There’s nothing that beats the feeling of laying down some fresh tracks in powder. It can feel like you’re floating and it’s 100% addictive. Just thinking about it is giving me goosebumps! This addiction usually starts by venturing into the ungroomed snow at the sides of the pistes, and before you know it, you’re shopping for fat skis and trying to find the best places to go for more fresh tracks. But heading away from the slopes doesn’t come without its risks, so today we’re talking about how to stay safe off-piste.
It doesn’t matter if you have made thousands of good calls – all it takes is one bad call and that is one too many. Some days the mountains are screaming GET OUT OF HERE and some days they are saying come on in – it’s time to party.” – Jeremy Jones
How To Stay Safe Off-Piste
As an ex-ski and snowboard instructor, and having lived in alpine regions for almost 10 years, I’m still shocked at the risks I see people taking every time I’m out on the mountain. Skiing and snowboarding off-piste can be an enormous amount of fun, but it’s important that before you head off and away from the safety of the pistes, you know about how to stay safe out there.
1. Know The Terrain
It’s so important to know about the terrain where you’re skiing and to scope out a line before you drop in. I’m sure most people who have been skiing have spotted tracks underneath a lift which suddenly stop when they get to rocks or a cliff. You might have even seen footprints where they have tried to hike back up. The danger becomes even higher when you’re on a glacier, where falling into crevasses are a more real danger than you might think. If you visit our local glacier early in the summer or autumn, you can see that there are enormous crevasses not that far from the edges of the ski slopes. Once the snow falls, it becomes quite hard to see them, but they are still there. We see countless people skiing very close to them in winter and it’s quite worrying that people don’t know they are there. If you’re wanting to head away from the slopes and you don’t know the terrain, my advice? Hire a guide. A local mountain guide will know the best (and safest) routes to take you.
2. Know Your Ability
You might be confident enough on groomed slopes, but what about when the conditions are less than ideal? Sometimes the snow off-piste can be very variable, and you need to be able to get down safely. You should be confident in all snow conditions, including ice, hard-packed, windblown snow, heavy wet snow and powder. Taking lessons with an instructor is key and training your technique on the piste might just save your ass when you’re off-piste and the conditions aren’t what you expected.
3. Get Geared Up
If you’re heading off-piste every member of your group should have a rucksack with a shovel and probe, and they should be wearing an avalanche transceiver. A fully charged mobile phone and a helmet are also things that can mean the difference between life and death in a bad situation.
What about avalanche airbags?
If budget allows, and you can buy or rent an avalanche airbag rucksack too, it’s not a bad thing. But please remember that an avalanche airbag doesn’t guarantee survival if you’re caught in an avalanche. It increases your chance of staying closer to the top of an avalanche should you get caught in one, but that’s only if you get the opportunity to deploy it, which according to one study, 20% of avalanche victims do not. It also doesn’t protect you from trauma, which is the second highest cause of avalanche-related deaths after asphyxiation.
4. Take An Avalanche Course
No amount of safety gear can make up for lack of knowledge resulting in bad decisions. Did you know that avalanches can even happen when you’re skiing alongside the piste? Do you know why avalanches happen and where the risks are higher? Avalanches are a real and very present danger whenever you head off-piste. And the best way to learn about them is by taking an avalanche course. An avalanche course usually comprises of two sections; theory and practice. You’ll learn about different types of snow, how the weather affects the snowpack, how to assess avalanche danger and how to read an avalanche report. You’ll also learn about the best ways to reduce the risks when you are out in the backcountry, how to use your safety gear and what to do if an avalanche does occur. Even if you’ve done an avalanche course before, doing a refresher every few years helps to make sure that you’ve remembered all the important information.
5. Choose Your Friends Carefully
They say “no friends on a powder day” but having the right friends is pretty important too. Each person in your group is someone you are trusting with your life. If they don’t have a beacon, shovel and probe, and they haven’t practised using them, would you trust them to find you if you got buried? If the answer is no, then go back to the “no friends on a powder day” rule.
Freeriding can be so exhilarating when the conditions are right, and there are few feelings that compare to it. Just remember to stay safe out there. No powder is worth risking you life over.
More and more resorts across the Alps are now offering avalanche awareness training as the popularity of freeriding increases. I spent a day with Patrick at The Freeride Centre in Stubai and I couldn’t recommend him highly enough.
But if you’re keen to start learning and you’re not in the Alps, then the Ski Club of Great Britain also run mountain safety training courses and talks back in the UK.
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