The Ultimate Guide to Mountain Safety: Off-Piste

The Ultimate Guide to Mountain Safety: Off-Piste

 
Once you’ve transcended into the more advanced stages of skiing and snowboarding, nobody can blame you for wanting to ditch the crowds and make fresh tracks of your own by heading off-piste. Combine the lack of crowds with untouched terrain, spectacular mountain scenery and the thrill of a challenge, and you can understand what attracts so many snow-lovers into the backcountry.
 
As you might expect though, it’s not all fresh powder and mountain vistas greeting those who venture off-piste; there are also many potential dangers lurking in the backcountry and it’s a place where help is not as readily available. This means that skiers and boarders who choose to go off-piste do so completely at their own risk and as such need to take extra safety measures and precautions. From safety equipment to avalanche awareness, here’s the lowdown on off-piste mountain safety.
 

Plan ahead

Let’s get the obvious stuff out the way first: If you’re going off-piste, wear a helmet. Also, it should probably go without saying that only experienced skiers and boarders should leave the safe haven of the marked trails governed by the all-seeing eyes of the ski patrol. Conditions on ungroomed, unpatrolled slopes are vastly different to those you’ll have become used to on-piste and so are not suited to beginners. If you do feel ready for your first off-piste jaunt however, be sure to go with an experienced guide or an instructor who knows their stuff.
 
 
 
 
Careful planning can minimise some of the risks associated with off-piste skiing. It's crucial that you venture into the backcountry prepared for extreme circumstances and have a plan in place should any problems arise. Decide in advance where you’re going to begin, what you hope to accomplish and where you want to be by the end of the day. As well as having a guide, always let others know where you plan on going and when you expect to return – and take your mobile phone with you (of course).
 
Perhaps the most important thing to remember as you plan your off-piste excursion is that conditions are always subject to change. What were perfectly safe conditions just an hour before may have become hazardous by the time you set off, so always have a back-up plan in case things change.
 

So, what to take?

Basic off-piste ski equipment usually includes a shovel, an avalanche transceiver and a probe. Other items to throw into your day pack should include a whistle, food and water, some rope and extra clothing. You may also want to consider taking a handheld GPS with you in case you end up somewhere unexpected. 
 
You can buy your off-piste gear either individually or as part of an off-piste package or kit. Backcountry Access, Ortovox and Mammut are the big boys of the off-piste ski equipment world. You can purchase these brands’ products in specialist bricks-and-mortar shops and on websites like Amazon and Facewest. It’s also worth checking out the off-piste safety section on Snow and Rock’s website. Alternatively, you can hire an entire off-piste safety kit for the weekend, week or fortnight – see companies like Outdoor Hire for more details and prices. 
 

Transceivers

A transceiver is a device you attach to you while you’re skiing or riding off-piste that sends out a signal that’s picked up by other transceivers. This means, should you have the unfortunate luck of being buried in the snow as a result of an avalanche, the rest of your group will be able to locate you quickly – and vice versa if another member of your group is trapped.
 
Backcountry Access’ Tracker2 is a front-runner when it comes to transceivers, as it’s notoriously easy and intuitive to use. Ortovox is another reputable brand, with the intelligent position recognition of its Ortovox 3+ device making it a popular choice for those heading out to the backcountry.
 
Backcountry Access Tracker2
 
Image courtesy of Prepared BC on Flickr under a CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 license.
 

Probes

A transceiver will help to locate somebody buried by an avalanche, but to identify their exact location, a probe is used to prevent futile digging. Probes are light and collapsible and have a cable running through the middle of them to provide rigidity for when they need to be driven into the snow.
 
Ortovox’s Economic 240 is a great basic and affordable probe for beginners, while their 240+ Carbon Pro product is more advanced and often used by rescue services and mountain guides. Also check out Backcountry Access’ Stealth probes for a range of quality options.
 
AvaTech have gone one step further in the probe market. The AvaTech SP1 uses the latest technology so that skiers and boarders (or ski patrollers) can sink the device into the snow and moments later receive easy-to-read data about the snow pack, which can then be used to identify weak layers and snow variability.
 

Shovels

A good, collapsible snow shovel will dig you or a pal out of... well, the snow. Avalanche shovels are light enough to carry in your day pack but strong enough to dig quickly through the snow should you need to. Both Backcountry Access and Ortovox provide a great selection of avalanche shovels. Mammut’s range is also worth checking out. 
 

Airbags

Most avalanche airbags these days come as part of a backpack. The backpack includes a cylinder of compressed gas that inflates at the pull of a cord, making your surface area much larger. In the event of an avalanche, this has the effect of lifting you towards the top of the snowpack so that the impact is not as severe – and you’re less likely to become buried in the snow.
 
Although the original avalanche airbag brand, ABS, have dominated the market for the last few decades now, other brands, such as Snowpulse and BCA, have begun manufacturing products of equal merit. Backcountry Access’ Float range and Mammut’s Ride Protection airbags are just two examples. (Note that different airlines have different policies about allowing compressed gas cylinders onto their flights so it’s always best to check this before you travel.)
 
To see how airbags work in practice, check out this video from Backcountry Access:
 
 
 
“Snake River Float Avalanche Airbag Save”. Video courtesy of Backcountry Access.
 

Avalungs

A relatively new invention in the off-piste mountain safety world, an Avalung is a device with a mouthpiece and hose that off-piste adventurers utilise in the event of an avalanche. If buried in the snow, victims are still able to breathe through the Avalung, with the exhaled carbon dioxide getting released safely. Inhaled air is drawn from the front of the unit, providing a cleaner source of air than re-breathing your exhaled breath back in. 
 
