This is something that I’ve wanted to write about for a while now, first to share my experience, which for riding in Canada is limited to Fernie, and second, to see what others think.
Fernie, BC, Canada
Back in 2008 I spent two, awesome weeks in Fernie, BC. We were bombarded with fresh snow, over 2 1/2 meters of the stuff. So many powder days. Putting aside one day cat-boarding, we spent all of our time riding in-bounds. One of the things that struck me was the difference in how the resort was managed compared with the other places I’ve ridden – it was very different to what I’ve experienced in Europe.
In Fernie, the ski patrol was much more visible. You’d see them at the top lift station, or keeping an eye on one of the rope boundaries. I talked to quite a few of the lifties and ski patrol, and they gave me the same message each time: “don’t duck under a rope, don’t cross a rope boundary…”
They were active:
- They’d bomb the place every morning after a snowfall and mark out the edge of the safety zone with ropes
- They’d change the boundaries during the course of a day or week, as the conditions changed. For example, they’d open up a new area like the Curry Bowl, followed by a stampede to get the first fresh lines
- They’d actively patrol the zones
When I say in-bounds or rope boundary, I’m referring to a boundary that differentiates what’s deemed open as part of the resort vs. the places they don’t want you to go to.
And this more of a rule than a suggestion. I saw one guy duck under a rope, heading off into an open field of fresh. The next thing I saw was one of the ski patrol chasing after him, shouting “stop, stop!”
The result was that I felt safe shredding inside the boundary, even when the snow was past waist-deep. They’d checked those areas and decided that they were safe to be open. I’m not naive enough to think that avalanches can’t occur inbounds – because that does happens from time to time – but I was still reassured. I felt that if I stayed within their safety area, I could ride off-piste with confidence. That was awesome.
What’s it like in Europe, the US, and other places?
My experience of Europe is different all together. There are less ropes. I’ve hit some nice lines in Chamonix, Avoriaz, Morzine, Laax and Tignes; to me it feels the situation is considerably more “grey”. You’re left to make your own decisions, to take your own risks, to answer the question: is it safe? There’s less visibility of ski patrol and what they consider to be safe…
In these resorts the distinction seems to be between piste and off-piste. Individual, marked trails are either open or closed, rather than a boundary within which, everything is open, whether it’s a trail on the map or not.
Personally, I’ve always had the view that if there’s a small/medium section of off-piste between two sections of piste (or two trails), in plain view, that’s probably safe. But that’s just an assumption. I’ve never been told “it’s ok to ride there”. Going beyond that – trekking through some trees, or taking a look over that ridge, it’s up to you.
What’s it like in the US? I’ve never been, but I’ve heard that some resorts are managed in a similar way to Fernie, whereas others are more like the piste/off-piste of Europe. And Japan? From what I’ve read and been told, there’re varying views on off-piste access from resort to resort…
When it comes to riding powder, if you’re serious about getting fresh lines away from the beaten track, you need to take the time and effort to be knowledgeable about avalanche safety. Even if you just learn enough to know that: “you don’t know enough by yourself”.
So you should get the equipment, take an avalanche safety course and be able to make the judgements yourself, right?
Maybe. That certainly doesn’t hurt. And if you’re going out of bounds, it’s a definite “yes”. But if you visit a resort and you’re gifted a handfull of awesome powder days, I’ve got to say that I really enjoyed the setup in Fernie. It felt like they’d marked out a giant powder-playground. And although this won’t be the case for some people, I think the ski patrol are better equipped to make the safety decisions than I am. That’s their job.
What do you think? Have your experiences been similar to mine? Do the Canadian resorts have a different approach to those in Europe? Which do you prefer?