Here at AWE365 we love freeride ski holidays and backcountry snowboarding. Getting away from the managed slopes into untouched powder is a big part of why we visit the mountains. But should off-piste be off-limits?
Why ask the question?
We are asking because we feel it’s an important topic to cover. Avalanche deaths are high profile news. Throughout the winter barely a week goes by without a slide causing fatalities.
According to this study by Geographica Helvetica, avalanche deaths have stayed fairly steady in the Alps since 1960. On average around 100 people die each year. However that only tells part of the story.
Avalanche deaths in controlled terrain – so on-piste, roads and in settlements – have dramatically dropped. However, deaths in uncontrolled terrain have increased. Uncontrolled now makes up 97% of all avalanche deaths, which is why we are asking should off-piste be off-limits?
It is a slightly different picture in the US. According to National Geographic, avalanche deaths have increased from around four a year in the 1950s to about 30 a year. This is attributed to more people going off-piste.
On-piste vs off-piste
To an extent on-piste safety can be controlled within ski resorts. The graded runs lead to a natural sorting of ski abilities.
First-timers can stick to the beginner slopes and the advanced can hit the blacks. Of course, falls and accidents happen – skiing and snowboarding are both types of extreme sport after all.
However, avalanche threat on piste is monitored and controlled. Slopes will not open if there is a risk. And on the very rare occasion that a slide does happen onto a piste, rescue and assistance is close at hand.
But once you venture off-piste, you enter unregulated territory. The potential risk increases dramatically and you have to take responsibility for your own safety.
Are people on freeride ski holidays aware of the risk they place themselves and others under? What measures do they take to ski responsibly? Should we restrict those who aren’t properly equipped? Or should off-piste be off-limits?
Freeride ski holidays
These days for many skiers and snowboarders – the AWE365 crew included – it’s all about the off-piste. Escaping the patrolled ski areas to discover lift-free views, to freeride in challenging terrain and to enjoy untouched powder is what it’s all about.
Seen skiers sending house-high cliff drops on social media? Watched big mountain riders on YouTube on super steep and dangerous slopes? We all have! Because of this we often associate ‘off-piste’ with far-off peaks, only accessible by helicopter and the very experienced.
Most people on a freeride ski holidays wouldn’t dream of venturing off into such wilds. Putting themselves at the mercy of Mother Nature with the threat of an avalanche is not part of the holiday itinerary. At least not deliberately.
Yet many skiers and snowboarders wouldn’t think twice about nipping across the untracked snow between two pistes. They’d happily follow the powder beneath the chair-lifts or nip just off the marked slopes to access fresh powder.
These areas are ‘off-piste’. So except in North America, where all inbounds is avalanche controlled, avalanches can and do happen. They have the potential to be just as risky – because anyone can access them – as the isolated runs you see in extreme ski movies.
Why take the risk?
Riding outside of avalanche controlled areas is risky. The moment your skis slide off the piste, you’re entering unpatrolled territory. The stability of the snowpack is uncertain, the underlying hazards are unknown and the risks are not always obvious.
So why go for it? Well, not only is skiing or snowboarding in fresh untouched snow a magical experience, it’s also an adrenaline buzz. The act of taking a risk makes the whole experience more fun.
In a way it is like gambling – people can’t get enough of the thrill. Just take a quick look on the web and it’s incredible how many online slots exist. It’s also probably not a coincidence that so many ski resorts have casinos. People simply enjoy taking risks for the buzz it brings.
But how risky is the off-piste? Well about 9 million people hit the slopes each year and only a tiny fraction of them get caught in an avalanche.
Off-piste and avalanches
Avalanches pose the single biggest danger off-piste. In European resorts, avalanche risk is assessed every day, by examining factors such as snow conditions, air temperature, aspect, altitude and wind direction. Use the European Avalanche Warning Services site, it is an excellent resource.
A graded avalanche warning system from one (low) to five (extreme/very high) is used to notify skiers of the risk level. An avalanche risk of three is ‘considerable’ so you should be very cautious, at four and above you should stay out of avalanche terrain.
The steeper a slope the more susceptible it is to sliding and most avalanches occur on slopes between 30 and 50 degrees. Unfortunately these are the kind of slope angles skiers and snowboarders love. And remember it’s not just the slope you are on but what is above you.
Areas where slides occur are closed by ski patrol during high-risk periods. When the threat is critical, controlled avalanches are set off before the lifts open to keep the resort as safe as possible. But none of this completely removes the chance of an avalanche occurring.
There are many excellent online resources to help skiers understand avalanche risk on freeride ski holidays. Check out the Canadian Avalanche Association, they have being forecasting avalanches for 25+ years and have some excellent info.
