Risks and dangers
Misunderstandings concerning avalanches
A lot can go wrong when you venture off-piste. You are essentially entering a wild, mountainous environment and are responsible for finding your own route down, assessing all risks and hazards, and facilitating your own rescue if you need one. The first thing that comes to mind is avalanches, but there are an array of other hazards to consider when travelling off the groomed ski runs. You could hit a tree or rock, suffer a serious injury, get trapped by a sudden change in weather, and lose your way and find yourself above a large cliff or terrain that is above your ability level. It is important to arm yourself with as much information as possible and notably that you read the avalanche report, check the weather, and make sure you have the phone numbers for the local mountain rescue in case there is an emergency.
The good news is you can avoid all of these risks by simply staying on official ski runs. Once you decide to venture off-piste you expose yourself to alpine dangers that always contain a certain element of risk. It is important to be able to recognise these dangers so that you can make sound decisions. There are two types of hazards you will encounter off-piste.
These are hazards you cannot control, that are inherent in Alpine travel. Avalanches, sudden weather changes, falling rocks and seracs, and crevasses are all examples of objective hazards. You cannot eliminate an objective danger, but you can take steps to minimize the risk they pose to you. For example, the avalanche report can tell you which faces to avoid and the weather report can tell you whether or not it is a good day to attempt the peak you are hoping to ski from.
You may ask how objective these dangers are when you have this knowledge. Usually when a skier or snowboarder is caught in an avalanche, it's because they triggered it. Objective hazards will be discussed in greater detail later on in this module in the chapters ‘weather and snow’ and ‘terrain’.
These are the dangers you can control and that we bring with us when we venture off-piste. These include the skill level of the group, physical condition and group of peer pressure. Though certain avalanche accidents seem to happen out of nowhere, most of the time there were warning signs. It is the skier's responsibility to recognise these signs and to exercise good judgement.
Knowledge and experience
Most accidents could have been avoided with better knowledge of the hazards of off-piste travel. It is not uncommon to see skiers and snowboarders heading off-piste without proper avalanche gear, or heading to an objective without first consulting the avalanche report. When you venture off-piste without basic avalanche awareness, you, and only you, are the biggest hazard you'll encounter. You are much safer when you're armed with the proper knowledge of snow safety, weather, orientation and first aid. These are all issues that will be discussed in this course.
Mountain sense is almost a kind of sixth sense that helps you recognize recognise alpine dangers. It's not magic, though. This sense is developed through education and experience in an alpine environment.
Experience is a different story. Mountain guides often talk about ‘mountain sense.' The more experience you gain in alpine terrain, the easier it will be to judge the danger level. Learning how to travel safely off-piste cannot be done through studying alone. This course can provide a basic foundation, but it is important to continue gain experience by taking a course with a certified guide.
Technique and skill level
This subjective danger is directly associated with knowledge and experience. It is important to realistically assess your ability and comfort levels, and to choose terrain and conditions that are appropriate to those levels. Maybe you are comfortable on a steep face with fresh snow, but will you be able to navigate it if the weather changes and you lose visibility (which you may have known would happen if you had checked the weather report). Will you feel comfortable in the tight crux of a couloir (which you would have seen if you had looked at a map or researched your run ahead of time)? Be honest with the group, and with yourself, because you not only endanger yourself, but everyone with you.
The mountain itself is not necessarily dangerous. It becomes dangerous when you put yourself in hazardous positions.
Skiing off-piste often takes a greater level of fitness than you need to ride the established ski runs. The snow conditions may be variable and require more energy, and you may need to hike or traverse to get back to the ski area, or to a village or road. If you are not adequately fit, you put yourself in danger of injury, and could also put your group at risk by keeping them in terrain exposed to objective hazards longer than expected.
Many psychological processes come into play when skiing in a group. This can vary from the lack of leadership causing problems when making decisions, to putting too much faith in the "expert" of the group to guide everyone home safely (known as the expert halo). Also, group dynamics are such that people are often reluctant to voice their own worries or hesitations about a situation. No one wants to be the only one who is afraid, or to be the person who makes the entire group back off an objective or turn around. This can cause the group to take risks that some are not comfortable with.
Time is an important element when snowboarding and skiing. You often want to finish a run before the weather changes or before the sun gets too strong and affects the snow. You also reduce the risk of accidents by being in exposed terrain for as little time as possible. Rushing on the other hand is different. Rushing makes you less focused and less intent when assessing hazards and making decisions, and this increases risk. Groups will sometimes make rushed or hasty decisions early in the day in order to get to a certain run before it has been tracked—also known as the 'powder panic.'
When being on your way with poor gear you (yes, that's you) are the greatest danger. Do your ski boots have the right soles which offer proper grip when hiking to that remote peak? When was the last time you maintained your skis or snowboard? Is that ski with rocker and reverse camber the right choice for that steep couloir with hard snow? How long do you think your avalanche transceiver will work under the snow when you battery is only at 10%?
When venturing off-piste, you have to deal with objective and subjective hazards. You cannot control the objective dangers, but you can prepare for them, assess them, and make sound decisions on where and when to go based on that assessment. Objective dangers are avalanches, sudden changes to the weather, falling rocks, etc.
Subjective hazards can be controlled because they are created by yourself or your group. These include your level knowledge and experience, physical fitness, group dynamics, rushing, or poor gear. The rest of the course we will explain how to mitigate these two types of hazards.