Laax is home to the world’s largest half-pipe (Daniel Loosli/PA)
25 January 2023

What is freestyle skiing and why is it a breath of fresh air on the slopes?

25 January 2023

From the outside, skiing looks pretty ridiculous.

Aside from the absurdity of hurling yourself down a mountain on a notoriously slippery surface with nothing but two bits of plastic strapped to your feet, the whole culture surrounding it is logic-defying. The ridiculously expensive snowsuits, the heavy, cheesy food, the dancing on tables drunkenly at the top of a mountain. Then there’s the snobbery surrounding where you ski and how long you have been doing it for.

I had always felt skiing was too posh for me. Turns out, all I need to do is relax – as I discover on a beginner’s break at Swiss ski resort Laax. The resort, which peaks at 3,000m, is home to slopes for skiing, snowboarding and sledging, and is a hiking hotspot year-round.

Dressed head-to-toe in clothes by skater label Vans, Reto Poltera is the epitome of cool – even if the 52-year-old is more an extreme sports dad than dude. His legacy is legendary, and much of the edgy ski culture in Laax has been shaped by him.

“It started with surfing. My first steps into the waves were leading to snowboarding,” says the former competitive snowboarder and surf veteran-turned-slopes innovator, who crafted the snow park at Laax and designed the half-pipe at the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics.

“My first snowboard wasn’t a snowboard at all, it was a surfboard on a leash with no bindings. I was 11 or 12, not wearing a helmet. It was free and easy,” he explains, as I imagine the fear his family must have felt, seeing little Reto hurtling down a mountain, unattached to a board, not even a helmet protecting his head.

Boarding wasn’t accepted in Europe then, and he faced disgruntled skiers everywhere he went, pushing him from the slopes off-piste, experimenting with freestyle jumps and transitions.

But his persistence paid off, and by 1992, he had opened Laax snowboard school, featuring the largest half-pipe in the world (essentially a big dip you can do tricks in, like a slide). It’s now home to the Laax Open, Europe’s most prestigious freeskiing and snowboarding event, where skiers and boarders from all over the world compete – it’s a snowboarding mecca.

But what does surfing in the water have in common with hurtling down a Swiss mountain? A lot, apparently, as I’m about to discover.

“What do you do if you want to surf in the mountains? Create waves,” Reto explains.

“The roots are in the waves, we are all surfers. A half-pipe is a wave, waves bring a smile to your face,” he says, childlike glee spreading across his face.

Wrapped up in merino wools and a ski suit, I’m struggling to see the comparisons with sun-drenched California, where his vision for Laax was born. Looking at the park he crafted, as a first-time skier, it’s hard to imagine I will even be able to stand up, nevermind take on a park of this scale. But freestyle skiing, I soon learn, is a lot about vibes and people.

So, what exactly is it? Essentially, freestyle means unrestricted, improvised, and free. It means snowboarders and skiers perform tricks, jumps, and ski or board backwards. They make it about more than just going quickly down a mountain, or dodging obstacles off-piste.

But first I need to learn how to ski. We are taught first with only one ski on, stepping and sliding, until we feel secure. Then, the other ski goes on.

“No poles. You will use them too much,” says our instructor Sven. We look like baby deer, bow-legged and sliding about, as five-year-olds barrel down the blue slope beside us on snowboards. Using muscles I didn’t know I even had, I struggle going up and down the slope until I manage a controlled turn.

“You are getting good,” says the ever-patient Sven, as we take in the surroundings of the Graubünden mountains, overlooking lush green valleys, the Rhine snaking through them.

“You will be on there next,” he jokes, pointing to the pipe. We aren’t tackling any specific freestyle moves like jumps or skiing backwards just yet, but we watch others take on the challenge from our nursery slope, and see how calm and collected they are. I fantasise that maybe it really will be me on my next trip.

Going down the slope (at a considerably slower speed than the freestylers), I feel the rush Reto talks about. And other skiers and boarders are friendly and approachable.

Off the slopes, from the vegetarian, seasonal menu cooked by chef Pascal Bertschinger at Riders hotel,  to Indy bar, with its funk DJs spinning records, and snowboards (including Reto’s original board) lining the walls, it all fits the story Reto is trying to tell.

When the snow melts in the summer, the whole area in front of Indy bar transforms into a skatepark. Year-round, big and small kids can practise their skating skills and snowboarding tricks in the huge freestyle academy circus tent.

A pair of twin girls who can’t be much more than eight are going up and down a huge pipe on roller skates doing tricks in matching outfits, while 10-year-old boys take running jumps and do backflips off high rails into a foam pit. Tony Hawk was here last month skateboarding.

“Laax is everything in California in one place,” insists Reto, proudly. “Good coffee, the bars, the hotels… over the last 30 years we have done it.”

As I look over at the half-pipe with boarders and skiers soaring in the air, from the top of the huge mountaintop workspace and cafe, steaming hot chocolate in hand, I realise I was wrong about skiing. If this is what it’s all about, I’m sold.

How to plan your trip

The Rocksresort (rocksresort.com) has doubles from £254 (290 CHF) per night with breakfast.

To book your trip to Laax, visit flimslaax.com/en.

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