I regularly get questions about my winter and when I finish my story I often see some amazement. I'm a slow starter, I'll wait for a good base, mostly ride on the lower parts of the mountain during the heart of winter and only go into the high alpine to ride some steep lines later during the season. Because of this, I often ride the best snow, I do not get injured early in the season and often avoid hazardous slopes. You can read my recipe to a great winter below.
The first time when I get the feeling that summer is over is when the first snow comes down in September and the glaciers are turning white again. I've learned to hold my horses till the end of November. Freeriding during pre season has resulted in too many injuries, big chunks out of my P-tex and stuff that's even worse. Especially in September and October, when the sun is still high in the sky and the snow cover can not really grow. The snow that comes down usually disappears pretty soon and it only sticks around on steep north faces and glaciers. It's said that 'early snow is avalanche snow' and can destroy a season as a weak layer. You can expect a real snow cover in the high alpine in November and freeriding becomes an option.
You can be lucky during the pre season and ride some fresh snow on the marked slopes of the glaciers. I strongly advice you not to ride in the backcountry in the pre season. Crevasses are pretty much everywhere on the glaciers and aren't covered in snow. And when you choose terrain with a rocky surface, you can be sure to hit some sharks. I only ride on groomers during this time of the year, but I also like to surf a lot in places like Portugal. Pre season is still surf season for me, but I definitely keep an eye on the development of the snow cover.
In short: head for the slopes of the glaciers if you want to ride some fresh snow. I don't even think about riding in the backcountry.
It's hard to imagine with the last three winters in mind, but there were winters in the beginning of this century that started mid-November. Especially storms that came in from the south west dropped a lot of snow in the French Hautes Alps and the resorts south of the Swiss and Austrian main alpine ridge. Unfortunately, that didn't happen the last couple of years, but who knows...
I'm always ready for an adventure early in the season. A lot of ski areas open their lifts the days before Christmas, but there still aren't many people around. When there are some heavy storms coming in I start chasing. I normally head for the resorts just in front of the main alpine ridge, preferably with a grassy surface and where I can ride between the trees on the lower parts of the mountain. I never ride big couloirs or super steep stuff, but I go for nice pillow lines and mellow bowls. If those storms aren't arriving before Christmas, I prefer to wait till the beginning of January. I usually avoid Christmas. It's pretty busy and it's pretty expensive. With the money I save with not riding during Christmas, I go to Canada. They usually get more snow in the beginning of the season, the tree runs are in great shape in the beginning of January and you can find great pillow lines. Japan is a great option as well, but because of the Australian summer holidays it can get pretty crowded.
In short: I usually plan my trips with care and prefer to ride powder in more mellow terrain. The season has only just started. I normally ride great snow in Canada in the beginning of January and return to Europe for the highlight of the winter.
The days are getting a bit longer by the end of January, the snow cover is steadily growing and winter in the lower parts of the Alps has really begun. Winter storms bring snow deep into the valleys. During this time of the year I'm normally looking for the better tree runs, and this has a number of reasons.
Don't forget that the quality of the tree runs is often a combination of the type of tree and the intensity of winter. Slopes full of larch trees are the best. This tree loses its needles in winter and you still have the advantage of a better visibility but this tree allows the snow to hit the snow cover instead of keeping it to itself on its brenches. Slopes filled with needle trees need about three times as much snow. That's why I like larch forests.
In short: tree runs, tree runs, tree runs. I really love to ride in small resorts with great terrain between the trees. No crowds, no powder panic and no stress to find accommodation.
The cold air will disappear from the alpine valleys from mid March. Valleys with their own micro climates where the temperature has not been above zero degrees the whole winter (ever been to Bonneval sur Arc?), see the mercury rise again. The first real warm periods are on and it is during this period that we experience a special avalanche cycle. The weak layers in the snow cover can not carry the warmer (and heavier) snow anymore and sometimes complete slopes come thundering down. But winter is definitely still around. Storms from the north regularly bring fresh snow to the mid and high alpine and the big mountain lines begin to shape. In addition, the snow cover in the high alpine continues to grow in this period. The conditions are improving dump after dump and the especially the shady north faces are in great shape (after the first avalanche cycle). This is the time to start riding in the high alpine. The snow cover is more stable, the snow is cold and fresh just after a dump and a lot of skiers and boarders are already enjoying the first signs of spring back home (less crowds).
In short: head for the mid-alpine and the high alpine during spring to ride powder. I keep an eye on the weather maps from hour to hour and only go out when there's a big dump coming down. Resorts like Sölden, Andermatt, Passo Tonale or Val d'Isere often have the best conditions during this time of the year.
It becomes awkwardly quiet in the mountains after Easter. More and more ski areas are closing their lifts, but there are always one or two storms that will bring a lot of snow. Planning now requires even greater flexibility. Storms from the northwest often result in great conditions for two to three days. And after that the high temperatures return. These are times when you are sometimes with only a handful of friends in a ski area. With great snow and no powder panic. The conditions are great in the high alpine.
In short: I ride powder in resorts at high altitude. The trips are short (often two to three days), but very intense. Ski areas like Engelberg, Andermatt, Pitztaler glacier, Stubaier glacier, Zermatt, Chamonix, Espace Killy and Val Senales are showing their possibilities for the last time.
I usually drive towards the Atlantic Ocean again from May. The water is getting warmer and there aren't that much crowds in the water. But if the conditions are really good, l'm tempted to ride some big lines. This is more like ski- or snowboard mountaineering. Bring your climbing gear, hike up some couloirs and ride down full throttle. This is the time of the year to ride the super steeps.
This is my vision of a great winter. What's yours?