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‘Piste’ (French for ‘track’) is how we refer to individual ski slopes – in North America they’re more commonly known as ‘trails’ and sometimes we call them ‘runs’.

Whatever you call them, no two are the same: they vary in length, shape, gradient and snow conditions. Ski resorts classify pistes in terms of difficulty and have maps to reflect this.

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There are also all sorts of technical (and not-so-technical) terms to describe what you find on and around them. At the end of the day, skiing and snowboarding on pistes have made up some of the best times of our lives, so it’s well worth getting the low-down of what they are, how they work and the safest way to enjoy them.

Some resorts are more generous with their piste classifications than others… The difficulty of the Swiss slopes is generally thought to be higher than the same coloured slopes in other European countries. In Finland, some slopes have two colours – e.g. if it starts off gently and gets trickier, you’ll find it graded blue-red. The best way to avoid trickier runs is to talk to an instructor or guide, who can show you where to ski according to your ability.

Ski run classification

Each piste is signposted with its own name or number. The signpost will also be a certain colour and you’ll often find coloured markers along the side of a run. These colours represent how difficult the piste is. Europe and North America have slightly different systems but they all follow a general rule:

often wide and very gently sloping, green pistes are perfect for practising your snowplough on your first week. The very easiest are short nursery/bunny slopes for complete beginners. Some resorts keep these specifically for ski schools or give the runs speed restrictions to keep away speedsters.

in France and North America, blues are a step up from greens – usually wide, cruisey runs to enjoy when you’ve mastered the basics. In other countries, these will also include really easy runs that’d be labelled green elsewhere.

red runs tend to be narrower and/or steeper for confident parallel skiers and snowboarders.

for expert skiers and snowboarders only, these ones are steep and often narrow. Some are left un-groomed or mogulled for added difficulty. In North America, black runs are marked with diamonds – the more diamonds the more demanding the run.

a newer addition to piste maps, these are marked runs which aren’t groomed - only found in some resorts. They follow the natural paths down the mountain and are usually cleared for any large obstacles and avalanche protected. They can give you the feel of going off piste but are safer as they’re still patrolled.

Best experienced with a guide, these are natural descents without avalanche protection, so check the current conditions before you tackle them and bring all the necessary safety gear with you.

Slope conditions

Slope conditions are heavily dependent on where you on the mountain, the weather, time of year and time of day.

  • Higher pistes (especially above 2000m) generally have the best snow conditions – they get heavier snowfall and the cold temperatures keep the snow in good condition.
  • Lower pistes are often tree lined, which not only makes for pretty skiing but gives you cover and better visibility when it is snowing. Low runs will be the first to melt towards the end of the season though as the temperature will be warmer towards the bottom of the resort.
  • Slopes on top of grassy pastures need less snow to be skiable than ones on rocky mountain faces. This is great for the beginning of the season when there hasn’t been much build-up of snowfall.
  • North facing slopes are in high demand at the end of the season as they’re shaded from the heat of the spring sunshine, which prevents the snow from melting too quickly.
  • South facing slopes get the most sunshine. This is lovely when you’re skiing in the coldest months of the season but when the weather warms up, the sun melts the snow and these are often the first slopes to get slushy. The water sometimes freezes overnight, meaning icier slopes the next morning.

Reading a Piste Map

Piste maps are key to finding your way around a ski area – pick yours up from the ticket office and keep it in your pocket, or download a version on your phone. The map recreates what the mountain looks like, and then overlays the pistes, lifts and things like snowparks, kindergardens and restaurants.

Lifts are easy to spot as they’ll be the straightest lines on the map. Each should be labelled with its name and a symbol of the type of lift it is. The pistes are represented by a line of their corresponding colour with their name/number. If it looks a little ambiguous as to what direction a piste goes in, it will often be marked with an arrow.

There are usually signposts around the mountain to direct you – some include a large scale piste map (often near the main lifts) which shows you where you are.

Piste maintenance

Each evening after the lifts close, the snow is groomed by bulldozer-like machines (also called snowploughs, snowcats or groomers). They are specifically designed to flatten the snow and spread it across the piste to keep it well covered. At the start of the day a freshly groomed piste looks like ‘corduroy’ because of all the small ridges made by the machinery.

