When snow’s falling in your favourite ski resort you probably can’t wait for more white stuff to fall and for perfect powder conditions, but heavy snowfall also brings avalanche activity and risk when venturing off-piste.
If you are ever tempted by the goods on the far side of the rope – or even right next to the piste – avalanches are a life and death issue, not just an alpine bogeyman.
Learn from the past
Winter 2005/06 seems a long time ago and likely you will have forgotten that season’s sensational headlines: there were massive amounts of snow in Europe and the US, and the huge avalanche activity in the Alps – killing over 50 in France alone. With recent snow patterns changing, it’s a scenario that could easily happen again.
Lots of factors led to 2005/06 ski season’s figures: big snow, wind, extreme temperatures and ever-increasing numbers heading off piste with relatively little expertise. More controversially, properly equipped and trained riders also made up the numbers, probably through risk compensation, adapting their behaviour in response to the sense of safety provided by their gear and training.
Manage the risks
If that has suddenly rekindled your interest in piste bashing and long lunches, don’t give up the powder dream too easily. It will always be the ultimate mountain experience and there are several ways to help manage the risks:
• day trips with a guide
• off-piste courses to improve technique
• learn basic avalanche safety
• practice using your transceiver, probe and shovel
• attend avalanche awareness and mountain safety courses
Never forget that ‘the avalanche doesn’t know you’re an expert’ and even when you’ve acquired more knowledge and experience don’t forget to practise: Canada dominates Google search results for Avalanche Training Centres but Swiss equipment compmany Mammut have Avalanche Training Centres in 16 resorts in Switzerland, France, Germany and Austria, and there are more links below.
Where to ski or ride off-piste?
Another issue is where to ski or ride off-piste? This is not just a question of steepest and deepest but about the way resorts manage their terrain.
In the USA and Canada, most resorts have strict boundaries within which large tracts of unmarked, unpisted but avalanche controlled terrain is yours for the taking. Venture beyond the resort boundary and you’re running a significantly greater risk, even if accompanied by a guide.
By contrast, in Europe even the area between two pistes is not necessarily avalanche controlled and with the exception of some natural reserves you can legally go anywhere you please beyond the confines of a resort.
Some Alpine resorts like Avoriaz, St Anton, Laax, Verbier and Zermatt have unpisted routes which are at least partially avalanche-controlled. Nevertheless, these and other monster off piste destinations like Chamonix will always be places where guiding improves your experience. Wyoming’s Jackson Hole meets Europe halfway, with both exceptional inbound off-piste and excellent backcountry, and local guides to take you there.
But name-checks aren’t everything: Engelberg,Switzerland with almost 2,000 metres of epic vertical and Big Sky, Montana are known to the discerning few not just for their snow but a lack of people. And that’s the real issue where fresh tracks are concerned, by definition.
Ski with a qualified mountain guide
Last, but not least, a qualified local mountain guide will not only help minimise the risk of getting caught in a slide, your guide will find the best snow conditions at any given time of day and likely help you improve your skiing. If you’ve ever lost a ski in deep snow, late in the day and far from the lifts your guide will probably find it for you long after you’ve given up hope of finding it.