Ski Off-piste - "it presses my buttons every time".
Skiing off-piste is, quite simply, one of those activities that falls into the category of "the most fun you can have with your clothes on". Whereas piste skiing is about perfection of technique on a consistent surface, as soon as we go off-piste we have a changing environment both above our heads and (more significantly) under our feet. Instead of hundreds of other skiers going past us at high speed, we have a mountain wilderness that brings both its rewards and its challenges in terms of risk management. In climbing terms, it's like comparing a session on the climbing wall with a multi pitch outing on Gogarth. There's a place for both, but the adventure of off-piste (and/or Gogarth) presses my buttons every time.
Kath Murphy having fun in the Posettes Couloir, Chamonix.
Following a bit more of a Eurocentric nomenclature, i'll expand the idea of 'backcountry' as there are some subtle but important distinctions to make later on between backcountry and sidecountry, ski touring and ski mountaineering that will affect our choice of venue, kit and techniques. As soon as you leave the marked and controlled piste, even by a few metres, you are most definitely off-piste with a whole new set of parameters to deal with, and that's why it's so much fun.
Starting to ski off-piste - "ski reasonable parallel on a red piste"
Most skiers at some time will have a little excursion off the side of the piste and very quickly find themselves being thrown all over the place at best, and at worst getting themselves killed. While not wishing to scare the crap out of you, it's worth bearing in mind that people have been avalanched within resort just yards from the piste, so I'll come to avalanche safety later on. For now it's worth being at a level where you can ski reasonable parallel on a red piste with a fundamental understanding of a good skiing stance. If you haven't got that, then get some on-piste practice and/or lessons in, rather than try to rush into being an off-piste God, hucking cliffs, riding sluffs etc. too early.
Andy Perkins airborne in a good stance, Silvretta, Austria.
I'll go into the specifics of kit later on, but right at the outset it's vital that you have the essentials - an avalanche transceiver, shovel and probe (and a pack to carry them) BEFORE you leave the piste.
Skiing off-piste - "Pressure is the key"
Many skiers get to a very proficient level on-piste and then discover to their frustration that as soon as they go off-piste, and especially in deep or heavy snow, they're in the back seat unable to turn their skis and end up on their face or their arse. There's a limit to how much we can learn about skiing by reading a book or even a Planet Fear article, but a theoretical understanding of the basics of how to turn will help. We can turn our skis in 3 ways:
Matt Helliker using his edges on the Aiguillette des Houches, Chamonix.
All turns are composed of a blend of these 3 different elements, and to manage the myriad of different snow types and terrain that we encounter off-piste, we just change the blend. In one way, skiing is incredibly simple like that. But because of the incredibly diverse nature of the terrain and the dynamism of the sport, it can feel really complex. So let's just break it down a little more:
Steering - we can steer with our shoulders, hips or feet, and the lower down the body we go, the faster but weaker the steering becomes. The problem with weak steering is that we have long planks strapped to our feet. In anything soft and/or heavy the skis are held in the snow and the leverage on our feet is so massive that we can't turn our feet. The answer is to get our skis out of the snow by jumping out of it, but we can only steer in that short period of time when our skis are on or above the surface of the snow.
Arc'teryx pro rider Erik Finseth presses it out in Les Houches, Chamonix.
Edging - we can change the amount of angle on the skis by moving our centre of gravity to the inside of the turn, either by using our shoulders, hips or knees. Just like steering, the lower down the body we go, the faster but weaker the edge change becomes. So the big edge adjustments are done at shoulder and hip level, with the fine tuning coming from the knees if needed.
PRESSURE - we always weigh the same, but we can change the pressure on our skis by bouncing up and down, bending the knees like we're on a trampoline. We can go up or down, quickly or slowly through the turn, and that movement will change the pressure on the skis at different parts of the turn. It's really hard to write about. Skiing is a sensational sport, i.e. a sport of sensations, or feelings. But one way to think about it is to imagine the pressure of patting a dog (assertively and dynamically) or stroking a pussycat (softly and subtly). On hard snow we can release the pressure (come up) gently and sink down hard (think of pressing the edges hard into the snow). But on soft snow we come up dynamically (getting the skis out of the snow to steer in the middle of the turn) and then downsink slowly and gently, stroking the snow under our feet. Confused? Get a lesson - or several. Most people wouldn't learn to drive without a qualified instructor. Skiing is much more complex than driving, yet somehow many people just think they'll be able to teach themselves. How hard can it possibly be? Answer: very.
How not to do it, the skier in this image would like to remain anonymous.
Risk Management on the Mountain (which isn't a golf course)
Many on-piste skiers have what a friend of mine calls a golf course mentality. They see the mountain as some kind of leisure facility designed for their enjoyment. Somehow the mountain is to blame if their performance is sub-optimal or if they end up in a big heap at the bottom with parts of their body not where they should be.
What we need is a true mountain mentality, where we adapt our behaviour to what the mountain is telling us. Once we leave the piste, there are a whole series of issues we have to listen to, observe, consider and make decisions about. We have all the usual mountain stuff to deal with (navigation, cold, etc.) that needs adapting to the ski environment, plus 2 issues which are so much more significant on skis than when climbing.
Matt Helliker goes large on the Thoule Glacier, Val d'Aosta.
Avalanche: Above all we need to assess the avalanche risk. Just as no two turns in skiing are alike, no two sets of snowpack are like, with a complex chemistry of snow, wind, sunshine, temperature, slope angle and aspect and so on. It's impossible to even scratch the surface in a written article, but here are a few pointers:
Read some books, take an avalanche course and keep your eyes and mind open. Remember that having an avalanche transceiver won't stop you getting avalanched, and forget about being able to ski out of it.