When there isn’t much of the white stuff, resorts use snow cannons to create artificial snow – you can often see them along the piste. They work by jetting out pressurised air and cool water at a high-speed, which then crystallises in the cold air outside and falls like snow. These work best when the temperature is below freezing and are particularly useful at the start of the season when there hasn’t been a long build-up of snow.

Ski area opening and closing

Although the pistes aren’t technically shut off, the lifts and ski patrols do have specific hours of operation. The pistes officially open when the lifts start in the morning, and after the lifts close at the end of the day, the ski patrol go down the mountain to check that everyone’s able to get back safely.

Look out for days when a couple of lifts open an hour or so early to let keen skiers make fresh tracks on the slopes. Lots of resorts do night skiing when pistes are floodlit to let you ski and snowboard after dark. In regions like Lapland where you only have a few daylight hours, most pistes are lit-up to let you enjoy in a full day’s skiing.

Piste, snow & ski related terms

  • Ski area:  the collective name for all the slopes where you can ski.
  • Network:  a collective name for the lift system in a resort.
  • Lift station:  the points at which you can get on and off a ski lift.
  • Base station: the bottom of the ski area where the main resort lift station is.
  • Snow sure: if a piste is described as snow sure, it holds onto the snow longer than other areas and is one of your best bets for good snow. This usually refers to slopes above 2000m, on a glacier or north facing.
  • Tree-lined: a piste with trees on either side.
  • Above the tree line: the area above the point that trees stop being able to grow. Trees can’t survive past a certain altitude, which is why you probably won’t find any at the very top of the resort. There’s more tree-lined skiing in North America as trees can survive at up to 1000 meters higher than in Europe.
  • Motorway: a wide, open, smooth piste.
  • Corduroy: how we describe freshly groomed snow because of the little ridges left in it by the snowplough.
  • Powder: freshly fallen snow that is fluffy, dry, and not compacted.
  • Hardpack: snow that is really compacted from lots of grooming.
  • Speed measurement piste: a run with a device that records your speed as you ski/snowboard down it.
  • Slalom piste: a downhill slope with gates/poles to ski tight turns around.
  • Run out: a section of the piste that flattens out, often at the bottom.
  • Slush/porridge: when the snow starts to melt, refreezes to become more like ice-crystals and gets churned up.
  • Moguls/bumps: lumps of snow, wither purposefully formed or created when skiers have turned in the same place and caused snow to pile up.
  • Gate: the proper name for the poles you ski around in slalom.
  • Gradient: the degree of steepness of a slope.
  • Fakie: skiing or snowboarding backwards.
  • Mashed Potatoes: wet and lumpy snow.
  • Vertical drop:  the distance between the top lift and the foot of the lowest piste.
  • Chute/Gully/Couloir:  an enclosed slope with walls/boundaries – normally surrounding mountainsides.
  • Bowl:  open, basin shaped terrain without any trees.
  • Fall line: the most direct line straight down a slope – how gravity would naturally take a rolling object.
  • Glade: a group of trees.
  • Granular surface: unlike soft fresh powder, this snow is more like little ice granules packed together, often because it’s been groomed a lot.
  • Milk run: the first run of the day when the snow is untouched.
  • No fall zone: a part on the mountain where if you fall you will probably be seriously hurt, often at the top of a gully.
  • Packed powder: snow that was fluffy but is now compacted because of repeated skiing or grooming.
  • Tracked out: snow that used to be powder but has been skied over a lot.
  • Skiable vertical: used by some resorts to cheekily extend their vertical drop by adding the extra bit you can hike up beyond the highest lift.
  • boiler plate an icy patch where the snow melted and then refroze.
  • Corn Snow: big granules of icy snow where it has partly melted and refrozen.
  • Crud: usually used to describe powder snow that has been tracked out and is now lumpy in some places and flat and slippery in others.
  • Crust:  a harder frozen layer on the top of fresher snow underneath.
  • Chowder: an amalgamation of the words ‘chopped up’ and ‘powder’ – when the powder gets lumpy from all the skiing.
  • Cornice: a build-up of snow that overhangs a mountain, caused by winding depositing snow there – often at the start of a chute.
  • Herringbone: side stepping up the piste with your skis on – it’s called this because of the marks it makes in the snow.
  • Cat track/Catwalk: trails that wind round the mountain and aren’t very steep which are used by snowploughs – they can often take you to different parts of the resort.

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