You’ve seen them from the chairlift. Those fresh tracks down an untouched face of snow. It looks so appealing, right? We all want to head off on a real adventure beyond the lifts, to the quieter, less tracked parts of the mountain.
Plenty of us have popped off the side of the piste and ripped around between the trees. But how do you know when you are ready to go snowboarding in the backcountry?
Whether you are nervous about venturing into unknown terrain or just need to help with your technique when it gets steep and deep, it’s a good idea to book onto an off-piste snowboarding course.
We spent five days on Mint Snowboarding's Off-Piste Freeride Course this March, exploring the backcountry of the Portes du Soleil with our friendly guide David Gladwin, a top snowboarding instructor and mountain guide. He’s known for being able to hunt out powder weeks after it has snowed.
WHAT SHOULD I EXPECT FROM AN OFF-PISTE COURSE?
First thing first, no one expects you to be an off-piste expert, particularly if you are booking onto an introductory course. The chances are the other folk on the course are just like you - they’ve explored patches of powder near the piste before but never ventured a whole lot further.
You can expect not only learn a lot about avalanche safety in the backcountry, but also secret powder spots that you never knew existed. It’s a good idea to be an intermediate/advanced in your riding ability before booking on.
"Finding yourself on a bluebird powder day and carving fresh tracks down an untouched face…. Well, there’s nothing like it"
I’ve spent two seasons in the Portes du Soleil and our guide David took us to dozens of spots I had never been to before. The beauty of going with a mountain guide is the confidence you gain by following someone who has ridden these lines many times before.
While nowhere is 100 per cent safe, it is good to know that your guide has years of experience and knowledge behind him before you drop into a steep descent.
It’s amazing the difference in perspective you gain at the end of a week barely touching pistes at all. Suddenly you don’t see the mountain in the same way anymore. All of those section that were off limits in the past, because you didn’t feel like you were ‘good enough’ to tackle them, open up as a new adventure playground.
WHAT KIT WILL I NEED?
When it comes to wearing the right clothes for a backcountry course, I would recommend layering up. One minute you will be freezing your butt off on a chairlift in the snow, the next you’ll be hiking along a ridge, sweating buckets.
The best way to cope with varying temperatures is by wearing lots of layers, so you can add or remove depending on how you feel.
As a basic guide, start with a sweat-wicking base layer like merino wool, followed by an insulated jumper and then a good waterproof snowboarding jacket or hard shell outer layer. It’s always a good idea to bring a spare layer in your backpack as well.
It’s also a great idea to bring snacks, water and a spare pair of gloves and goggle lens. You’ll appreciate it when your morning gloves are soaked by lunchtime and the weather has started to close in again.
When it comes to avalanche safety kit, there are three key pieces of kit you should have in your kit bag (and know how to use them):
There are loads of different types of avalanche kit on the market - from avalungs to airbags - but if you are looking to just get the basic essentials, these are the three things you need.
BCA and Ortovox are some of the most reputable avalanche safety kit makers out there. I personally have a BCA Tracker 2 Avalanche Transceiver. It is really simple and clear to use. There’s an obvious tag to pull for tracking and it’s fast and responsive.
Once the battery is below 50 per cent, it is worth changing them just in case. You’ll be surprised how quickly batteries can run out, especially when the temperatures drop.
It’s best to wear your transceiver under your jacket but on top of your top jumper layer. Make sure you keep your phone away from the transceiver as it can mess with the signal.
"75 people were killed by avalanches in Europe last year alone"
When it comes to buying a probe, make sure it is at least two metres long and deploys quickly by pulling a cable that attaches the sections together.
Shovels come in all sizes and materials. It’s best to get an aluminium one as they are stronger and more durable than plastic shovels. Make sure it is lightweight, collapsible and fits in your backpack easily.
One of the great things about joining an off-piste course is this kit will be provided for you - so you can test it out before you buy your own.
Avalanche safety kit isn’t cheap, but just as you drop big money on a new snowboarding jacket or snowboarding boots, you should think about spending money on avalanche safety kit. You never know when it might save yours or someone else’s life.
CHECK THE WEATHER REPORT
One of the biggest risks to those venturing off-piste is being caught in an avalanche. Most people don't realise how frequently avalanches occur. 75 people were killed by avalanches in Europe last year alone.
Every morning we checked the Chamonix Meteo weather forecast with David to see visibility, wind strength, which aspects to be wary of and what the avalanche risk was that day.
Ski resorts in Europe tend to use the five tier European Danger Scale when it comes to assessing avalanche risk with 1 being the safest conditions and 5 being the most dangerous unstable snow conditions.
