What is off-piste?
Misunderstandings concerning avalanches
When assessing hazards while skiing it is important to know the difference between piste and off-piste. This section will discuss where an official ski run ends and where off-piste starts, as well as what constitutes a ski route compared to these two.
Official ski run
An official ski run is marked, supervised and very often groomed. A ski run can be descended without worrying about dangers such as avalanches or cliffs.
Of course you must be aware of objects that could be present on a ski run, such as trees, lift posts and, most importantly, other skiers and snowboarders. One advantage of a ski run is that it always ends at a lift or in a village. This is not always the case for off-piste runs.
Ski runs are marked. This means that poles and signs with the well known colours green, blue, red or black indicate where it is safe to descend. The poles are located on both sides of the ski run. When you stay between the poles and follow the signs you are on the ski run.
In 2008 an unlucky skier fell on a ski run and tumbled off-piste. He caused an avalanche, got dragged down and was buried under half a meter of snow. He was only found much later because he was not carrying avalanche gear (he was skiing on the ski run). The man unfortunately died later that same day.
Ski runs are supervised by ski patrol or the ski area. This takes place at the start of the day, during the day and at the end of the day. When a ski run is closed, it always has a reason. There simply may not be enough snow to open a ski run safely. But runs may also be closed due to heavy snow and immediate avalanche threats. If a slope above a ski run could cause a potential threat for the run, avalanche danger is often mitigated with the help of explosives.
Generally, a ski run in the Alps is always groomed. If it is not, but the run is still marked and supervised, you will likely have to deal with a slope that is too steep to groom with a lot of moguls, or it is called a ski route.
A ski route is a descent which is marked, partly supervised by ski patrol, but is not groomed. This is a relatively easy way to try out skiing and snowboarding in ungroomed snow. Not all ski areas offer ski routes (you mostly find them in Austria and Switzerland), but when they do, you can find them on the trail map. Like ski runs, ski routes can be open or closed.
A ski route is marked by signs placed in the middle of the route. The ski route extends up to 25 meters left and right of the signs. Beyond that you will be off-piste. This differs from the regular ski runs, where the signs or poles are located on both sides of the run.
A ski route is only partly supervised by ski patrol. When a ski route is opened, you can assume it is relatively safe within the 25 meter margin of the ski route signs. This is a very important difference from regular ski runs, where you realise immediately when you are going off-piste—the grooming ends and you will venture into deeper or heavier snow. On a ski route you will not notice this difference because ski routes are not groomed. There are no further markings on a ski route: no safety cushions on trees, no nets to prevent you from falling into a ravine or chasm. Ski routes are not checked at the end of the day to see if any skiers or snowboarders are still there.
A ski route is never groomed and you will find all kinds of different snow. The reality is most ski routes often get moguls very quickly. Skiers and snowboarders are tempted to venture outside the 25-meter margin to search for better snow. Keep in mind that this will bring you off-piste!
Off-piste simply means ‘outside the ski run.' And that is how literal you should take it. This area is unsupervised, ungroomed and unmarked. When you leave the ski run or the ski route you are off-piste. That also includes that one meter next to the ski run with fresh snow. Often you can ski just beyond the markings without any problems, but avalanches have originated right next to the run. In short: outside the ski run is off-piste.
Off-piste is unmarked. There are no signs or poles to tell you where to descend. You are vulnerable to alpine hazards, such as cliffs, rocks, crevasses and many other dangers. Since there are no signs to tell you where to go, you are responsible for the route selection. This also means you might not end up at a ski lift at the end of your run.
There is no supervision off-piste and ski patrol does not check the area at the end of the day.
Off-piste is never groomed and you can come across all different kinds snow. It may be powder, but there might also be ice, slush, crust or no snow at all.
The layout of ski areas differs all around the world. Anyone who has skied in the United States, Canada, New Zealand or Japan knows that the layout there differs from the Alps. In these countries, ski areas have a ‘boundary' marking the borders of the area. Within that boundary (ie, in bounds) ski patrol checks everything. When you stay within these boundaries, where the ski runs are located, you can assume that ski patrol has controlled the area to mitigate avalanche danger.
A boundary is marked, within it everything is supervised. It may or may not be groomed. This way you can descend within a boundary without having to worry about avalanches. Cliffs and other terrain features still exist, but are often marked with signs. Areas within the boundary may be closed because of avalanche danger. A closed area is a no-go area.
How does a boundary work?
Imagine the ski area of Les Quatre Vallées in Switzerland for example. Draw a circle around the area and everything within that circle is supervised. Not just the ski runs, but also everything in between. That is why not many people in the US and Canada ride with an avalanche transceiver, shovel or probe, because basically there is no need for them within the boundaries of the area. Keep in mind there are still dangers, such as cliffs, rocks, and trees. If an area is closed it is for a reason.
Outside the boundary
When you leave the boundary of a ski area you are on your own. You enter the backcountry. This is comparable to going off-piste in Europe. You are responsible for choosing your own route, safety and potential rescue in the event of an accident. Other terms for backcountry are sidecountry or slack country (usually depending if you can reach the terrain by lift). Ski areas often place gates at several locations through which you can leave the boundary and enter the backcountry.
|Ski route||Partly on alpine dangers||yes||no|
The area outside the supervised and marked areas are not patrolled or checked for snow stability. If you venture outside of these areas, you are responsible for you own route selection and your own rescue should something go wrong.