Be Careful: Are You Kidding Yourself When You Go Off-Piste?

by Fraser

January 2004, it’s my second ever snowboarding trip, a two week holiday in Chamonix. It was a powder day, blue skies, my brother and I were keen to do a little hike to get some fresh. Around the back of Le Tour, we followed the boot pack from the top of the lift, away from the piste and took a look around. There was a nice bowl, untouched, it looked perfect. He went first, then me. We both got some really nice powder turns – my first taste of the fresh stuff. Awesome…

And we got more nice runs in that day. But looking back, on that bowl especially, we took a risk that neither of us really understood. There were lots of people heading in the direction that we went, but no one had dropped into that particular area. It wasn’t a huge bowl, but it all converged into one depression, like the deep end of a pool. One of the sides was quite high, and had fresh snow on it. And there was a bit of a wind lip on the edge that we started from.

You get the picture? We knew very little about backcounty safety. Sure, the risk was probably quite low. It was a powder day with a bit of fresh, but it hadn’t been snowing for two days straight and we weren’t looking at 60cm+. But still, that bowl wasn’t a smart idea.

Powder’s where it’s at, but how much do you know?

Powder is appealing to all snowboarders. Some hike the backcountry on split boards, others search for the most snow-laden resorts, craving the fresh. If you haven’t been snowboarding that long, fresh powder can be extremely exciting, you have to change the way you ride. It can change a holiday. And for some, there’s a chance you haven’t yet had the opportunity to ride in fresh snow, but you hear it’s like surfing!

Snowboarders want powder; the deeper, the fresher, the better.

But how much about avalanche safety do you know?

Let’s be clear. I’m not talking about bobbing off to the side of the piste into some deep stuff, getting some fresh turns (or face-planting) and then jumping back onto the piste. If the resort has runs open, and there’s a space between two pistes that are close to each other, and it isn’t roped off, that’s cool.

I’m talking about a powder run. Perhaps you’ve spotted a face on the chairlift ride, you’ll need to hike up the ridge to get to it, or maybe duck under a rope. The type of slope that makes you ask “I wonder if I’m allowed to ride there?” The lure of off-piste.

In this situation, you need to understand the potential risks involved, both to yourself and to others. Consider:

  • You may be inexperienced. If you lack experience/knowledge, it may be the case that you simply don’t know if you’re allowed to ride there, and/or you don’t know whether or not it’s safe to ride. You make an uneducated decision; a total risk.
  • You may be seduced by the snow. It looks so good, so fresh, so enticing that you convince yourself it’s ok. It won’t happen to me.
  • You may have false confidence. Others have gone this way. You can see some people, you can see the boot pack, it must be safe. You base your confidence on unknown people.

If you’re starting to venture off-piste, don’t kid yourself into thinking it’s safe. If you’re unsure, if you have questions, if you think it’s a risk – you shouldn’t be doing it!

How to increase your knowledge and safety

Of course, you still want to ride that fresh pow! Here are some ways to increase your safefty, giving you access to the deep stuff.

  • Read up. Buy a book or look around on-line. You can’t rely on this alone, but it’s a good way to start because it gives quick, cheap access to the basics. I’ve only got two books; The ABCs of Avalanche Safety is a decent starting point.
  • Use local knowledge. Talk to the ski patrol, they can give guidance and useful information like what the weather has been like during the season. Get familiar with the avalanche risk scale so you can check the avalanche risk board in resort. Make sure you understand the local rules for going off-piste. What is classed as out of bounds and what does it mean to duck under a rope?
  • Safety gear. If you’re heading off-piste and into the backcountry, you need to have the right safety gear. Each rider should have an avalanche beacon (transceiver), a probe and a shovel. If you don’t own one, there are often places that let you hire them in resort. Make sure you know how to use your beacon and probe! In the past, I’ve used the beach to practice…
  • Hire a guide. If you can get a group together to make it affordable, get a guide for the day to take you off-piste. It’s safe, they’ll take you to new places, and you’ll learn from them. It’s a good introduction. Here’s an example of a backcountry tour we did in Lenzerheide, Switzerland.
  • Try cat-boarding. Similar to hiring a guide, with cat-boarding you’ve got a qualified team taking care of the safety-factor. You get the added bonus of being driven up hill, and the terrain will be entirely in the backcountry. The downside is the cost.
  • Avalanche safety course. There’s no substitute for doing an avalanche safety course. Unfortunately, that’s second hand advice – I haven’t taken one of the training courses, yet. My trip to Laax in 2007 was the turning point for me wanting to look for good, fresh lines. Since then I haven’t been in un-controlled terrain without a guide…

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