As you start to progress at skiing or snowboarding, your confidence grows and so does your desire to head off-piste to see what skiing fresh powder is really like. Don’t get us wrong the feeling is incredible, it is the closest you will come to floating on air. A day in the backcountry will leave you grinning like a Cheshire cat. But before you do take the plunge, you should be aware that heading off-piste can be dangerous to the point of fatal.
Avalanches are a common occurrence in every resort and every year lives are lost when people head off-piste without the relevant knowledge or equipment. MPORA would highly recommend that your first couple of flirtations with powder are done in the company of a qualified guide, better safe than sorry and all that.
In the meantime, the following information should also help to ensure that your time riding is as safe as possible. Please be aware that this is the basic need-to-know information. To find out more, head to avalanche safety guru – Henry’s Avalanche Talk and catch one of his online tutorials.
[part title="Get the Gear"]
There are a few essential items of kit that you will need to either invest in or rent before heading off-piste. It is not only important that you have this equipment but also that every member of your group has it too. After all it is their equipment that will save your life when it comes down to it.
A transceiver can make the difference between life and death gives the best chance of locating skiers that have been buried in an avalanche. Before heading out on the mountain ensure that all of your party’s transceiver batteries are full of juice. All members of the party should have their devices switched to transmit. In the event of an avalanche, you will then switch it to receive.
MPORA recommends a transceiver such as the Ortovox 3 as this will provide you with information such as distance from the buried person and the direction in which they are located which will help you to find them significantly quicker. It is thought that you have about 18 minutes to recover a person, after which time their chances of survival diminish rapidly.
When you get to the spot where the person is buried a probe will help you to locate their exact whereabouts. As the name suggests, this long collapsible pole can be prodded into the snow so you can identify exactly where to start digging.
And for that dig you are going to need a shovel. Pack friendly shovels that are light and compact are available and do not cost an arm and a leg. Just make sure you get a good one as you will appreciate it if you are caught an unfortunate situation.
[part title="Identifying Avalanche Risk"]
1. Slope angle
In Europe avalanches release on slopes of more than 28° (25° in North America), for those who like me did not excel in maths in school that equates to a steep red or black run. But beware as there is a difference between where the avalanche releases and where it is triggered. You can trigger an avalanche when standing on a lower angle slope when there are steeper slopes around you.
Avoid: Steep angled slopes and slopes with steep angled slopes around them
2. Snow Stability
If you are skiing with a qualified guide with expert avalanche knowledge you will notice that they can read the snow pack like the back of their hand. For jo-soap this level of knowledge does not come so readily. Snow stability is a crucial consideration and should not be over-looked. When the snow is unstable there is a much higher chance of triggering an avalanche.
All resorts will have avalanche forecasts that will provide essential information about snow stability. It will also include a danger rating. Local professionals will also be able to provide further insight into conditions so don’t be afraid to ask around.
Avoid: Skiing on slopes facing in the same direction as others that have had recent avalanche activity. Slopes facing in a particular direction often have more activity than others due to wind loading of snow that is often very unstable.
[part title="Riding Off-Piste: The Rules"]
1. One at a time
This is one of the oldest rules in the book but one that should be followed. When stopping to wait for other members in your party you should always ensure you stop in a place that is protected from risk. Below rocks and on ridges are two good options.
Avoid: Stopping below a loaded slope.
2. Keep your tracks together
Try to follow the tracks made by the person ahead of you. This is thought to lower risk considerably.
Avoid: Making fresh tracks away from the rest of your group
3. Ensure that all of your party are avalanche savvy
It is all well and good if you have avalanche equipment but zero use if other members of your group are not capable of using said equipment. You should choose your backcountry companions carefully and ensure that they are all savvy when it comes to reading the snow pack and how to use all necessary equipment. Practice makes perfect so don’t be afraid to do a few dummy runs with the transceiver before heading out on the mountain. Think of it as a high-tech game of hide and seek.
Avoid: Riding in the backcountry with people who lack off-piste experience