The Crystal Ski Holidays Blog

Skiing off piste; mountain safety [post three]

Skier off pisteToday, there are many skiers who seek out the challenge of getting away from the marked runs and pitch themselves against the raw elements of the open mountain.

Sometimes we hear stories about skiers caught in avalanches. In the mountains, avalanches do occur on a regular basis and where the resorts ensure their marked ski terrain is made absolutely safe, they cannot control the snow conditions off piste. This is why it is both essential to understand the basic fundamentals of mountain safety and to always ski off piste with a qualified mountain guide or ski instructor.

If you haven’t read my earlier posts, see introduction to off piste skiing and technique for off piste skiing.

Most skiers that are caught in avalanches trigger the slide themselves. This is because the weight of the skier de-stabilises the layers of snow underfoot and this starts the avalanche. When skiing off piste we must first consider prevention of avalanches. Of course if an avalanche does occur and skiers are caught up in the snow, we must know how to rescue them as soon as possible.

There are several types of avalanches depending on the snow conditions and weather patterns at the time. There is a complex variation of snow conditions that occur throughout the winter due to temperature, wind, precipitation and slope aspect that would require a whole book and many years experience to fully understand. They key for most skiers is to understand the avalanche safety scale that resorts provide so you can make an informed decision whether to ski off piste or not.

The 5 levels of avalanche risk are: (French Flag System)

1.Low Generally well bonded and stable. Yellow flag - low risk of avalanches

2.Moderate Less well bonded on some steep slopes, otherwise generally well bonded. Yellow flag - low risk of avalanches

3.Considerable moderately to weakly bonded on many steep slopes.Yellow and black chequered flag - high risk of avalanches

4.High Weakly bonded in most places.Yellow and black chequered flag - high risk of avalanches

5.Very High / Extreme Weakly bonded and largely unstable.Black flag - very high risk of avalanches

Preventing Avalanches

Don’t get caught in the first place. There are several key factors to consider that can help in the prevention of avalanches. Below is a list that outlines some of the most important ingredients to help you stay safe if you make the choice to ski off piste.

1.Always know the slope that you are skiing on. Never follow tracks in the snow that lead somewhere that you have not skied before. These tracks might be made by skiers who don’t know where they are going themselves, or they might be purposely skiing towards terrain which is beyond your ability level.

2.Ski down the slope one at a time. If more than one skier goes at the same time there is more chance of an avalanche occurring and then two skiers could be buried at the same time.

3.Ensure that when you are not skiing, you stand in a safe place. Choose a spot that is relatively flat and will not trigger an avalanche from above. If you have skied down and are waiting for others to follow, look to stop on slightly elevated ground or at the side of the slope. If an avalanche does occur it has more chance of missing you.

4.Always traverse a slope one at a time. Traversing (skiing across the mountain) can set off avalanches as the skis ‘cut’ through the snow and can de-stabilise the snow pack. Always wait until the skier in front of you has fully crossed the slope and stopped in a safe position before starting your traverse.
5.When skiing down a slope, do your best to make small turns. In general, the less traversing you do, the safer you will be when skiing down.

6.Be very careful when approaching the top of a slope that you cannot see. This might the edge of a cliff. Sometimes snow can be blown over the edge of a steep slope or cliff and this forms what’s called a cornice. This snow can be very unstable and can break under a skiers weight. Not only could this cause you to fall with the snow it could also trigger an avalanche.

My next post will continue on the theme of Mountain Safety, focusing on avalanches and what to do should you be caught in one.

This post was written by Robert Stewart of The Skiing Department Blog. Robert is a qualified ISIA ski instructor and professional Alpine skier and his blog has the latest information on many different aspects of the sport, from beginners skiing tips to ski clothing reviews. He can also be followed on Twitter @skiing_blog.

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