Safety in Off-Piste Skiing
As more and more skiers and snowboarders contend for space on crowded mountains, a rising number of people are choosing to head off-piste or to backcountry skiing areas. The ongoing popularity of snowboarding and the development of fat skis that enable even powder virgins to try their luck in the deep stuff imply that heading into uncharted territory is no longer the preserve of experts and mavericks; nowadays, everyone is trying it. From La Grave and Monterosa Ski to Verbier and Riksgransen, there are a few magical off-piste meccas in Europe just waiting to be explored.
The opportunity to ski untracked powder is one to be savored, but it is also full of the type of dangers that on-piste skiers never have to come across. Primary among these is that most fearsome of all ski-related disasters, the avalanche. There has been a recorded 11 avalanche fatalities in Switzerland (involving seven skiers and one snowboarder), and on the average it is the cause of 100 deaths in the Alps each year. Not surprisingly, most of the deaths happen to out-of-bounds or backcountry skiers and boarders, but at times fatal accidents can occur within a snowball's distance of safety. You might believe that skiing a few meters off the piste is as safe rather than being on it, but as soon as you go off-piste in Europe you take responsibility for your own safety, whether you are two meters or two kilometers away from the patrolled runs.
If you wish to head off-piste, the most significant thing to do is hire a guide, however sure you may be. Only a local guide would know all the dangers inherent in their own mountain area, from cliffs and gullies to avalanche zones. They would also be able to take you to the best powder. Regrettably, though, much like ski schools, ski guides can vary across the board so if you have a personal recommendation, then use it.
The other essential precaution when skiing off-piste is to be sure you're decently kitted out. Surviving an avalanche is after all a race against time - avalanche victims rescued within 15 minutes have a 92 per cent chance of survival; after 30 minutes the odds fall to just 30 per cent - but when a victim is buried beneath a blanket of snow, finding them without the correct equipment is a needle in a haystack odds.
Any self-respecting off-piste skier would carry a rucksack containing the holy trinity - transceiver, shovel and probe. A transceiver works by broadcasting out a signal that allows you to be located if you're buried in an avalanche. It could also be switched to receive mode to pick up the victim's signal if you are the one doing the searching. The theory behind it is simple enough, but it is just effective when all the transceivers in the group are compatible and everybody knows how to use them correctly.
The other components of the trinity, the shovel and avalanche probe, are employed to locate and dig out a victim respectively. Other things to pack in your rucksack include emergency food rations, fresh water and a survival blanket. A mobile phone could also be a lifesaver, as has been proven in recent years, but don't keep it in the same pocket as a transceiver since it could interfere with the rescue signal.
One invention which you may also want to add to your shopping list is the Avalung (www.avalung.com), which is made to help avalanche victims survive by drawing out air from one part of the snow pack and depositing exhaled carbon dioxide into another.
Getting all the right gear can cost a lot of money, which young skiers and boarders don't usually have. If you can't afford to purchase all the safety gear, it is possible to rent it at the resort, and a lot of ski schools dispatched to the area have Recco rescue detectors. These hand-held machines send out a radio signal that is reflected by the Recco reflector, which is carried by the skier or snowboarder on their ski boots or inside their skiwear (the reflectors are usually built into clothing or ski boots). The reflector doesn't require batteries, can't be left behind once fixed to a boot or inside skiwear and weighs just a few grams.