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A Brief Guide to Off-Piste Safety

Thinking of Heading Out-of-Bounds for Some Freeriding? Here are a Few Important Things Every Outdoor Chick Should Know

There has been an epic amount of snowfall this season with plenty of resorts in the Alps boasting more than 2 meters of snow--thank you powder gods!!! So as you glide down the piste gazing longingly at all the pristine untouched powder, it can be tempting to throw caution to the wind and head out-of-bounds totally unequipped. But it’s important for every chick (and non-chick) to be prepared and stay safe while freeriding.

So for those of you new to freeriding and even seasoned pros, here are some essential things to know before heading into that fluffy powder field, couloir, or tree run. Before diving into the perfect patch of untouched powder, here are the most important safety items and some additional tips.

Avalanche Transceiver, Probe, and Shovel

At a minimum, when heading off-piste every person in the group should be carrying an avalanche transceiver or beacon. It doesn’t matter if you are right beside the piste or heading deep into the backcountry, this is by far the most important piece of kit you will own. In the unfortunate event of an avalanche, it will allow searchers to locate you quickly, which could make the difference between life or death.

Many companies offer variations and the main players are Mammut, Ortovox, Pieps, and BCA. You can find plenty of reviews on the internet so I won’t go into detail or make any recommendations here, but I will mention that technology is constantly improving so if you’re using a transceiver more than 10 years old it may be time to invest in a new one. Most newer transceivers are digital and can search and mark up to three buried skiers at a time.

Once you’ve located a buried skier, the probe is used to poke deep into the snow to find the most accurate spot to start digging, which is where your shovel comes in. While transceivers can be expensive, it‘s often cheaper to buy a set that includes the transceiver, shovel, and probe.

Of course, simply having a transceiver is no good if you don’t know how to use it! So practice practice practice! There are a number of mountain safety courses available--some free and some at a cost. A few of the well recognised associations that offer training are:

  • In Austria, SAAS offer several training courses throughout the season, however, if you’re English-speaking make sure to book early (October) since only one course a year is held in English and it gets booked up straight away.

  • ISTA offer courses in resorts across the Alps. These aren’t free but they do offer discounts on safety equipment purchases after completing the course.

  • In France, Mountain Tracks (Chamonix) offers a comprehensive 2.5 day avalanche training course, and you can always ski the Mont Blanc while you’re there ;)

Finally, make sure to perform a transceiver check with your freeride buddies before heading off to ensure everything is working properly!

Freeride or ABS Backpack

To carry your safety gear, you’ll need a suitable backpack. There are a ton of options so just choose something to suit your individual needs. Basic backpacks should have compartments to hold your transceiver, shovel, and probe. Other features can include a whistle, goggle pocket, helmet holder, and snowboard or ski carrying system, which is usually just some extra straps to secure your board or skis while you’re out hiking in search of fresh lines.

Backpacks with airbag technology have become extremely popular. In the unfortunate case of an avalanche, the airbag system can be triggered by pulling a handle and since larger objects stay afloat, the airbag can keep you above the avalanche debris to minimize injury and hopefully make it easier for you to be found. Statistics have shown an airbag can increase your chance of survival by fifty percent. Pretty amazing.

Airbags are definitely good to have, however, even a basic system can be quite expensive, but is definitely highly recommended for those considering ski touring, heli-skiing, or heading into high-risk or avalanche-prone areas. If you want a cheaper option, why not check out deals on ABS backpacks from the previous season or buy one second hand. A couple of good websites for buying second hand equipment in Austria are shpoch or willhaben, and you could also check out the Innsbruck Ski and Snowboard Gear Sale and Swap on Facebook.

First Aid Kit

If you're planning to do some serious backcountry skiing or snowboarding, a well-equipped first aid kit is essential. The topic merits its own post so I won’t go into detail here. You can buy a pre-made first aid kit or make your own bespoke one by acquiring the items separately yourself. A few things you may want to include are:

  • Wound care - bandages, gauze, antiseptic wipes, gloves, trauma pads, cotton balls

  • Medication - antihistamines, anti-inflammatories (ibuprofen or aspirin), pain relievers (paracetamol)

  • Other items - heat sheets, tape, splint

Check the Local Avalanche Safety Report and Don’t Take Unnecessary Risks

In Austria Lawinenwarndienst, in Europe EWAS, or download the SnowSafe avalanche app. And if you’re planning to go ski touring and the avalanche risk is high, why not wait a day or two.

Always Freeride with Friends or a Guide and Stick Together

Freeriding is an extreme sport, and whereas piste skiing is OK by yourself, going it alone off-piste or in the back country is not a great idea and definitely not recommended. Avalanche beacons and all the other gear won’t do much good if nobody is there to help you out.

If you’re new to the area or simply don’t have anyone to head out with, check out the Outdoor Chicks Facebook page. There are always awesome chicks looking for someone to ski tour, board, chill on the slopes, or whatever with. So just throw up a message and you’ll be sure to find a new partner in crime.

Watch Out for Trees, Rocks, and Cliffs

Early season, it often looks like there's enough snow cover, but hidden tree stumps and rocks can be extremely dangerous so if there truly isn’t enough snow for off-piste riding then just don’t take the risk. There are many tragic stories--just think Michael Schumacher--and remember there will always be another day and more snow to come so just be patient. If the conditions don’t allow then either stay on-piste or find another activity until the snow conditions improve--spa day anyone?

And even if there is enough snow, there are often hidden obstacles and it can be harder to control your turns in knee-deep powder so take your time, enjoy the mountain, and try your best not to do a gorilla-style move into a tree.

Don’t Blindly Follow a Set of Tracks

While you might rate yourself as an expert skier or snowboarder, there is usually almost always someone better. Unless of course you are the 2018 World Freeride Champion ;) So blindly following a set of tracks could lead you into a hairy situation.

For one it could be dangerous, plus getting rescued by helicopter from a cliff edge is not cheap! Or even worse, you or someone in your group could end up badly hurt. Make sure you have some idea where you’re going or bring someone who does. Or even hire a guide for the day to get the most out of the fresh powder.

Last But Not Least... Have Fun

Don’t take yourself too seriously and make sure to laugh when you face-plant into a sea of fresh powder. Freeriding, ski touring, and splitboarding can be extremely rewarding and offer the chance to discover a different side of skiing and boarding, so grab your best outdoor chicks, get prepared, and get out there! And always practice good mountain awareness :)

Oh, and don’t forget where you parked your car…

Do you have any additional tips or advice? Please leave your comments below.


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