“Do you want to ski down seven Chilean volcanoes?” “COUNT ME IN!”
This was how we discovered our tried-and-trusted way to get into the back country safely. We still have a few mountaineering skills to learn (and a head for heights to gain!) before we tackle “The Magnificent Seven” – and I’m not sure that we could take the dogs…
However, before we get on to that, I would like you to understand why it is that Great Powder demands Great Responsibility.
There is a whole science behind the study of snow and avalanches. Mountain guides train for years to gain an understanding of the mountain environment. I do not purport to be an expert; I am simply a skier who enjoys getting out into tranquility and wilderness. The objective of my blog is only to help you to understand exactly what you are getting into the moment you stray from the groomed, protected and marked piste.
I cannot stress too strongly that skiing off piste is dangerous and takes you into a very extreme and unforgiving environment. Sadly, every year there are fatalities. I DO NOT recommend skiing off piste without proper training, equipment (and the knowledge of how to use it) and a professional guide.
HOWEVER – skiing SAFELY in the unspoilt back-country, in beautiful, soft powder is the eighth wonder of the world and once you have tried it, you WILL be addicted.
It is important to understand that skiing off-piste is inherently hazardous; you can never mitigate 100% of the risks. There are those who treat the mountains like a theme park. They will go out there regardless; but if you want to sample this unique sensation, how can you get out there without risking your life – or the lives of others?
Know the Risks;
1. The Mountain Environment
Avalanches, cliffs or crevasses, cornices, hidden rocks covered by snow AND OTHER PEOPLE are among the main risks. In 90% of avalanche accidents, the slide is triggered by a person.
The death of three family members and their guide in Tignes – all properly equipped – was due to an avalanche triggered by skiers above.
Avalanche Risk Aosta Valley is a good site to check before you consider going off piste in Gressoney. Henry’s Avalanche Talk (HAT) is also an excellent resource and I recommend reading their free information sheet Off Piste & Avalanches.
“It’s ONLY Avalanche Risk 3!”
This epithet is oft’ overheard in ski resorts. However, Avalanche Risk 3 on the scale of 5 still carries the description ‘Considerable.’ Are you happy putting yourself at ‘Considerable’ risk? Seemingly, many people are, which is why “ONLY Avalanche Risk 3” is when most fatalities occur. Click here to see the European Avalanche Risk Table.
Be aware that avalanche prediction is a science in itself. Prevailing conditions and slope aspect play a huge part in predicting risk and are way beyond the scope of this blog.
2. Self Arrest – Can You Stop?
You need to choose your slope angles wisely and not only because of avalanche risk. If you fall, can you stop?
You will always stop once you get to the bottom of the mountain, cliff or crevasse – or if you hit a rock or tree. Whichever is the sooner. It is worth knowing how to self-arrest if you do fall. However, some slopes are strictly “No Fall Zones”. Did you know;
- It is impossible to arrest a fall on a slope of 35° with hard snow.
- Arresting a fall on a 45° slope in non-icy conditions is unlikely.
- Arresting a fall on a 50° slope is impossible, whatever the snow conditions.
For an simple way to estimate slope angle using your ski poles, click here.
3. Minor Incidents Quickly Become Major Incidents
Aside from the obvious risks, bear in mind that something as simple as a ski lost in deep powder, a broken binding, a dropped glove or even a minor injury can quickly turn into a major incident when added to a remote location and the cold.
- A guide skied down the 35° Eagle Couloir on one ski before poling for 2km to reach the piste when his client’s ski binding broke shortly after starting the Punta Indren off piste itinerary in Gressoney. What would you do in this situation?
- A friend’s rib was broken when she was shoved into the rock wall of a couloir by an out-of-control skier who had dropped in recklessly from above. The helicopter could not get close because of overhead obstructions, so the rescuers had to abseil into the couloir and rappel the casualty out on a stretcher. The rescue took four hours. Apart from any potential complications from the broken rib, being immobile in severe cold for this length of time can become life-threatening.
