Despite the risks, off-piste skiing continues to grow in popularity. Whether the adrenalin kick, the feeling of getting back to nature, the opportunity for better footage, with modern helmet cameras, or the sense of achievement at the end of it, the sport attracts an ever growing following. A change in the manufacture of skis has probably led this. No longer are snow skis made in the same slender design they used to be, but are now much more like water-skis, i.e., much fatter. The result is, they offer the skier much more support in deeper snow than their traditional counterparts.
So why is it so dangerous? The ‘off-piste’ area lies beyond the slope which has been cleared of rocks, trees, and other obstacles. It is also likely to contain sheer drops, making it especially dangerous. Accidents happen. All the time. Including fatalities. Asked in an interview about life in Formula One, Michael Schumacher said he had been aware of risks all his life, but he was not going to miss out on the things that gave him joy.
As we know, it was only after he retired from racing that he had his (off-piste) skiing accident, from which he is still recovering at the end of 2021 (8 years after the event). So, if anyone is interested in trying off-piste skiing, what should they know first? While much of the appeal lies in the danger, there are sensible steps that can be taken to reduce the chances of a severe injury.
Off-piste skiing demands faster reactions; furthermore, the snow is not cleared, so it is almost inevitable that you will need to spend the entire descent taking evasive action, at lightning speed. A misjudged rock, tree or ten metre drop can be fatal. A certain minimum basic competency is an absolute requirement, which de facto would mean the ability to negotiate a Red Slope, if not a Black. The above map of the Zermatt resort in Switzerland, at the foot of the Matterhorn (left), gives a guide to all the slopes, by colour coding, from Green through to Black.
What sensible precautions should we take?
Buy or rent the correct equipment
Apart from the skis, poles, jacket and salopettes, an avalanche transceiver, shovel and probe are absolutely essential. A helmet is also highly recommended, and probably essential for an off-piste beginner. An ABS airbag system is highly recommended if funds permit.
Study the territory
Avalanches can start without warning. If an area is known for this, steer clear! Read the lie of the land before descent and stay well away from any exposed rock.
Hire a Guide
Guides don’t come cheap, and rightly so, but if this within your budget, hiring one will make your day much more rewarding. A guide should know the area like the back of his/her hand.
Don’t Go Alone
This is really self-explanatory. If hiring a guide is not within the budget, then always go with a friend. The mountain can be a lonely place if you get into trouble! Furthermore, let someone back at base know where you’re going.