Every threat can be turned around into an opportunity. What is a risk one day, can be an opportunity the next. And the other way around. Below you will find a list of realistic threats to off-piste skiers, and in the next section some of the opportunities different terrain can offer.
Falls, collisions, hypothermia and suffocation are some of the risks you will encounter in the mountains. The consequences of each can be dramatic.
Cliffs, crevasses, creeks, gullies and cornices are some of the obstacles on the mountain that you could fall off of, or in, and get hurt pretty badly. In many cases these elements are easy to spot with the naked eye with proper preparation.
On the groomed slopes your biggest obstacles are moving objects: other skiers and snowboarders. Off-piste mostly fixed obstacles are a danger to you. Trees, rocks, avalanche fences, buildings, barbed wire and railways, are just a few of the things you could collide with in the backcountry. The key is knowing beforehand what you could run into and staying in control during your descent. You should also wear a helmet.
You cool down fast in the mountains and hypothermia is a high risk. If you are injured in a fall, collision, or an avalanche, hypothermia is a serious threat.
Most cases of suffocation are because of an avalanche, but you can also suffocate in deep snow without getting caught by an avalanche. This phenomenon is called NARSID. The average time you have under the snow is between 15 and 18 minutes. After that a layer of ice forms around your mouth, you are unable to get oxygen from the snow and you suffocate as a consequence. The chance of dying due to a NARSID is not high, but do not underestimate this phenomenon. Especially watch out around trees, creeks and gullies where you could fall head-first and become trapped. When a lot of snow has fallen in the days before, the risk of NARSID is higher.
More on NARSID’s and treewells
NARSID is the collective term for all cases in which a skier or snowboarder suffocates in the snow due to something other than an avalanche. NARSID is short for Non Avalanche Related Snow Immersion Death and happens more often in Northern America than in Europe—hence why it is an English term. NARSID when a skier or snowboarder falls—often head first—into a treewell, trench or creek, gets stuck, and is unable to free his head from the snow and suffocates.
Once upside down in the snow it is almost impossible to get out without help. Being rescued is often the only option. Statistics from American avalanche control organisations say that 90 percent of riders who end up in a treewell or other kind of NARSID hazard are not able to free themselves.
A treewell is a hole that forms around the trunk of a tree. Due to overhanging branches of the coniferous trees, the part of the trunk to the first branch is not being filled with snow and a well is created. A well which can become rather deep, even up to a meter or two. In short, a treewell is a combination of branches, loose snow and air and it is often invisible for us freeriders. Especially when there is a lot of snow you must be careful. Because the little trees which surfaces above the snow can be in truth a snowed in tree of several meters high. Luckily for us, treewells are easy to avoid. When riding in snowed in forests you never turn in front of the tree but always to the side or behind it. If you fall then, the chance of falling into a treewell will be much smaller. Besides avoiding trees like a pro, it is important that you always ride with a partner when doing a treerun. It is vital to keep an eye out of each other. Make sure you see each other, communicate with sounds (yodelling for example) and wait for each other after a couple of meters vertical. You must realise that the chances of a successful rescue improve a lot when you see your buddy disappear.
Creeks and trenches
Besides treewells, there is also deep snow immersion. This is when the snow is so deep you simply bury yourself when you fall. This can happen when you ski into a deep creek bed or jump off a cliff into deep snow. When skiing into a creek or trench at a high speed, there is the risk of going in head-first. If the snow is deep enough, you will bury yourself so that you cannot get out without the help of others. Another risk is if there is running water in these creeks (especially at the beginning and the end of the season). There is space between the creek and the snowpack that you could fall through and literally drown in the snow and water.
According to statistics, treewells are the largest NARSID risk, accounting for more than 67% of deep snow immersion fatalities in North America. Because of resort boundaries, it’s more appealing and much easier to ski the trees in North America. Also the tree line in states such as Colorado is much higher than in Europe and many North American ski areas get more snow than in Europe. If there has been a lot of snow, particularly in the beginning of the season, it is important to be wary of NARSID’s in Europe as well.
But what if you fall in?
As always, stay calm. If you feel yourself falling, let the others know by screaming (if you still have the time to do that). Try to keep your head above the snow and try to hold on to the tree truck, branches or another hard item. Do not struggle because you might sink even deeper. Trust the friends you are riding with. As a buddy you make sure to get there as fast as possible and start digging immediately. Be careful not to shovel more snow into the hole. It is best to dig from the downhill side.
The mountains contain the following dangers: falling, hitting something, hypothermia and suffocation in the snow because of an avalanche or a NARSID.