Off-piste adventures

19th August 2009, by Chris Gill

Wild and wonderful

Wild and wonderful

What’s the attraction?

There’s no doubt about it: the pleasure of skiing on the pistes of Europe’s mountains is being eroded. Lift systems are continually upgraded to cope with the ever-growing numbers of visitor beds installed in the resorts. But the piste networks can’t be expanded to match. As the crowding gets worse, the attraction grows of getting away into the wilds and making fresh tracks through virgin snow.

Crowds aside, skiing off-piste also has its own rewards, of course: when it all comes together, the satisfaction of skiing soft, deep snow is intense – and modern equipment means that it can all come together much more easily than it did in the days of long, skinny skis. But if you’re a beginner, where and how do you start? If you have already got a taste for the steep and deep, where and how can you develop and exploit your skills? Read on.

Safety First

Once you have some experience of skiing off-piste, you may feel competent to judge what is safe and what is not, but as a beginner you have a lot to learn.
There are two key differences between pistes and non-pistes. On a piste, in principle, you can expect to be safe from avalanches – the devastating slides of compacted snow that crush everything in their path, from trees to houses. And on a piste you can be confident that you are not going to suddenly come upon a cliff or a crevasse.

Of course, there are lots of off-piste slopes that are entirely safe; the problem is identifying them. Quite small slopes can hold enough snow to bury you. Even a slope that is itself too gentle to slide may have slopes above that are pregnant with snow waiting to avalanche. Quite close to the pistes there can be holes and cliffs where a fall could be serious.

But there are off-piste slopes where the risk of avalanche is clearly minimal. There are lots of places in the Alps, for example, where a blue or red run zig-zags down an open mountainside, and the steeper slope between the zigs and the zags is off-piste. Because the whole slope is criss-crossed by pistes, you know that it is (or should be) essentially safe from the avalanche point of view. Inspecting the slope as you ride a lift over it is one way to assess other hazards.

Kitted out

‘Fat’ skis make deep snow skiing a whole lot easier; for some of us, in fact, it’s wide skis that make deep snow skiing possible. You can get skis specially made for skiing powder, but most of us need to ski on the same skis in all conditions, and modern ‘free-ride’ skis fit the bill beautifully. Read Where to Ski and Snowboard’s equipment chapter for more.

Whenever you embark on a serious off-piste adventure your guide should ensure that everyone is wearing an avalanche transceiver and knows how to use it. Your transceiver is normally transmitting a radio signal; if one of your group is buried, you switch to receive mode, and ‘sweep’ the snow looking for the strongest signal.

It also makes sense to wear Recco reflectors – tiny electronic devices that reflect radio signals coming from a matching Recco detector unit, which in turn detects the reflected signal, and can pinpoint the reflector. Many major resorts have Recco detectors. Adhesive reflector strips can be attached to your boots, and they are built in to some brands of ski clothing.

Where to go

Doing it by the day

Most resorts have off-piste terrain that is worth exploring, and instructors or guides who can be hired to help you explore it. But some resorts have ski schools or specialist guiding outfits that regularly operate off-piste groups, which makes the whole business much more accessible. In some resort chapters in the book you will find special feature panels compiled with the help of such outfits.
Start by looking at St Anton (Austria); Les Arcs, Chamonix, Courchevel, Les Deux-Alpes, Méribel, Morzine, Serre-Chevalier, Val-d’Isère, Val-Thorens (France); Courmayeur, Monterosa (Italy); Andermatt, Verbier (Switzerland). Chamonix attracts many of the best skiers and most accomplished guides in the business, and Val-d’Isère has an unrivalled range of teaching and guiding businesses specialising in off-piste and powder skiing.

‘Off-piste’ in North America

American and Canadian resorts are great places to develop deep snow technique. To quote from our introductory chapter to the USA:‘Many Europeans have the idea that American resorts don’t have off-piste terrain. It’s true that resorts practically always have a boundary, and that venturing beyond it may be discouraged or forbidden. But within the boundary there is often very challenging terrain that is very much like off-piste terrain in an Alpine resort, but with the important advantage that it is patrolled and avalanche-controlled – so you don’t need to hire a guide. We rate this as one of the great attractions of American resorts.’

Packaged courses

If you are keen on getting started by going on a proper organised course, rather than just trying off-piste for the odd day as part of a largely piste-based holiday, there are tour operators who can help. The best-known is the Ski Freshtracks programme operated by the Ski Club of Great Britain, which has a wide range of different holidays.

Above and beyond the lifts

There are three main ways in which you can take your off-piste skiing to another level, literally and figuratively. There is ski-touring – climbing on skis with special hinged bindings; or cat-skiing (pretty much confined to North America) – riding up the hill in a tracked vehicle like a piste groomer; or heli-skiing, where a helicopter replaces the snowcat. They offer different rewards for different investments of effort and cash. But all are well worth trying.

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