Off-piste skiing, powder skiing, backcountry free riding; whatever you want to call it. It’s the best. Like catching that elusive green wave in surfing. Scoring a winning goal in the FA Cup. It’s like crossing the finish line half a second ahead of your arch rival. Or maybe it is not like any of those in fact – it is totally unique but the enjoyment, the excitement and the smiles that come from it are addictive and it’s what we love the most.
The real key to continuing this enjoyment is staying safe and being able to ski it day after day, week after week, year after year. It doesn’t take much to turn that dream into a real life nightmare.
Over the last 20 years of living, working and skiing here in the 3 Valleys we have spent many, many hours off-piste skiing, skiing powder, searching the backcountry for new lines and trying as best as possible to go where nobody had skied previously.
Throughout this experience we’ve learnt a thing or two. We could never and we will never stand up to confirm that an avalanche is a definite to happen or that it will never will. We can’t. The science is too deep, complicated and with a thousand constantly changing variables. What we can do is look at the overall picture and make risk assessments for what lies ahead of us.
The common factors
We’ve learnt that there’s certain factors common to pretty much every avalanche but we still can’t predict when they may actually happen. We’ve learnt that some of these logical factors are not in our control and some of them are human actions which made us over look the obvious logical factors there in front of us. **
**All this information is not wholly original or new. It’s gleaned throughout our education as ski instructors, past experiences, training online and off the hill training. Then further professional development and experience. There’s a whole world out there but these are the points which are key to us.
Here’s how we approach off-piste skiing in Meribel or in fact anywhere we go.
First things first.
It all starts way before you even get out of your bed in the morning…
Each morning we check the avalanche report which is valid for our area – follow this link to the Vanoise report which covers the 3 Valleys. Over time and through constant attention we build a good history of what has happened leading up to the current point in time. This history can remind us of problems experienced earlier in the season which could still be relevant to that day.
Before you click on your skis
The red flags. These are the natural occurrences, results of the mountain weather which can help lead to avalanches. You won’t see any actual red flags waving in any resorts but these “flags” should heighten our senses if and when travelling, or planning, to travel off-piste.
The red flags could be thought of as the logic behind any avalanche. In hind sight (that glorious thing) we could allocate one, or several, of these red flags to all avalanches that occur.
Recent loading – avalanches are made of snow. If there’s more snow due to one reason or another then there’s a heightened chance of an avalanche
Recent activity – if you can see avalanches to the left of you, right of you and all around you. Then there is a reason. Looking around can give you massive clues as to the stability of what you are about to ski. Look at slopes that are similar gradient, aspect, altitude etc.
Weather changes – weather has a big impact on how the mountain sits. Any big weather change can and will affect the levels of risk. Particularly an increase in temperature.
Signs of instability – if you are already on the hill and you can see the signs with your own two eyes or hear them with your ears then this should ring alarm bells. Cracking in the snow you are standing on or hearing a “whoomph” as the air escapes from a collapsing layer below you. If this happens – change your plans quickly. Dig a pit and spend time looking at the different layers and seeing how well they may be bonded to each other.
Avalanche reports and forecasts – read and listen to what the reports are telling you. The reports will give you an honest account of what is going on and the risk level of avalanches right now.
Respect the red flags and act accordingly.
It doesn’t mean you can’t or shouldn’t go off-piste skiing. You absolutely should – like we mentioned at the top it’s the best feeling ever. But assess the risks and make plans which see you eliminate as much of that risk as possible.
That’s enough for now. Part 2 coming soon. The human factor and a good use of the word faeces…..