Off-piste skiing and snowboarding has become more and more popular in recent years with the attraction of heading off the marked runs and seeking out fresh powder. However, until you are trained and very experienced, it is sensible to go with a group led by a professional guide.
If you do decide to head off-piste, you need to make sure you are fully prepared and equipped. This means carrying the appropriate equipment – at least an avalanche transceiver, a probe pole and a shovel; a spare set of warm clothing such as thermal underwear and ski socks; there are also inflatable ‘floatation’ devices available, and you will need a fully charged phone that operates in the country you are in with the necessary emergency numbers. You must know how to use the equipment correctly, know the avalanche risk grading for the day (as published by the piste authorities) and gather information on the area so you know where you are at all times and how to get back to patrolled areas. You must be able to identify potentially risky areas on the route you are taking. When you are off piste, you should not only consider avalanche risk, but also bear in mind rocks, trees, cliffs, ravines, crevasses and other hazards.
On longer excursions you need to consult the weather forecasts against the possibility of changes and carry food and drink and extra clothing sufficient for the time you will be away. You must let someone in resort know where you are going and when you intend to return. They should be prepared to brief the rescue authorities if it is suspected that you have got into difficulties.
You may also encounter ‘itineraries’. These are runs that are marked on the piste map by a dashed line and on the ground by yellow or day-glo orange signs, but they are not groomed or patrolled. Itinery runs can often be as hard as riding or skiing off piste and you must use them with care.
And don’t forget that many insurance policies won’t cover you for damage of rental equipment or skiing off piste without a guide. So make sure you check your policy!
For more information on avalanche awareness (or find out how to be avalanche aware) visit: www.skiclub.co.uk/infoandadvice
You can get information about snow stability from avalanche forecasts. Reading or listening to the avalanche forecast is essential to understand the risks for the day. It will include a danger rating, usually on a 5-point scale. You must understand the definition for the rating.
You also need to get an idea of how unstable the snow is and where the instability tends to be most acute on that particular day. Many factors, including snow layers, temperature history and wind direction affect this. The experts take daily snow sections and samples.
You should ask local professionals especially if in an area that you don’t know very well. Even off-piste and avalanche experts need local knowledge if they are in a new place, or if they are in a familiar place, but haven’t been there for a few days.
Recent avalanche activity is a great clue. If lots of slopes facing one direction and at the same altitude have recent slab avalanches on them, then that’s a clue that similar slopes probably have some instability on them.
There are national organisations in most countries who supply a daily avalanche forecast. These are a good resource both for checking current conditions and avalanche warning levels, but also to gather historical information.
Scotland – Sport Scotland Avalanche
Information Service – www.sais.gov.uk
Switzerland – Institute for Snow and Avalanche
Research SLF www.slf.ch
Austria – www.lawine.at
France – www.france.meteofrance.com
Norway – www.ngi.no/no/snoskred
The SLF (Swiss Institute for Snow and Avalanche Research) website, www.avalanche.org is a useful resource for finding out more about avalanche awareness as well as reading avalanche bulletins (current and historical) and avalanche statistics. A lot of their information is in English.