The golden rule of skiing in the backcountry should be to take a qualified mountain guide, but it’s not compulsory to do so. A guide can assess the situation and minimise the risks, and find some of the best runs for the conditions on the day. It’s their job to show clients the best of the mountain so splashing out on a guide will help keep you safe, and give you a far better day than finding your own way.
Staying safe off-piste
Skiing fresh, untouched powder can be the most fun you’ll ever have, as long as you don’t take risks.
Skiing and snowboarding off-piste, away from the crowds and getting fresh tracks among spectacular scenery, is utterly addictive.
Many ski domains have ‘itinerary’ routes, or freeride areas, that have been made secure by the mountain safety team, but are not regularly controlled like pistes – they’re the safest way to experience powder if you haven’t had avalanche training. Because skiing off-piste is risky – every year, avalanches are set off around the Alps by people who are in the wrong place, at the wrong time, without the skills to cope. Here’s our guide to tackling it safely and minimising risks.
Don’t go snowboarding or skiing off-piste without safety equipment. That means avalanche transceiver, probe and shovel – which you must also know how to use. Equally, don’t think safety equipment (especially an avalanche bag) means it’s OK to take unnecessary risks.
“Equipment helps you to deal with accidents and minimise the consequences” , says Fred Buttard, an IFMGA guide and owner of French guiding company Upguides “Knowledge helps you not to have accidents.”
Ski domains use an avalanche warning system of 1-5 to inform skiers and locals of the risk of avalanche – 1 means ‘low’ risk, 5 means the risk of an avalanche is ‘very high’. Most deadly avalanches occur at level 3 (‘considerable’), when people mistakenly think it is safe.
If you’re skiing and see some tracks leading into a nice-looking bit of powder, don’t follow them. The skier who made them could be Candide Thovex, who’s capable of pulling a 360 off a cliff and landing safely afterwards – or they could have fallen off a cliff out of your sight line. Sadly, following tracks is the most common mistake made by skiers off-piste, and leads to many accidents.
Learn the skills to safely snowboard or ski off-piste before you go – an off-piste course will not only teach you how to ski the snow, but also how to read the environment.
“We teach people about loading (snowfall, wind transport and rain), how to look at recent avalanches in the area, how to recognise collapsing sounds or cracks on the snowpack and sudden rise in temperatures, and how to assess the steepness of the terrain and avalanche forecast,” says Fred.
Skiing off-piste or snowboarding off-piste means literally leaving the piste – however incremental. Ducking outside the poles between runs is technically off-piste, so make sure you have the correct level of insurance for the activities you’re planning. Ski touring now often requires higher levels of cover, as does heli-skiing. If you sustain an injury away from the piste and need rescuing, it will be an expensive journey down if you don’t have the correct cover.
Skiing off-piste carries inherent risks, and should not be done without a guide, the appropriate equipment, knowledge and skill level. Do take precautions and only attempt if you are an advanced skier with suitable off-piste training.