Skiing backcountry terrain is an exhilarating activity but it’s a risky one. Learn how to be vigilant and stay safe with OnTheSnow’s top tips.
Proper avalanche education and safety equipment are key. To not be properly prepared would be at best idiotic and at worst could kill you. Certain regions in the Alps have become more risky in recent years and mountain guides with years of experience have been caught off guard. It’s a sharp reminder that nature can be cruel and is to be respected for in a matter of seconds she can destroy everything that lies in her path.
How do we assess the safety of backcountry terrain? It’s all about assessing the stability of the snowpack. The risk is low when the snowpack is generally well stabilised. The risk is considerable when the snowpack is only weakly stabilised on a large proportion of the steep slopes. This means that the release of avalanches is likely to be triggered by a moderate additional load (cue free-skiers) on steep faces and that occasional spontaneous avalanches are possible.
Two years ago, three victims were killed while completing a two-day Avalanche Safety course being supervised by one of Switzerland’s expert guides. The important point to take away is that even with a moderate risk rating, avalanches are unpredictable and can be triggered naturally without additional load.
Respect the sidecountry too. If an area is unpatrolled it can present the same hazards as the backcountry. It doesn’t matter that it might be easily accessible from marked areas.
Our advice is to stick to low risk areas with a generally well stabilised snowpack.
If you’re going to venture into backcountry terrain, take the following equipment:
A transceiver. Wearing one of these transmits a signal that can be picked up by other transceivers – in the event you or one of your group becomes buried, wearing one of these could save your life. However, not all of them are intuitive to use and once an avalanche is triggered, the last thing you have is time in which to figure it out. Get to know your lifesaving kit shortly purchasing it!
A probe. People often forget to carry a probe but they’re function is crucial. These can pinpoint the precise location an avalanche victim and will measure burial depth. Consider the length of your probe. We recommend two metres as a minimum length but longer is better. Familiarity with how to use it is key; practice using it while wearing gloves – time is of the essence when trying to rescue a person.
A shovel. Don’t use a substitute, it will just slow you down. Avalanche shovels are light and compact to carry. Don’t buy plastic, buy metal.
A fully charged mobile phone with the local mountain rescue numbers saved.
An ABS airbag. Designed to keep you on the surface of a slide, no serious backcountry rider should venture out without one. In 2013, pro-rider Aymar Navarro was filming in the Spanish Pyrenees when the mountain started to fall from around him. An ABS airbag saved his life. If you ever find yourself in this situation, where you’re in an avalanche, and you’re wearing an airbag, pull the handle and roll yourself up into a ball to protect yourself from impacts. Some airbag systems have breathing mouthpieces that, in the event of burial, can buy you more time.
Finally, don’t ski without a helmet, whether on marked runs or off-piste, this could save your life. Because what use is all of the techy gear if your head’s not adequately protected?