So should off-piste be off-limits?
It’s not unusual to see groups without safety equipment following tracks off-piste and into the backcountry. They could be following trails onto slopes that were safe but have become unstable in the afternoon sun. Apart from their own danger they could also set off a slide above other skiers.
Responsible off-piste skiers are aware of these risks and so prepare themselves accordingly. They will have done courses in avalanche risk and practiced performing a rescue many times.
During training they will have learnt how to minimise the risk of setting off an avalanche and how to identify dangerous terrain. They’ll also have been taught what to do if caught in a slide, how to avoid terrain traps and where to wait for you buddies so you are not in an avalanche path.
Responsible skiers and snowboarders will only head off-piste after making fully informed judgements on the safest slopes and best times to ski them. Furthermore they will have all the specialist equipment required to stay safe away from the groomers.
Key gear for freeride ski holidays
- Transceiver: The absolute minimum for anyone heading off-piste. Also known as a ‘beeper’, this device continually transmits a signal, so that other skiers can find you. If you get buried, searchers switch their transceivers onto ‘receive’ mode, to locate you.
- Probe and shovel: Locating someone with your transceiver is a huge relief, but if you can’t dig them out, your efforts are wasted. Use your probe to poke into the snow and pinpoint their location, then start digging from downslope.
- Helmet: Off-piste head injuries are more likely due to unseen objects beneath the snow. Furthermore, being knocked unconscious is a huge cause of injury for avalanche victims. So wear a helmet when off-piste.
- Avalanche Airbag: There’s a whole range airbags on the market, that help to keep you on the surface of an avalanche. Worn as backpacks, they are inflated by pulling a handle. Anyone who’s planning on serious backcountry time should invest. I recommend the Pieps JetForce.
So should off-piste be off-limits for these well prepared backcountry afficados? No, of course it shouldn’t. They have the gear, know how to use it and how to manage the risk to avoid avalanches. Plus they know how to perform a rescue if things go wrong.
Should the unprepared be allowed off-piste?
How about those without such training and equipment? Not only do they put themselves at risk, but also pose a threat to other skiers and snowboarders. Should the off-piste be closed to them?
Around 90% of avalanches are caused by the group that gets caught in them. So understanding how to avoid initiating a slide is fundamental in off-piste safety. And if a member of your party does get buried, you haven’t a hope of rescuing them if you’re not carrying the right equipment.
But despite the dangers, skiers of all abilities and experience can venture into the backcountry. So it’s your call whether you stick on-piste or head into the ungroomed and unmanaged slopes during freeride ski holidays.
But are skiers and snowboarders responsible enough to make this decision? And do those without off-piste training have sufficient knowledge to make the right call regarding safety?
With adrenaline flowing and the progressive nature of risk taking when off-piste it’s easy to go from pretty safe to extremely dangerous. Often without realising it. So perhaps greater efforts should be made to place off-piste more off-limits to less well informed and prepared skiers?
Stay safe on freeride ski holidays
Off-piste skiing is one of the purest pleasures on the planet. But one that shouldn’t be embarked on without a real understanding of the dangers involved and how to manage them.
If you are new to off-piste get yourself on an avalanche awareness and rescue course such as those run by Henry’s Avalanche Talk. They run talks in the UK and courses in Val d’Isere.
On any resort based training course you’ll spend most of the time skiing or snowboarding away from the groomers. So you learn while being immersed in the environment you want to explore. In my experience these courses are fun as well as informative.
Even if you know what you are doing off-piste it is worth hiring a guide when riding somewhere new. Not only will they take you to the best conditions for your ability, but they know the mountains and the snow history and are in a better position to keep you safe.
Should we ban off-piste?
Should the off-piste be off-limits? No I don’t think it should, certainly for those with the right training, gear and experience. However, it is important that those new and unprepared understand the risks and get training or hire a guide.
Although it is worth adding that the vast majority of avalanche deaths happen to those with the gear who know what they are doing. This is because the casual freerider rarely strays far from the piste on slopes that are managed or considered avalanche safe.
Even in Europe resorts don’t open areas where slides are likely, because they want to keep everyone safe. But this doesn’t give all skiers or snowboarders a carte blanche to hit the off-piste. Far from it!
It is a very fine line between what is avalanche safe and what could slide. And it is very easy to move from near the piste to a distance away and find yourself in more risky terrain. And remember avalanches are not the only risk when skiing or snowboarding off-piste.
What do you think should off-piste be off-limits? Let us know in the comments. And before booking your freeride ski holidays check out our skiing discounts as you could save a fortune on your next trip.