Tales from the Back Country – Day 1
“You will need skis at least 100mm underfoot” said Snoworks’ chief instructor Nick Quinn at our welcome meeting.
We must be the jammiest off piste skiers in the world. A week ago, thin lines of white piste wound through grass and the black run needed a bit of a strim. Then it started snowing. And snowing and snowing and snowing! Since Thursday, it has virtually not stopped. We didn’t ski over the weekend as the visibility was terrible, then came Monday morning. The first day of our off piste ski course; bluebird skies, no wind – and 30cm of snow last night!
The day didn’t start too well; I grilled the porridge! Note to self, if Mark has been making toast, turn the combi oven back to microwave!
The Snoworks Back Country Course consists of alternate days out with an instructor for all-mountain skills training or a mountain guide for a back country adventure. Today, we were with the lovely Dave, a mountain guide based out of Chamonix. Our fellow skiers were Judith, Tim and Martin.
We set off and immediately found beautiful, soft powder just off the Seehorn lift. We skied under the lift (which was tricky navigating over the rocks) crossed the piste and then dropped in through the trees. We had skied here with Dave a couple of years ago; in powder so deep that it flew over our heads and we could easily have kidded ourselves that we were in Japan!
I fell over quite a lot – despite the new snow; the cover is not all that deep! I seemed to do a series of linked turns and then sit down. I think that I was being defensive and had my weight in the back seat. I tried to concentrate on keeping low and maintaining my focus downhill and behind. This stops the skis from running away from under you (which happens more as your weight drops back) and gives better control, especially on steep slopes.
We did a gorgeous descent from Passo Salati, under Orestes Hutte and down to the Gabiet gondola. We met the warden from Orestes, who said that the hut was open, although the Indren lift, which serves only off piste itineraries, was closed. He told us that it is possible to walk up to the hut – something to do with the dogs! (According to Fall Line Magazine, Orestes is No 1 of Five of the Most Luxurious Mountain Huts in the Alps!)
The warden said that after new snow, the Pisteurs like to give it 24 hours for the layers to settle and bond. The avalanche risk was high; 3 (‘Considerable’) below 2300m and 4 (‘High’) above. We proceeded with caution today!
Dave pointed out some large slab avalanches that had been released by skiers who had traversed high. One was on a convex slope, which had separated because of surface hoar. Surface hoar is the same as the hoar frost that you see on winter mornings. It is moisture from the air which has frozen on to a surface. We saw that the hoar on the surface of the snow had produced beautiful, lacy formations. However, surface hoar doesn’t bond with new snow, so it causes a very unstable layer, which generally doesn’t improve with keeping.
Dave said that we were safe standing next to it, because the tension had been released with the slab breaking away, so it wasn’t going to slide. He explained that it would have been safer for the skier to have avoided the convex slope altogether and taken a route through the bottom of the gulley. Snow on convex slopes is notoriously unstable, because it is already under tension and can break away easily when subjected to stress, such as a skier passing over. On a convex slope, this can happen even without an unstable layer.
We caught the gondola back up from Gabiet to Passo Salati and skied Col d’Olen to the mid station at Pianalunga, on the Alagna side. Dave asked if we wanted to stop for a coffee. The unanimous response; “Waste this powder..? NO WAY!”
Following my recent confusion over the North : South divide, I asked Dave’s advice on assessing avalanche risk. “It is not that easy!” He said “You need to look at it. There is no hard and fast rule about south facing slopes; sometimes heat on them and the freezing overnight stabilises them, although it doesn’t necessarily make them nice to ski on! Anything that is well skied should be fine, since you are only dealing with new snow, but convex slopes and large open faces that haven’t been skied are to be treated with caution.” He said that he also likes to have a look, so rather than dropping in at the top of Olen, we went in under the historic Rifugio Guglielmina, so that we could see what the traverses and slopes looked like.
(At 2880m, the magnificent Rifugio Guglielmina, “Europe’s Highest Hotel” was sadly destroyed by fire in 2011; on the day that we tried to book a stay there. We forgave them for not answering the phone – thankfully no-one was injured. However, high winds fanned the flames and hampered the fire fighting efforts. Sadly, the owners say that they cannot afford to rebuild the Refuge, which has been in the Guglielmina and Calaba families since it was built in the late 1800s.)
We skied back into our home valley off piste down the left side of Salati and stopped at the café under the Gabiet gondola station. We found some lovely untracked pow, which was much more pleasant than the Salati piste, which was now very choppy and icy! We were shattered by the time we got to the café. We had been supposed to meet the other group at 1.15 for lunch but it was 1.45 by the time we got there.
Thankfully, a long, tiring morning meant a short afternoon. We did one off piste run from Salati under indren, which was beautiful, before doing our transceiver training.
As I say in With Great Powder Comes Great Responsibility, whenever you are off piste you should be equipped with an avalanche transceiver, probe and a shovel AND KNOW HOW TO USE THEM!
- A transceiver is basically a radio beacon with a ‘transmit’ and ‘search’ (receive) setting. If you are buried in an avalanche, others can switch their transceivers to ‘search’ and then use their transceivers to locate yours.
- The probe is a long, telescopic pole which allows the searcher to prod into the snow to locate the exact position of the victim. 2m is a minimum length but if you consider snow depth, the longer the better! Ours is 2.4m.
- The shovel is to dig out the victim.
With a window of just 15 minutes before suffocation of a buried victim becomes a real possibility, if you lose a comrade (or comrades) in an avalanche, there will be no time to wonder how to work your transceiver or conduct a search!
With Snoworks, transceiver training forms an essential part of every course. While you hope that you will never have to use your search and rescue skills, you can never be too good! If you want to be able to react in an emergency, when you are also likely be suffering from shock, a transceiver search needs to be second nature.
The drill was to use a transceiver and probe to locate a buried backpack containing a transceiver. I was the first to go and managed to find the burial in 4.5 minutes. I would have preferred to be faster, but I took fewer than 15 minutes, so the backpack lived!
At the end of the day, we couldn’t wait to get back to the doggies. We peeled off at Moos while the others went for an après ski drink. The dogs were stuck to us once we got back! Sylvia had looked after them for us and said that they had been very good but “They cried a little.” We were heartbroken.
We had been away for a full day. It is the longest that we have ever left them!
To find out how we have benefited from our Snoworks courses, see How to Improve Your Skiing IMMEASURABLY!
“Don’t miss the turn at the end or you will go over a cliff.” To see how we get on for the rest of our week in the back country, follow my blog and have our off-piste perils delivered directly into your inbox!