guide company Vivalpin, showed up with a simple plan. After 20 years of guiding at no-frills areas like La Grave, France, and Monterosa, Italy-intentionally skiing off-piste-they’d learned a thing or two about freeriding. Their proposal: Stop grooming but keep the tram running. Do avy work. Give skiers a backcountry feel without slogs and risk. Surprisingly, the idea stuck, and soon the ski area had a new name to match its new image. “It could’ve been Dammkar Tiefschneegebiet,” Pohl says, “but Dammkar Freeride sounded more dynamic.” And soon everything else was “dynamic,” too: Companies like Fritschi and Atomic joined Schellhammer and Pohl on a marketing blitz, trying to convince Germany that it was OK to ski powder, OK to have big skis, and OK to explore your freeride side at home instead of in a more liberal country like France. Newspaper and television stations flocked to Dammkar. Almost overnight, the area-along with the new sport of freeriding-achieved cult status. Dammkar immediately began clearing a profit, and its PowderAlarm e-mail now alerts 10,000 freeriders every time it dumps-which is quite a crowd, considering Dammkar is essentially a four-and-a-half-mile-long ravine.
For Ethan, Pohl, and me, however, crowds were never a problem. And I found that freeriding came naturally-as if I’d been doing it all my life without ever knowing it. It felt just like powder skiing, really. I think it helped that I was on my usual gear and just sorta skiing like normal. I noticed that Ethan, a fishing guide from Oregon, also picked it up immediately-a born freerider. Together we chased Pohl over a roll into the heart of the canyon, where limestone walls hundreds of feet high hemmed us in on both sides. Neaarly 1,500 feet into the run, we followed the ravine as it took a sharp left and opened into a 35-degree slope a good half-mile wide, where the snow-impossibly light and untouched-piled up deep amid ankle-high mountain pines. We made bigger and bigger turns until our legs went weak. In four more long runs-all we could fit in a day-we freerode nothing but knee-deep powder. One of the few other people we saw was a proper German lady in frilly boots and a checkered skirt, hiking up the hill. Her lipstick was perfect. We just kept freeriding right past her. Man, she’d probably never seen anything so dynamic in her entire life.
Ethan and I were really getting into this freeride thing, awakened to the off-piste explosion taking place all around us. So the next day we drove to nearby Garmisch-Partenkirchen, where the Zugspitze resort had recently begun billing itself as “Freeride-Paradies.” With a posse of locals, we tackled rolling, 2,000-vertical-foot runs in fluff nearly as light as Dammkar’s. Another morning, we joined Pohl and Schellhammer 10 miles away at Laber ski area, which is tiny, surprisingly steep, and hasn’t been groomed in a generation. All the same, thanks to Dammkar, Laber is suddenly “freeride.” Regulars were already bemoaning the influx of fat skis, though there were only 15 cars in the parking lot-three of which were ours.
Later that month, I noticed a new bumper sticker in my favorite Italian resort: Alagna, Freeride Paradise. Soon afterward, I heard tell of Candanchu, a ripping freeride hill in the Spanish Pyrenees. I discovered that Glen Plake had started a Freeride Institute at Schweitzer, Idaho. I visited Zinal’s website, where, aside from reading tragically bad poetry, I learned to say, “A freerider you are, and a freerider you will be” in three languages. It was then-working on the Italian iteration, in my bedroom in Seattle-that I finally began to fathom the wisdom of what Schellhammer told me one morning. “Ja, Dammkar is special,” he’d said. “But it’s just one point in a global movement.”