Article originally published Dec 2008.
In the first of two articles, Barry Roberts and Doug Gurr introduce some of the risks associated with off-piste skiing, and how they should be moderated.
- all photography copyright David Pickford: www.davidpickford.com -
Off Piste Perfection: Matt Perrier looks back at fresh tracks in the Gran Paradiso Massif, Italy - home to some of the finest backcountry skiing in Europe
A Short Introduction To Off-Piste Skiing
Most people you meet off-piste have an intuitive understanding that they are entering a dangerous environment very different from the groomed, controlled and patrolled pistes of a ski resort. But few people appear to have a good sense of either the nature of the extent of the different classes of risk. Staying alive starts with an understanding of the risks you confront every time you dip under the barrier or strike out into the backcountry.
The Different Classes of Risk
Off-piste travel introduces the participant to a whole class of potentially fatal risks never usually experienced in a controlled ski environment. These risks fall into five main classes – which form the basic structure of this guide.
In order of severity these are:
Off-piste conditions can often produce unstable snow packs which can release naturally or (more commonly in accident situations) be triggered by the passage of a group of travellers. The worst avalanches can reach speeds of up to 300 kph and kill victims through suffocation, trauma, or through cold injury after total or partial burial.
Unlike the piste there is no safety netting, crash barriers and careful slope design to avoid steep and dangerous cliffs. Many off-piste skiers and climbers are killed or seriously injured from the trauma sustained by plummeting long distances onto rock or hard ice from exposed spaces. The converse risk comes when rocks or seracs (large ice cliffs ) fall on you.
A skier negotiates a short drop-off high above Pelvoux, deep in the Ecrins Massif. Knowing exactly what sort of terrain you are descending is absolutely essential to being safe off-piste. If you don't feel experienced enough to read the mountain and snow conditions yourself, only venture off-piste with someone who does - ideally an experienced off-piste skier or mountain guide.
Cold injury is often the ultimate killer in accident situations. Low ambient temperate, altitude, fatigue, getting wet and – above all – wind chill all expose the off-piste explorer to the risks of death through chilling of the body core. Early stage hypothermia occurs when the body core temperate drops just two degrees (to 35oC). Modern technical clothing goes a long way to mitigating the risk. But even the best clothing has its limits if you get caught out in a storm, stuck on the mountain overnight, or simply exposed to cold conditions for too long.
Again, unlike the piste, there are no route markers or helpful signposts to tell you which way to go. Navigating in a snow-covered environment is a complex and challenging task at the best of times. Navigating on skis or snowboard adds additional complexity in judging both speed and direction. Bad weather and white-out conditions can rapidly transform a difficult situation into a desperate one.
Travel on glaciers – common in many parts of the Alps and North America – exposes you to the danger of crevasses. Formed when pressures on a glacier cause the smooth flow of ice to break up, crevasses are vertical slits in the ice from one to twenty metres wide and the worst can be up to several hundred metres deep. Sometimes “open” and clearly visible, sometime “covered” and invisible on an apparently smooth snow field. Falling into a crevasse transforms a comfortable horizontal world into a terrifying vertical ice cave and kills victims through the trauma of the fall, or the onset of hypothermia if a timely extraction cannot be effected.
High in the Vallee Blanche, Europe's most celebrated off-piste descent, with Mont Blanc Du Tacul beyond. Competence in all aspects of glacier travel and crevasse rescue is essential if venturing into glaciated terrain whilst skiing / snowboarding. If in doubt, take a guide!
Ranking The Risks
Rescue professionals will tell you that accidents can have multiple causes: the onset of bad weather, fatigue or lack of experience amongst the party, simple errors in navigation and so on. Sometimes a combination of otherwise small problems (late start, equipment trouble, minor errors in navigation, worsening weather) can build up to produce a potentially dangerous situation. The technical term is “incident spiral” as small incidents compound each other to produce a potential tragedy.
That said, it may be helpful to get a sense of the relative level of each risk. To do this, we have analysed statistics on the recorded causes of death in fatal accidents in the Europe and North America. On average, over the past 20-30 years, more than 300 people have been killed off-piste each winter, with over 150 of those deaths occurring in the European Alps.
Hard statistics on causes are tricky to come by, and this is by no means definitive, but the conclusion of our analysis is pretty clear:
The co-author of this article, Barry Roberts, with French mountain guide Luc Bellon, runs a unique off-piste ski coaching holiday in Chamonix which is aimed at upper intermediate level skiers who would like to improve their off-piste ability, and make ensure that they have all the necessary skills for dealing with the very real risks involved. You can find out more information, and book your place at www.allterrainski.com.
Mike Mavrolean enjoying superb spring snow conditions off-piste above Meribel, France
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