Following a spate of avalanches which have killed five people in Val d’Isere, and with plenty more fresh snow forecast over the next few days, many skiers will be asking themselves whether the fun and challenge of skiing off-piste are worth the risk.
Skilled skiers will tell you that off-piste skiing is the only way to go; the slopes are too tidy, and too full of other holidaymakers, to be any fun. But avalanches can strike at any time, and they take their toll of the unwary.
Last week’s avalanche happened on a day when the risk on the international scale was 3 out of 5. That was still within safe limits for experienced guides, and skiers were out when the avalanche hit. Four people were carried 150m, down one slope and half-way up another, by the 50m-wide slide. They were very lucky: one is still in hospital in a coma, but the others escaped with minor injuries. All were experienced skiers and wore avalanche transceivers; they were found quickly as there were several witnesses who rushed to help, and rescue helicopters were called without delay.
How can skiers and boarders best protect themselves from off-piste risks? The first advice is obvious: make sure you wear a transceiver at all times. Buy and wear an ABS backpack, which works like a car airbag to keep you above the snow, and pull the cord to open it as soon as you feel the airblast which runs ahead of an avalanche.
If that fails, or you’re not wearing a pack, use your arms to keep a breathing space around your face, and as soon as the avalanche slows down use them to “swim” to the surface as quickly as possible, before the snow sets around you like concrete. That way you’ll be easier to dig out and you’ll have a 90% chance of survival, as opposed to 34% if you’re buried.
But the most important piece of advice anyone could give you is: always go with an experienced guide who knows the mountains well, and don’t try to over-ride his or her knowledge and instincts. Sometimes there may be no obvious sign that something’s amiss, but the guide’s gut reaction will be not to go to a particular slope. Trust them, go somewhere else, and live to enjoy another season.