The thrill of skiing off-piste: Why, knowing the risks, we do it anyway

Michael Schumacher is not the only person drawn to off-piste skiing – better equipment and busier slopes have sent many, including Simon Usborne off the beaten track in search of a thrill. He recounts his life on the slope
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Given the risk many associated with mountains, it is perhaps surprising that Ferrari ever allowed and even encouraged its champion driver to ski. But by all accounts Michael Schumacher had a deep love of the sport, travelling to remote Norway when not performing for cameras in Italy. Pity any corporate lawyer who confronted him with risk assessments and a calculator.

Now, as the German fights to survive his brain injuries, people are looking closely at a sport which tends only to make headlines in Britain when somebody dies. Why do ever greater numbers of skiers like me persist despite such apparent danger? While the risks are statistically slight, most of us know somebody who has experienced serious bad luck.

Of the million or so British people who go skiing each winter, a rapidly growing number understand the thrill, after a transformation in the sport in the past decade. Like Schumacher, they get it, by which I mean they get off-piste skiing, which offers a sensation that can be to the experience of most skiers  what kayaking the Zambezi might be to a Venetian gondolier.

I got it at an early age. My father began skiing as a child in the 1960s, when boots were still made of leather. As a young man he met my mother on a mountain. Both were the children of skiers and they would spend days and weeks climbing and descending out of sight of any chairlift, plastering the wall of our kitchen with photos of their exploits.

When my brother and I were eight and six (we’re in our early 30s now) we followed in their tracks. By now it was the early 1990s and, while the boots had improved, the sport hadn’t changed much. Skis were still chopstick-thin, making anything but hard, compacted snow very difficult to negotiate. Off-piste skiing remained a niche pursuit in Britain, where awful salopettes and jackets from C&A also made us look stupid.

Persistence paid off and soon my brother and I made appearances on the kitchen wall. Then, in 2001, when I was 18, my father died when an avalanche swept him into the path of a tree. He had been heli-skiing with my mother in western Canada. Later that year, during a Christmas escape with my mother and brother, I was skiing off-piste when I struck a hidden rock and fractured my spine as I was catapulted forwards.

I was lucky not to hit my head and recovered quickly. For reasons that should become clear, none of my family hesitated before skiing again. Since that bad year, my brother and I have travelled the world in search of steeper and deeper snow. I’ve skied in Russia, in Utah, near the Canadian border with Alaska, and in small resorts with exotic names shared between bar stools and the covers of ski magazines: Alta, Disentis, La Grave, Grimentz.

And these days we are no longer unusual. Where British voices used to be rare away from the pistes and bars of big resorts, we now fill the loftiest cable cars and helicopters. We also stick skins to the bottom of special touring skis that allow us to walk uphill, earning each descent. Sometimes the best days involve very little adrenalin at all, when the only sounds are birdsong and the rhythmic crunch of new snow under ascending foot. Perhaps the greatest thrills, meanwhile, hide in the trees. Picture generously spaced firs rising from several feet of waist-deep snow. Now tilt the scene to 30 degrees or more and imagine sweeping down through those trees at speed, thighs pumping as you plot a course on the fly. Part skiing, part freefalling, you travel through rather than on the snow, bounding over drops as if vaulting flights of stairs scattered with pillows.

Nigel Shepherd is a veteran mountain guide, one of the goat-like skiers with ropes in their backpacks you hire to find the best snow and to keep you safe. They study their craft for years and can read a valley like you or I might a book. In the early 1980s, Shepherd was one of only two British guides based in Chamonix, France, where skiers fight for new snow like Boxing Day shoppers at Selfridge’s. Today Shepherd, 58, says there are more than 40 British guides in the town. “We were among the brave and courageous few exploring limits of what might be achieved,” he explains. “You had to serve a long apprenticeship before you’d contemplate skiing off-piste. Now only your head stops you progressing.”

The reason: fat skis. By spreading the load, they offer greater buoyancy, making most snow, including deep powder, a relative breeze. Meanwhile the companies making them sponsor professional big-mountain or free-skiers, who have displaced downhill racers as the new heros of the sport. A whole film industry has developed around these athletes and their staggering cliff jumps. Sponsors with YouTube channels tempt amateurs to buy their stuff so that they might ski like that, too.

As skiers now have the means and motivation to venture into ever more challenging terrain, many capturing their descents on helmet-cams, safety has become an urgent issue. Collisions and avalanches are among the gravest threats, and conditions so far have made this a costly winter. Last week, five people died in separate slides on one day alone.

Henry Schniewind is a US former ski racer who got hooked on off-piste skiing as a wide-eyed, 18-year-old visitor to France. Back then, avalanche awareness barely existed. Now 48, he remembers being ridiculed for skiing with a shovel and probe, vital tools for disentombing skiers that are now widespread (so too are transceivers that help to find victims). He went on to become a leading expert in snow science and his team last year delivered Henry’s Avalanche Talks to more than 2,500 people in the UK and the Alps. This year they’re all sold out for the first time.

Schniewind and Shepherd wince when they hear off-piste skiing described as an activity for those with a death wish, while also welcoming new awareness such coverage inspires. “We’re not all adrenalin junkies,” Schniewind says. “My aim is to reduce the risk to a level no greater than that an average person takes in everyday activities like driving along a motorway or cycling to work.”

In March I’ll travel with my brother to the Dolomites in Italy. We’ll join a guide in search of its famous couloirs – steep chutes of snow between rocks that can be barely wider than a ski is long, but lead to whole fields of deep, undisturbed snow. Some are so steep ropes are required to access them. We are only too aware of the risks involved, and the importance of managing them.

So was Michael Schumacher. After retiring from a profession steeped in risk, he told an interviewer that accidents had not made him scared. “It may well be true that some things have changed in my life,” he said. “What won’t change is the way I live, I’m not about to consciously deny myself the things that bring me joy.”

Off-piste: managing the risks

Know your limits

You’ve gorged on ski films and waited all year for this, but don’t get carried away, particularly in a group. You can push yourself without exceeding your limit. If you’re worried, don’t be afraid to say so and bail out if necessary.

Know the mountain

Do your research. Read the terrain, and observe the level of snow cover and avalanche risk (signs will tell you what it is). Be aware of rocky areas or trees, and adjust your speed accordingly.

Hire a guide

International mountain guides are indispensable for any significant off-piste forays. As well as keeping you safer, they’ll also find the best snow and share their passion and knowledge. They’re not cheap, so gather a group or join a trip that includes one.

Get the gear

Gear isn’t cheap either, but an avalanche transceiver, shovel and probe are essential tools and worth the investment or cost of rental. More importantly, devour the instructions and ask experts to show you how to use them. Helmets help, while backpacks with flotation airbags offer an added level of security.