Even if you’re not one for taking off down the steep slopes of the mythical Mont Blanc mountain range… but that the idea of venturing off the trails appeals to you. There are a number of rules for your safety and preparation to be observed before launching yourself into this experience.
MySkirent and Jérome Pessey, director of the ESF at La Clusaz, offer you some sound advice.
Before getting started we need to define exactly what off-piste means. You’ll also find the term ‘ski route’ which can provide a good transitional experience to begin with.
Ski route: it’s a term used particularly in Austria and Germany, in France it’s called a “piste non damée” [ungroomed piste]. This means that the area is only partially monitored but that you can ski safely in the 25-metre zone surrounding the signs. Be aware that no pisteur will check if a skier is stuck on the itinerary. There are no signs in place to warn you of any danger.
Off-piste skiing: implies a non-verified zone, unprotected and with no signage. From the moment that you pass under a safety-net or go beyond the delimitation of signs you’re in off-piste territory and therefore alone with nature.
MySkirent: if you’re tempted to try some off-piste skiing, what sort of questions should you be asking yourself?
“Do you have the required level of skiing expertise? It’s one thing to be tempted but you have to have the sufficient skills. You must have acquired a good technique to be efficient whatever the conditions. You need to know how to handle crusted, soft or powder snow, or deal with bumps and jumps. It’s essential in order to be able to enjoy the experience, and particularly to ensure your own safety.
It also depends on the type of off-piste, “accessible” or “committed”.
1) “Accessible” off-piste: means that your ski zone remains close to the other pistes and that it’s not an avalanche zone. If you’re unsure of your abilities you can start by skiing the edge of the piste with an instructor and test your agility. Be careful, it’s not because you’re only a metre away from the pistes that there’s no potential danger.
2) “Committed” off-piste: means that you’re in a sector prone to avalanches or on a steep slope, close to high-risk zones such as very steep slopes, ravines or rocky ledges.”
MySkirent: What are the dangers of off-piste?
“- The risk of avalanche of course, you and your friends could get caught in one.
– The change in weather conditions, a swift rise in fog that may prevent you from getting your bearings.
– Arrival at a rocky ledge where it’s impossible to turn around and go back.
– An accident, a fall can happen at any time, by hitting a tree or a rock for example.”
MySkirent: How do you prepare for an off-piste outing?
“- You need to prepare in such a way that you can explain where you are at all times. Always be aware of which mountain pass you’ve just traversed for example. It’s vital not to take-off on an adventure! That’s not a good grasp of what off-piste entails. It’s important to know where you are and where you’re going.
– On the actual day, if you’re not accompanied by a guide, it’s essential to check the weather conditions. It’s always best to ask the pisteurs what they think.”
MySkirent: Under what conditions should you practice off-piste?
“- Do not over-estimate yourself, you should know when to cancel or postpone an outing if all the conditions aren’t fulfilled.
– Never go alone, in the event of injury it’s vital that someone can call for rescue if you can’t do so yourself.
– Take your mobile phone, extremely practical for calling rescue services, it could even save your life.
– Make sure you’ve got the right equipment, helmet, back protection, airbag, an avalanche beacon or transceiver, snow probe and spade to localise and dig out any potential victim(s).
– Carry a first aid kit.
– Always take something to drink and snack on.”
Good to know: the ESF and other schools organise training sessions to teach you how to use the different safety gear and more generally how to approach and prepare for an off-piste excursion.
The Mountain Academy by Salomon also gives extensive advice on the subject: http://mountainacademy.salomon.com/
MySkirent: How to choose your material?
“According to your level of skiing expertise and the conditions, the guide, as well as experienced renters, will be able to recommend the right material.”
The Woodcore shop at La Clusaz for example specialises in the rental of freeride and freeski equipment. You’ll find a list of specialists depending on the resort of your choice, on the MySkirent website.
MySkirent: In the event of an accident, what are the reflexes to be adopted?
“Call the resort’s piste services or the European no. 112.“
MySkirent tip: Before you head out, make sure that you’re insured in the case of an accident. Careful though, depending on your itinerary within the domain or outside of it, the coverage may differ significantly.
MySkirent: What’s your best memory of an off-piste experience?
“Without a doubt, the descent of the Vallée Blanche, for the ascent of the Aiguille du Midi, the landscape and the length of the descent when you’re lucky enough to take your skis off at Chamonix.”
MySkirent: The descent of your life, do you think that you’ve done it?
“Yes but I wouldn’t do it again… I was young and reckless at the time.”
We finish off this interview in agreement that the enjoyment of a great off-piste experience is unforgettable and thrilling if it’s well prepared, but it’s important to remember that despite anticipating any potential risks, nature will always remain in charge here.
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