Off-Piste Safety

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Off-piste, or backcountry skiing is more popular than ever. The joys of exotic terrain, fresh powder and the excitement of the uncontrolled conditions of backcountry skiing draws skiers and snowboarders beyond marked trails. The beauty of uncharted slopes, majestic snowcapped vistas and the thrill of the ultimate challenge are lures off-piste enthusiasts can't resist. However, beneath the pristine, untouched powder hidden dangers may lurk, and help will not be readily available.

Although avalanches are the most serious danger faced by off-piste skiers, they are by no means the only potential hazard. Compounding this, are all of the injuries incurred by traditional skiers like frostbite, broken bones, head trauma and orthopedic injuries too.

Plan the Work' Work the Plan

Of course, we all hope that meticulously developed emergency plans never need to be used. But it's likely that just the planning involved in making sure your trip is a safe one is what keeps things on track. Simply by thinking about all the potential dangers you might be facing, you are increasing your safety awareness. And with a solid plan in mind, you're more likely to stay calm when the unexpected occurs.

Only skiers and boarders with advanced skills should even consider leaving marked trails where the Ski Patrol is just a few minutes away to bail you out of any bad spills. Ski conditions on ungroomed and unpatrolled slopes are very different from those most skiers are used to. Newcomers to the exhilaration of off-piste skiing should consider either an experienced guide or instructor. If you have the skills, make sure you have the equipment, training and support to keep you safe on the steeps.

If you plan to ski out of bounds, be aware of basic avalanche signs and warnings. Take courses to help you make the best decisions about where and when to safely ski off-piste. Be thoroughly familiar with the areas you plan to ski. According to the US Ski Patrol, 'Most avalanches travel in paths, on smooth exposed slopes of between 25 and 60 degrees'. Don't be fooled by thinking that small trails are safe because avalanches usually occur on broad steep mountain faces: If you can get through on a ski or snowboard, so can an avalanche.

Become familiar with the effects of changing environmental factors such as temperature and wind. Have an understanding of the impact of the terrain, including pitch of the slope, rock outcroppings, ice or frozen snow formations, bushes and trees on a potential avalanche. Plan your travels according to the most up to date information on weather and slope conditions. Always wait at least 24 hours after a storm to venture into the backcountry.

Most important of all, realize that conditions are continuously changing. What might have been safe an hour ago may suddenly become a hazard. Have a back-up plan, in case conditions change. Making good decisions, including when to cancel a trip, can mean the difference between an amazing day of off-piste adventure and tragedy.

Whenever embarking on an extreme adventure, have a partner, and let others know where you are planning to go and when you expect t o return. Set up a fail-safe system that will alert friends or family to any potential trouble. The availability of cell phone leaves no excuse for not having one handy in case trouble finds you. Handheld GPS systems can be helpful if you wind up at an unexpected location.

As with any extreme sport, it's wise to decide well in advance where you will start, what you hope to accomplish and where you want to be at day's end. We've all had the dawning realization that the trail didn't really lead to where thought it would, and the car is' gulp' three large parking lots to the east! Or worse, several miles away and the last lift just closed!

Careful planning can minimize your chances of being caught in an avalanche, but not entirely. It's crucial to be prepared for extreme circumstances and have a plan if problems occur. Before you begin your day, make sure your safety and communication equipment works by testing it out. Carry avalanche transceivers and know how to use them in an emergency.

Avalanche Danger Rating

The only way to balance the thrill of the backcountry with a reasonable level of risk is to be prepared with avalanche knowledge and safety awareness. The American Avalanche Association has developed a 5-point color-coded scale for rating the probability of an avalanche within the upcoming 24-48 hours. Not surprisingly, Red in a Black box indicates that an avalanche is certain, while a rating of Green indicates that it would be highly unlikely. A moderate or Yellow rating suggests possible danger and the use of increased caution, although it is still possible to travel through low-risk areas that are not steep. An Orange is Considerable and Red is High, with possible and probable chances of avalanche.

If You're Caught in an Avalanche'

One, or two mere men or women, no matter how well trained, are no match for an avalanche. If the worst happens, and you are caught in a rush of falling snow, there are steps you can take to improve your chances of being rescued unharmed. If possible, attempt to grab hold of a tree or move aside. Alert others that you need help by a single shout. Because most victims of avalanche die from suffocation, it's important to keep your mouth closed and cross arms over your head to create a pocket of air if the sow is flowing over your head. If the avalanche sweeps you off your feet, drop any heavy gear and go along with it, use a breaststroke if your head is down, or tread water if your head is up. It might seem dark and you may not be able to even tell which way is up. Spit will fall down; telling you which way is up. Once the snow slows, your best chance of survival is by trying to get closer to the surface. You will have a better chance of being seen by rescuers and might be able to get a better air supply. Survival is possible for several hours

With an understanding of the potential dangers of backcountry skiing and how to more accurately assess the safety of conditions on the mountain, it is possible to enjoy the thrill of pristine powder, and total isolation from the modern world much more safely. By planning your adventures carefully, you'll be able to fully enjoy the breathtaking views only a few, adventurous people can access.

About the Author

Peta Minerof is a successful healthcare writer, longtime skiing enthusiast, as well as a board certified clinician with over a decade of private practice experience. Her most recent features include safety contributions to 'Snow Blowers n' Plows
Author: Peta Minerof