A-Z of Skiing: O is for Off-Piste

In the week after Christmas, eight skiers were killed above Galtur, the Austrian resort that was hit by one of last season's disastrous avalanches. Some of the victims were skiing off-piste, despite Galtur's warning to skiers to stay on-piste, because of the avalanche risk.

In the week after Christmas, eight skiers were killed above Galtur, the Austrian resort that was hit by one of last season's disastrous avalanches. Some of the victims were skiing off-piste, despite Galtur's warning to skiers to stay on-piste, because of the avalanche risk.

What is so attractive about getting off the prepared pistes that skiers will risk their lives to do it? The danger, for a start. Even most black runs provide little challenge for expert skiers; to achieve the thrill that intermediates can get on-piste, they have to go under the ropes.

Then there is the desire for an "authentic" skiing experience: with their manicured pistes, most resorts have become man-made environments bearing almost no relationship to the mountain wilderness in which the sport developed, so getting away from the grooming machines, crowds and public- address canned music is a primary objective for many skiers.

Less worthy (but equally understandable) is the desire to go boldly where no skier has gone before - or, rather, not since the last snowfall - and make tracks in virgin snow, preferably the "powder" that is the off-piste skiers' holy grail.

Experts will say that skiing off-piste is not difficult, that it simply involves adapting on-piste technique for the softer surface. But they mean good on-piste technique: there is nothing like ungroomed snow for exposing intermediate skiers' technical failings.

And adapting to soft powder is one thing; adapting to "breakable crust" (like creme brulee, with a glazed surface through which skis will drop into thick snow) is another. Off-piste skiing can be difficult, and intermediate skiers, who make up the bulk of those on the slopes, are very wary of it.

That may be to their loss; it is certainly to the gain of emergency services, resort managements - and off-piste skiers. Imagine if everybody could ski off-piste.

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