Skiers and snowboarders tend to think that if the risk isn’t labelled as 4 or 5, then there is nothing to worry about - but this isn’t true. Even level 3 is a considerable risk of avalanche, so it is worth being wary even if the signs around resort are only saying level 2 or 3.
Wind is a big factor to consider as high winds will blow snow from one side of the mountain to the other. For example, if there is a strong wind from the SW, it will dump snow on the NE aspect of the mountain, which means NE aspects would be the ones to avoid.
Sunshine is also another major factor. North facing slopes tend to get less amount of sun in the northern hemisphere while south facing slopes get the most sun.
This means the snow pack on both slopes will be very different. If a south face warms up very quickly during the day, for example, it could cause a slide.
Avalanches tend to occur on slopes angled between 30 and 45 degrees. This is pretty steep, but it has been known for avalanches to occur on slopes outside these angles as well.
If there’s been lots of fresh snow in the past few days, it is also worth being wary as the snow might not have had time to settle and stabilises, leading to a lot of loose snow avalanches.
GET CLUED UP ON AVALANCHE SAFETY
Once you’ve checked the weather, it is time to get clued up on avalanche safety. First up, it is necessary to get yourself three pieces of kit: an avalanche transceiver, shovel and probe. See the kit section above for more details.
Before we left each morning, we would check to make sure everyone’s transceivers were turned on. It is worth keeping your transceiver switched on all day (even over lunch) and not turning off until you are back home at the end of the day.
We went through a detailed process of searching for someone who is buried in an avalanche. It’s a good idea to practice in pairs burying a transceiver and getting your partner finding it using their transceiver.
92 per cent of avalanche victims survive suffocation if rescued within the first 15 minutes of being buried. After that, the rate drops to a mere 30 per cent after 35 minutes. So it’s important to move as quickly as possible.
We also dug a snow pit to assess the snow pack. It’s a great way to see the history of the snow from the first snowfall of the winter up to the present day.
Not only do you start to understanding how knackering digging at altitude is but you also can see where the layers that might slides are in the snow pack.
This is just a basic guide. By booking onto a proper course with an avalanche safety module, you can get properly clued up on avalanche safety in the mountains.
HOW TO CHOOSE A ROUTE
Safer routes are generally along ridges and slightly on the windward side away from cornices. Cornices are overhangs of snow that often build up with the wind. It’s best to stay clear of these - stepping on top of one might mean it collapses. Stopping underneath one is also risky because the cornice could collapse on top of you.
When you are a traversing a slope with potential avalanche risk, go one at a time and stop in sheltered safe spots.
Just because there are tracks doesn’t mean it is a good route to choose, particularly if you haven’t sussed it out from the bottom first or the visibility is dodgy.
I found this out when I followed some tracks during a white out and ended up at the bottom of a six-foot hole. Little did I know most of the people who made those tracks turned last minute. Luckily, it was only a small hole not a cliff.
QUESTIONS TO ASK YOURSELF: HOW LIKELY IS THIS SLOPE TO AVALANCHE?
- Have there been any other slides on this face already?
- Can you see any visible cracks in the snow pack?
- Can you hear any ‘whoomphing’ noises?
If the answer to any of these questions is yes, don’t go. Find another place to ride.
HOW DO I RIDE IN POWDER?
If you are riding in powder for the first time, you might be surprised how difficult it is. Turning is a lot trickier than normal.
For snowboarders, you want to put more pressure on your back foot than you would on the piste. This helps keep the nose out of the deep stuff.
However, you don’t want to straighten that back leg too much - otherwise you won’t be able to turn. Keep a slight bend in that front knee to change direction.
Finding it a nightmare to get back up when you fall over in powder? Check out these tips for first-timers.
TO SUM UP….
It might sound like there is a lot of risk involved in venturing into the backcountry. In reality, the majority of people that venture off-piste are absolutely fine.
After all, there is a reason people come back time and time again. Finding yourself on a bluebird powder day and carving fresh tracks down an untouched face…. Well, there’s nothing like it. It is pretty much the most fun you can have on your snowboard.
However, it is always good to be cautious. Make sure you check the weather before you go. Be prepared in case of avalanches. Always buy snowboarding insurance before you go on holiday.
By booking onto an off-piste course like those run by Mint Snowboarding, you can make sure you’ve got the basics nailed - and leave feeling confident next time you head off on an adventure.
Mint Snowboarding run off-piste freeride, backcountry and splitboarding courses throughout the winter from their base in Morzine, France. For more information, visit their website: mintsnowboarding.com