Today more and more people are searching out skiable terrain outside the normal boundaries of winter sports resorts. The advance in equipment has made it possible for more skiers to tackle snow conditions that were previously exclusive to just a handful of experts. The growth in the sport over the last 20 years has extended the levels of competency and experience to a much wider field of skiers.
In this series we will explore some of the major factors to consider if and when skiing ‘Off Piste’. The word itself conjures up images of skiing in deep powder snow on sunny days and tanned ski bums talking about their cliff jumping exploits in the après ski bars. But Off Piste skiing can mean many things and the word itself is simply French for leaving the marked ski runs, be they Blue, Red, Black or whatever colour grade the resort uses to mark its ski runs. We can also use the word Back Country Skiing for the same purpose and this is generally used in the US and Canada.
So Off Piste skiing means leaving the marked runs and exploring the open mountain without boundaries. As a general rule, if you cannot ski confidently down a Black graded ski run then heading off piste is not advisable (the only exception to this rule is if you are with a fully qualified mountain guide who knows your skiing ability and the terrain is within your comfort zone).
As a guideline, if you can perform good parallel turns on a black graded run and control your speed well then this is a starting point to venturing off piste. It is a grey area, as not all off piste skiing is necessarily on difficult terrain, but of course the nature of skiing on an un-controlled and open mountain means that you might encounter any type of gradient or snow condition at anytime.
This highlights the importance of skiing with someone who is a very experienced off piste skier and who has skied the route you are going on several times before. The best and safest way to ski off piste is to hire a fully qualified mountain guide.
A mountain guide is someone who is qualified to take clients into the mountains in both summer and winter. Primarily they are mountaineers and they are very experienced in all conditions and all types of terrain. Some mountain guides specialise in ski guiding, but not all. Some ski instructors are qualified to take their clients off piste as well, and if it is your intention to ski off piste with an instructor you should check their qualification first.
So the basic rules for off piste skiing are:
1.Understand your ability level and if you are unsure, spend a day with a ski instructor and they will guide you in this area.
2.Always ski off piste with someone else and make sure they are experienced and preferably qualified
3.Never ski a route unless you know it or people you are skiing with it know it well, even if you can see tracks in the snow ahead.
4.Carry avalanche safety equipment with you, ensure your friends have it as well, and most importantly, know how to use it (there will be a separate section on avalanche safety in this series).
5.Check the snow reports and avalanche warnings before you set off and if there is a high risk of avalanche, always stay on the marked runs.
This guest post was written by Robert Stewart, a qualified ISIA ski instructor and professional Alpine skier, of The Skiing Department and is the first post in a mini series written specifically for ski-buzz on the topic of off piste skiing.
Read the next installment in the off piste mini series ‘Technique for skiing off piste‘.