How to Get Started Freeride or Backcountry Snowboarding? An Interview with Javier Calzada

Now you fall in love with snowboarding and start to drill more into this exciting sports. But you came across to these terms and you had no idea what they mean, for example, freeride, backcountry, splitboard, avalanche kids, etc.

What do they mean? What skill levels are required? What do we need to prepare for freeriding and backcountry skiing/snowboarding?

Today, I’m super duper excited and honored to have the opportunity to interview Javier Calzada, a Spanish ski instructor diploma holder (full cert ski trainer, evaluator, and race coach) who has been working in different countries such as Dubai, Korea, Austria, France, Argentina, Spain, Japan. Javier holds a degree in Physical Activity and Sports and MBA in Sports Management. He is now Doctorating in Sustainability of Snow Sports Management.

Meanwhile, Javier works as the director of Evergreen Alpine Academy in Japan. Evergreen Alpine Academy is actually part of the Evergreen Outdoor Center, which is one of the largest internationalized snow sports schools in Japan, located in the Nagano area. They are a ski and snowboarding school with over 200 instructors, offering English, Chinese and Japanese speaking ski and snowboarding courses. They are also the only school in Japan Honshu offering official CASI (Canadian Association of Snowboard Instructors) Level 1, 2, 3 and Park 1 snowboard instructor training.

Being the head of the Alpine Academy, Javier is responsible for looking after the more advanced section: instructor, freeriding and backcountry training. So yeah! We’ve found a specialist today!!

Q: Very nice to have you here Javier!! Right, first question, why did you pick Evergreen in Hakuba of Japan?

Javier: Easy reply. My previous job, I was working in Dubai, for 3 years, in the desert… I traveled to Japan on holidays and I got in love with this country.

When I decided to leave Dubai, my first priority was to find a good project in Japan. I found that Evergreen was looking for someone to run the EAA project and it’s exactly what I was looking for.

Q: So Evergreen is running the ski and snowboard instructor training and exams. What would be the difference between taking the instructor exams here in Japan than in Australia or Canada?

Javier: Not much. The instructor associations have the same standards wherever you do the courses. We work with APSI and CASI (Australian and Canadian Instructor Associations) and we follow the same requirements and standards the courses in Canada or Australia.

Q: I can see that Evergreen is running freeride courses, can you give a definition of freeriding? What’s the difference between freeride and backcountry?

Javier: Sure, Freeride is the opportunity to ski or snowboard in ungroomed terrain, out of the regular ski terrain. It is getting more and more popular and the ski resorts are offering specific terrains for this discipline.

Backcountry is the extension of Freeride and we need to use specific gears to hike up and access out of the boundary area of the resort.

Q: So there are many different types of snowboards and skis out there, freeride board… powder board… what’s the difference between them and what should we use for freeriding and backcountry trip?

Javier: Each board or ski has different characterizes regarding the terrain and the snow conditions which will be predominant for the activity.

For freeride snowboards, in order to have more control, stability and float over the deep snow, we use another kind of design in the boards and skis. That design is characterized for getting a rocker construction and wider and longer size.

For backcountry, you need specific equipment for hiking up:

  • For skiers, you must have a specific binding and skins.
  • For snowboarders, you need splitboard that it is a kind of board that you can split and use as skies in the uphill and connect for the downhill. Also, you need specific bindings to be able to do hiking and riding.

Q: What is needed for a freeriding tour or backcountry trip?

Javier: First of all, joining a freeriding tour led by an experienced, properly trained guide and trainers is probably the best step.

Of course, you need proper equipment as we mentioned before in terms of skis or snowboard. Depending on your level, you will have different options of the material, more expensive or cheaper one.

For beginners, you can start with something at lower cost but honestly, at the end of the day, it is very likely you will want to get a set of good equipment even they are more expensive because of the better performance.

Safety Gear is another must-have component. For example, the backpack, the avalanche receiver, the probe, the shovel… Those are the basic gear that you must carry. Prices are very different depending on the quality, but it’s not cheap equipment.

So we’ve talked about the necessary gears to carry… but Freeride and Backcountry are more… You must carry extra cloth, first aid kit, food, water, rope, radio, maps, GPS… On a freeriding or backcountry riding day, we carry a backpack that looks that we are going to climb the Everest, but we need to understand that we are accessing to a terrain that is unsafe and we need to be ready for any incident.

Q: Right, that sounds a lot to take… What if I have NONE of these gears/experience, can I still enroll in your program?

Javier: Yes, of course. In Evergreen, we provide all these safety gears in all of our programs so you don’t need to spend that sum of money until you are sure about you really love freeriding and backcountry.

We have an “Introduction to Freeride” program we educate our students how to access and enjoy this type of terrains. Starting from 2018/19 season, some days will be running with Chinese Trainer.

Q: What level I need to be so I can join your free riding program?

Javier: It’s necessary to be advanced level. Even for the introduction of the program. You must be able to know how to control the speed, the radius, the terrain, being able to ski or snowboard safely in all slopes.

Q: What should I do if I want to do more backcountry trip in the future? Also, can I go for a backcountry ride by myself after taking your course?

Javier: A proper progression is necessary so you can build a strong foundation step by step. Take Evergreen’s programs structure as an example:
First of all, you need to access the Freeride programs where you will learn how to ride and how to use the safety gear, and how to analyze the terrain.
When you are confident with that, you can join in Backcountry introduction or backcountry tours.
And later join in our Avalanche Safety Training) AST courses.

Mountain is an unsafe place when we go out of the control area of the ski resort, the higher level of training and education you get, the lower level of risk you are facing. This is not a process of 1 week of skiing, it’s a process of years of knowledge and experience.

Q: I want to improve my carving skills, should I join the freeride course or should I join a normal course? (I am adding this question because it came to my concern that a lot of readers are mixing up freeriding, carving and backcountry riding)

Javier: For carving skills, it’s much better to join in a normal course. Freeride course is a very specific activity with much-defined knowledge.

Final words from Lorraine

It was truly a pleasure to talk to Javier, not just because of his professional knowledge in the area, but also I was so impressed and amazed with his love in skiing and his current job position.

For one who loves skiing or snowboarding, talking to him makes you feel like you just want to head to the moment immediately! For those who are not so keen about snow sports? You will feel like “oh yeah, perhaps, maybe, it’s a good idea to try it (or try again).”

He is a very simple person who believes in the concept “ski is fun! Speed is your friend!” and I love the way he considers himself a very lucky person who is able to do something he truly loves.

Yes… at the end of the day, no matter what level you are, where you are, the most important thing is: enjoy snowboarding (skiing), and BE SAFE!!!

Happy snowboarding! Cheers!

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