Crevasses: In a very small number of lift served off piste runs, we have to deal with crevasse risk. Like avalanche assessment, it's an incredibly complex subject. As a start off, I can't do better than recommend watching the video below.
When skiing on a glacier, you'll need the kit specified in the video. Carry it and know how to use it.
How to minimise the risks while skiing & boarding on glaciers.
The different kinds of off-piste
There are lots of different types of off-piste skiing. To start with, we can ski just a few yards off the side or between pistes within resort. Even here we need the techniques and risk management, but generally the avalanche risk is lower and if we keep face planting and it all gets a bit emotional, we can get back to the relative security of the piste quickly and easily.
Unknown skier on the Comble de la Vierge, Vallée Blanche, Chamonix.
Then we have side-country, where we traverse or boot pack away from the piste, getting away and out of sight of the pistes and lifts, but with an intention to return to the resort on skis. It's a bit more committing than the above, and needs more awareness and technique and margin of safety.
Finally we've got the full back-country experience: off the back of the resort with full commitment, skiing out to a road away or a completely different resort. We're going to need full self-sufficiency in all respects - navigation, ski technique, emergency procedures. Given good choices and competence, the rewards are going to be huge.
Richard Lundberg in Les Contamines in December 2010.
The best time for it - "when the fluffiness is at maximum levels"
The ski season in the northern hemisphere runs from December through to early May. Cover in December and January can be thin, but when the snow falls it's often of the highest order of fluffiness. February is generally busy in-resort so fresh snow can get tracked out swiftly in the more popular resorts. In March and April we are looking at the higher resorts like Chamonix, Verbier, Saas Fee and Zermatt to get the best stuff.
Andy P's Off -Piste Choices. Here's some of the kit I'm taking off piste in 2011:
BCA Tracker: the first transceiver to use twin antennae and digital display, and still the easiest transceiver on the market for use in single person searches.
Snowpulse Avalanche rucksacks: think carefully about whether you want a 15 or a 30 liter model. If you're going to be touring in the future (see upcoming articles) then you'll need 30.
All the shovels from Planet Fear come with metal blades. Good call...
Verdicts are a well-proven product which, despite being fairly fat, give good performance on hard snow too.
The Scott Crusair was new last year and I was initially quite sceptical about its suitability for intermediate skiers, as I imagined that a carbon ski would be way too stiff. I was wrong - it's been a runaway success with several of my clients. As a touring ski it will be an amazing performer, being light yet capable of delivering good performance too!
Matt Helliker jumps on cheeky terrain in the Vallée Blanche, Chamonix.
None of these are supplied by sponsors - they are my choice of the best kit for the kind of skiing I like.
Everyone has their own ideas about gear, plus the market is developing so rapidly that anything specific I write is going to be out of date in months. So I'll keep this general.
Boots - buy these and hire the skis. Your choice is going to depend on whether you intend to tour in the latter part of the season or whether you think walking is overrated. If you're going to tour, then are you going to go light with Dynafit inserts? Beyond that, get advice from a reliable boot fitter.
Skis -flex pattern, turn radius and width are all parts of a complex and interrelated set of parameters. The stiffer it is, the more stable it'll be on hard surfaces at speed. The softer it is, the more forgiving it will be. The lower the turn radius, the quicker it'll come round on hard snow. The wider the ski, the more flotation it'll have in soft snow, but the slower it'll be from edge to edge on hard snow. Width, like pressure, is the key. Right now, in late 2010, the high 80's (in mm underfoot) is pretty much a minimum, even for a touring ski, and many skis are approaching 120mm. In a few years we'll have 2 snowboards on our feet.
Bindings - if investing in your own set up, you'll want to consider whether you are going to be touring in the future. Also, remember that, if you value your knees, NEVER use touring boots in a downhill binding. Not sure why? Click here.
Poles - get some with powder baskets.
A Pack - 15 litres minimum if you're serious about your off-piste. I prefer teardrop shapes to keep the centre of gravity as low as possible. If your ski partner is without a pack, it means they have no shovel and no probe (see below) which makes them at best naïve and at worst inexcusably selfish.
Transceiver - the technology is developing almost as fast as skis. Almost all models are now digital, and most have 2 antennae and some have 3 (which speeds up the search). You need to balance sophistication vs. simplicity of use in what will be a VERY stressful situation. Some transceivers also have a better range than others, but whichever one you buy, get familiar with its foibles through regular practice.
Probe - solid and easy to use, please. It'll be useful for snowpack inspection as well as avalanche rescue
Shovel - metal blades are preferred these days as there have been recent experiences of plastic blades not being up to the job
Standard ski kit: shades, goggles, sun cream and lip salve
Standard mountaineering kit as soon as you're involved in side country or more: map, compass, altimeter, first aid kit, group shelter, repair kit, flask, food
Avalanche rucksack - the ABS or Snowpulse systems are in increasing use
GPS - though if you're skiing off piste in condtions requiring GPS, you might want to ask yourself the question as to whether you should be there at all!
Glacier safety kit mentioned in the video if you're in crevassed terrain.
Matt Helliker goes for it on the Vraie Vallée Blanche, Chamonix.
Snow Sense by Jill Fredston and Doug Fesler - a great little pocket reference
Staying Alive in Avalanche Terrain by Bruce Tremper - the best book around right now. Written by an American expert, it even uses irony and a sense of humour!
Off Piste guides to Chamonix, Tignes/Val d'Isere, La Grave and the Trois Vallées by a variety of French authors, published by Vamos
The author - Andy Perkins
Andy Perkins is a British Mountain Guide based in the Chamonix valley with a direct view from his house towards the Aiguille du Midi. He spends over 70 days a year working on skis - off piste, ski safaris and ski mountaineering. You can find out more at at www.andypmountainguide.com
Text and all photography copyright Andy Perkins: http://www.andypmountainguide.com/