Off Piste: End of the run or end of the line?

More skiers than ever are heading off-piste. But with 102 fatal avalanches in the Alps last year alone, the difference between out of bounds and out of control can be dangerously slim. Mike Higgins reports

A few years ago, I was sitting on a chairlift above the Swiss resort of Verbier with a local ski guide. Beneath us were a pair of gung-ho skiers, picking their way, off-piste, down a steep, rocky gully.

The guide gazed at them: "Fifteen years ago, one or two people a season skied that couloir," he said. "They had a party for you in the bar if you came down alive. Now somebody does it every week."

Grumpy my guide may have been, but, by and large, the rest of the ski industry has welcomed the boom in off-piste, or backcountry, skiing and snowboarding that has taken place across North America and Europe over the past decade. After all, most skiers access those untracked fields of fresh powder snow via the pistes and lift systems of a resort, paying for lodging, dining and lift pass in the process.

Last season, however, the reality of skiing out of bounds, away from protected, secure trails and emergency facilities, was made stark: there were 102 fatal avalanches across the Alps, with 57 deaths in France alone (over the 2004-05 season, there were 62 fatal avalanches in Europe). As for this season, following the first big snowfalls on the Continent a month ago, at least eight people have died across Europe while venturing off-piste in January alone.

Why do so many skiers and snowboarders risk injury and death by skiing off-piste? And what might be done to avoid such fatalities in European resorts, this season and in the future? I asked three ski-industry professionals for their thoughts: Jean-Louis Tuaillon, the director of piste services at the French ski resort of Tignes; Nigel Shepherd, a mountain guide and alpine safety advisor to the Ski Club of Great Britain; and Larry Heywood, the president of the Sierra Avalanche Center in the US.

It is difficult to assess accurately the rise in the numbers of skiers and boarders willing to duck under the boundary ropes and head off-piste. Still, the day-to-day experience of Tuaillon tells its own story: "On a busy day 10,000 people are skiing in Tignes. When it's sunny and there's good snow, 50 per cent of them will go off-piste - that's 5,000 skiers and boarders... and it can be dangerous just a few centimetres beyond the [boundary] poles."

But those doing so are frequently not content to descend a few metres either side of the piste. "They all want fresh tracks," says Tuaillon, "so they ski farther and farther [away from the pistes] and then suddenly they ski too far."

The threat of being caught in an avalanche is probably the most profound fear of those wandering "too far" from the pistes. But such incidents are relatively rare; instead, there are cliffs to fall from, and trees and rocks to collide with. And though a leg broken while boarding off-piste will not make headlines, accidents such as this absorb time, resources and money on the part of the resorts (not to mention the victim) daily throughout the season.

So why do so many of us feel constrained by the pistes of the resort? In part, because it is easier now to head off-piste than it has ever been. Snowboards provide a large, relatively stable platform in the variable conditions off-piste, and over the past decade ski manufacturers have followed suit, making skis that are wider and therefore easier to handle off-piste.

"In theory, these skis are also supposed to make skiing off-piste safer," says Shepherd. "They don't confine pressure to a single point [on the snow field] and travel quite lightly over the snow. And people don't fall over quite so often, which puts a lot of pressure on the snow." So, theoretically, you are less likely to injure yourself and the slope less likely to avalanche.

Other factors are also luring people off-piste. "You can progress within four or five weeks to off-piste," says Shepherd. "And there's a lot of social pressure to do so, because that's where it's at, pulling big, fast turns."

Heywood agrees: "There's so much new clothing and equipment [for off-piste skiing]. There's a look to it, a fashion - you'd almost say there's a cult." A new term has evolved to encap- sulate this no-boundaries approach: "freeriding". And, as described to me by Neil McNab, a North Face-sponsored British snow-boarder, freeriding sounds positively spiritual.

"Freeriding takes us away from the confined and overcrowded world of the pistes into the mountains," he says. "In today's world we are rarely put in situations that are not under our control. The backcountry world of the high mountains offers us a break from the norm - it is a humbling place, where we can learn a lot about ourselves."

The ski and board industry too reinforces this ethos in the imagery it has long preferred for its marketing: the lone skier carving down a remote snowfield or, more recently, the cool boarder leaping off a cliff.

So heading off-piste is fashionable and the technical threshold required to access it lower than ever. How can we help to prevent the numbers of deaths seen last season? Access to off-piste skiing could be limited, as it is in many ski areas in the US. Many British skiers believe that, in the US, to "duck the cordon" and head off-piste is to risk a fine and your lift pass, but resorts' policies do vary.

"Some resorts require [skiers and boarders to carry] a transceiver to go out of bounds, and some require one to ski the off-piste areas that are in bounds," says Heywood. "That said, most resorts make no requirements. They post the boundary, may provide some warnings, on signs and in trail maps, then leave it up to the individual."

Shepherd and Tuaillon both disagree with the notion of restricting access to off-piste terrain. For them, skiing and snowboarding off-piste are adventurous sports, and those undertaking them should bear the burden of responsibility for their actions. As Heywood, for 34 years the ski patrol director at Alpine Meadows resort in California, says: "Many resorts are on or are adjacent to public land which we pay taxes for - they should provide clear delineation about the boundaries, and beyond that it's up to the skier. This is the land of the free, after all."

Instead, Shepherd, Heywood and Tuaillon all believe the best way to reduce the number of accidents and deaths off-piste is education: about weather conditions, snowpack assessment, rescue techniques, first aid and transceiver training. On the eve of the current season, Shepherd presented a series of well-attended avalanche safety lectures at branches of the outdoor retailers Snow+Rock. In the US, Heywood says that regional avalanche centres are using radio, television and the internet in ways that they hope will engage young skiers and boarders.

Yet these well-meaning initiatives face several problems. Among them, the wider co-ordination of such educational drives; Heywood bemoans what he sees as the current underfunding of avalanche centres in the US. At the moment, many resorts assist their guests by publishing weather forecasts and indicating avalanche risks. Shepherd believes resorts should also publish a history of the season's weather and snowfall. In France last season, according to Shepherd, specific, unusual conditions gave rise to "depth hoar" in the snow covering the French Alps.

"We had a massive amount of snow covering underlying weakness in the snow pack," says Shepherd. "But people don't know what that means - it's about the most serious conditions you can have."

The second problem is that, though it seems that more skiers and boarders are taking basic avalanche courses, encouraging people to apply the lessons they have learned is harder: certain skiers and boarders, says Heywood, wear their basic qualifications "like a badge and then take the risk anyway".

As Shepherd says: "The courses are fantastic, a vital service, but they're not an end in themselves. People have to realise that it's just a start; they must gain experience."

A number of resorts now provide areas where people can brush up on their transceiver skills; Shepherd would like to see more of these, as well as more officers on hand to provide free information about conditions off-piste.

Tuaillon, however, under-stands the mindset of his guests at Tignes: "We must educate, but it's difficult when people are on holiday for a week; they want freedom, space, to explore...

"We give lots of information [about conditions in the mountains]," he concludes. "But people don't want to look for it."

The Compact Guide: The Off-Piste Basics

Ideally, only venture off-piste with a fully qualified guide, never alone.

Ensure that every member of the party is wearing a functioning avalanche trans-ceiver, knows how to use it in an emergency, and is carrying a shovel and probe.

Check weather forecasts and consult with pisteurs about current and recent snow conditions.

Let someone know where you will be skiing and when you plan to return.

Further Information

For more details of off-piste conditions and clothing in Europe and the US: skiclub. co.uk; thenorthface.com; sierraavalanchecenter.org

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