You can either wear an Avalung like a harness around your chest or you can buy backpacks with them built in. See the Black Diamond website for more details.
 

Avalanche Awareness

Aside from equipment, the only way to prepare for an off-piste jaunt is to go armed with a reasonable level of avalanche knowledge and awareness. Here are the main factors you need to be aware of to minimise the risk of getting caught in an avalanche – and what to do should the worst happen.
 

Check weather conditions

Many weather variables influence avalanche release and this is one of the most important factors to pay attention to before and during your time off-piste. Seeking out information on wind speed and direction, as well as temperatures, often provides valuable insights regarding the risk of an avalanche. Also bear in mind that mountain weather is notoriously difficult to predict and subject to change so unexpected changes in weather should also be considered.
 

Know your snowpack 

When visibility is good, snowpack observation can begin at the foot of the mountain. If your guide knows their stuff, they’ll be able to observe evidence of any recent avalanche activity as well as fresh loading and signs of drifting. Observations can continue on the ascent, noting such details as depth of foot penetration, cornice build up and signs of wind slab. Digging into the snow and exploring if there are any weak layers should be something that’s done continually throughout the ski day. 
 
 
“Skier Triggers Giant Avalanche”. Video courtesy of Teton Gravity Research.
 

Terrain traps

Smooth ground such as rock slab is more prone to avalanche release, particularly during periods of significant thaw. When you’re on the mountain, check for so-called “terrain traps” – gullies, bowls and exposed traverses above large open cliffs where the consequences of even a small avalanche can be amplified. Instead, head to ridges or buttresses that you can follow instead. Many avalanches are triggered by cornices and as such it’s wise not to ski below any during or immediately after snow storms or heavy drifting – nor during heavy thaw or sudden rises in temperature. When walking above cornices, be sure to give them a wide berth.
 
Snow cornices
 
Cornices can trigger avalanches. Image courtesy of Sandip Sengupta on Flickr under a CC BY-NC 2.0 license.
 

You’ve thought about slope angle, right?

Knowing the slope angle is one of the most important factors for assessing avalanche terrain. You’ll need a clinometer and a compass to establish the slope angle. If it’s between 30-45 degrees, consider it potential avalanche terrain – regardless of other factors. However, this doesn’t mean avalanches won’t occur on slopes as shallow as 25 degrees and as steep as 50 degrees, so bear this in mind and don’t assume you’re safe. Remember too that leeward slopes (those facing away from the wind) are dangerous because wind-borne snow can accumulate depth quickly and hard wind slab may develop.
 
Slope angle matters
 
Image courtesy of timknows on Flickr under a CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 license.
 
The above is a lot to take in and conditions will vary from mountain to mountain so the best way to maximise your safety when it comes to avalanche awareness is to go off-piste with a competent and experienced local guide. It also wouldn’t hurt to attend an avalanche safety course. These courses will equip you with both the knowledge and the skills you need to assess potential avalanche activity and are well worth taking before you set off on your trip. Simply search online for ‘avalanche safety courses’ or ‘avalanche awareness courses’ along with the name of your ski resort to find ones in the area you intend to ski or board off-piste.
 

What to do if you’re caught in an avalanche

It’s every off-piste adventurer’s most dreaded fear, but if the worst happens and you’re caught in an avalanche, there are certain steps you can take to improve your chances of escaping unharmed:
 
  • If you’re swept off your feet, drop any heavy (non-avalanche) gear.
  • If at all possible, grab onto a tree.
  • If you get dragged under, keep your mouth closed and adopt a swimming motion to try to pull yourself to the surface.
  • If buried, dig out an air pocket near your nose and mouth as the avalanche slows and the snow stops moving.

If you’ve got all the correct safety gear, your group will hopefully locate you and dig you out in a relatively short amount of time. However, it's important to try to dig yourself out and get breathing clean oxygen as soon as possible (if you can do so safely and without draining all your energy). If you’ve tumbled and find yourself buried, it’s likely you won’t know which way is up, so in this event simply spit and gravity will soon show you which way is down... 

 

Best apps for off-piste safety

There really is an app for everything and, as we near the end of our off-piste mountain safety guide, it’s a good time to stress that not much can replace first-hand experience and knowledge. Having said that, there are some great apps out there to help you assess and avoid the dangers of venturing off-piste.
 

Best app for iOS

The Mammut Safety app features a clinometer to estimate slope angle, as well as a compass and an altimeter – tools to help you work out the safety of a particular slope. Again, an avalanche awareness course will teach you how to use these tools most effectively. This app also comes with an SOS button to send the coordinates of your location to the emergency services by SMS.
 

Best app for Android

FitClimb’s Avalanche Safety app includes much of the same features as Mummut’s above, such as the built-in clinometer, so that taking a separate device is unnecessary. It also features avalanche safety videos and detailed guides that walk you through safety and survival techniques.
 

What’s next?

With an understanding of the potential dangers lurking in the backcountry - and armed with the gear and knowledge for assessing the safety conditions on the mountain - it is possible to enjoy the thrill of pristine powder that off-piste skiing or riding presents. By planning your adventures carefully, you'll be able to fully enjoy the peace away from the crowds, not to mention those magnificent views, that only some people dare to seek out. 
 
If you’ve enjoyed this part of the guide, don’t miss Part Three - Activities, where we turn our attentions to keeping safe while tackling the more alternative alpine activities...
 

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