- We spent 45 minutes searching for a group member’s ski, which released in deep snow, miles from the piste. Thankfully, we found it.
Although deemed ‘definitely not cool’, we wear powder tracers which are cheap, simple and effective – and in our view much cooler than getting stuck in the middle of nowhere with only one ski! Various electronic trackers are also available to help find lost skis.
4. Weather & Route Finding
Mountain weather is very changeable and with no piste markers, it is very easy to get lost or disorientated, even in good weather. If you suddenly lose all visibility, you need to have a plan. If you don’t know where you are, how can you call for help?
A man and his son spent all night on the mountain when they strayed off piste into the wrong valley in perfect visibility. With no lifts, they could not get back before dark.
There are many websites to check weather before your go. It does no harm to look at more than one, since a forecast is just that; a prediction. It is not an absolute! There can also be very marked local variations, so don’t forget to look out of the window! We use Monte Rosa in Realtime : J2Ski : Mountain Forecast.
As windsurfers, we are used to constantly checking and comparing weather forecasts and a little of our windsurfing wisdom also applies to skiing; “If in doubt, don’t go out!” The mountains will always be there tomorrow – and if you are careful, you will be too!
What to Carry;
We NEVER venture off piste without a transceiver (which we check EVERY time we turn it on), shovel and probe (which we know how to use – and with which we practise regularly.)
For the best chance of survival, you need to locate and then dig someone out of avalanche debris (which sets like concrete) within 15 minutes. Any longer and the likelihood increases rapidly that you will recover a corpse. You have no time to work out how to use your equipment or conduct an efficient search, particularly if there are multiple burials.
Our backpack also contains snacks, water, extra clothing, spare gloves, goggles and a lightweight, emergency shelter. Just in case. If you are crossing glaciers, you need knowledge and climbing equipment that will enable you to perform a crevasse rescue.
We always plan our route and leave details of where we have gone and when we expect to be back. We carry a detailed, topographical map (not a piste map!) a compass and have the emergency number programmed into our mobile phone. Do this even if you’re with a guide. You have to take responsibility for yourself when venturing into extreme environments – and that means acknowledging that your guide is neither immortal, immune to avalanche burial nor bulletproof when it comes to injury!
Are you Insured?
We are insured with the Ski Club of Great Britain, so we know that we are covered for ski-specific risks. Most ski insurance policies DO NOT cover you for skiing off piste AT ALL. Some will cover you only if you are with a qualified guide.
If you venture off piste without insurance, sweating about how you might raise the tens of thousands of pounds that you will need to pay for your helicopter rescue and medical bills should keep you warm in the snow for a few hours as you wait for help to arrive!
Skills & Skis;
Skiing off piste requires different skills and skis as well as essential safety equipment. Skis for carving tight turns on piste may be as narrow as 60mm underfoot and will sink in powder. You may not always be able to use your edges off piste, so you will also need a few extra tools in your skills box to tackle the varying conditions that you will find in the back country.
My Kastle LX All Mountain skis are 92mm underfoot – they cut through slush and are a joy to ride in a variety of conditions. My VÖLKL 100Eight Powder skis are – you guessed; 108mm underfoot and float like a hover-board in deep snow! I have also undertaken many courses (see How to Improve Your Skiing IMMEASURABLY!) to give me the all mountain skiing skills that I need to cope with mixed and variable terrain.
I have been mountaineering since I was a child. However, the courses have also reinforced my already healthy respect for the mountain environment!
Get out there and enjoy the unspoilt back country – there really is no sensation to compare. However much of a thrill it offers, though, it is not worth risking your life – or the lives of those who might have to come to your aid. So PLEASE treat the mountains with the respect that they deserve and ALWAYS err on the side of caution!
To find out how to ski off piste SAFELY in Gressoney – and learn a little more about those Chilean Volcanoes, please follow my blog and HAVE IT ALL delivered into your inbox!