What did we do before technology? off piste follow up
Further to my article in Yodel/blog on off-piste skiing and the continued deaths due to a very unstable snow pack and avalanche deluge in the alps this season, here are some more thoughts on the subject.
I learnt to ski in the 1980’s and like lots of people when I first ventured off the pisted slopes, I hadn’t a clue about the power of snow when triggered into avalanche by whatever means. Back then, if they existed, we knew nothing of helmets, armour, ABS airbags, transceivers, shovels and probes and wouldn’t have been able to afford them if we did. So we gathered advice as we went, from ski instructors we became acquainted with as we were ski bums and or ski patrollers who spoke English – we were in Andorra.
I remember early on, getting into very simple scrapes; standing on a cornice or overhang of snow above a small hollow (classic terrain trap) that could be used as a jump and encouraging a friend to try it!! He did and as he hit it and stopped instantly I heard that hrrrummph that snow makes when it collapses, luckily it held and only cracked open a foot or so with me standing the wrong side of the crack and my mucker trapped below up to his hips with maybe a ton of snow above him! Or seeing a pisted blue run slide away to full depth but being far enough away to be out of danger. These little but scary events among others started to give me a healthy respect for the power of nature and my own stupidity but thankfully no damage done so lived to try another day.
So what did we do when we had enough info to make decisions but not enough to be able to be totally safe?
We would follow a few tiny procedures of,
• Skiing one at a time with the others watching the moving person in case they were swallowed by the “white death” noting where the last place you saw them was.
• Looking for the tell-tale signs of instability in the snow pack – tiny cracks spreading out from your skis, changes or differences in texture from run to run or big differences in temperature too.
• Knowledge of terrain traps, where a shallow avalanche will be naturally deeper.
• Local knowledge of where avalanches normally occur – asking the pisteurs/patrollers if we could or should ski the chutes or the towers etc.
• Hardest of all…. deciding to walk away if in doubt even if we’d walked to a point to ski a line we had been looking at for a while.
I would never say that with advances in technology we should not use the modern equipment out there BUT, maybe we’re losing our decision making or not using our noodles and leaving the decision to the technology, leading to the “superman effect”!? We must all have heard stories of drivers getting themselves in trouble using and relying solely on sat-navs instead of reading a map or just the road signs! This has happened on mountains too. So use the technology but maybe we should also use our instinct and some of the old methods too.
This reminds me of my last time in NZ, a new friend made there and I, decided to ski an out of bounds area and followed some of the above as we didn’t have transceivers, shovel or probe. 1st run I watched James ski down the gulley and ski around the boulders at the bottom to the relative safety point agreed by us both, then my turn, awesome snow and some fantastic turns and out around the boulders to stop BELOW him. We then tramped out to the drag lift where it took 20-30 mins to get around to the top again for another great run. This time however as we entered the gulley I noticed the snow had changed and those tell-tale little splintery cracks appeared. This time as I went first a snowboarder and a skier flew in above us and ripped up the powder before we could get going, putting us in danger and seriously un-PC and impolite at best. At the bottom when I pulled the guys about their behaviour the skier said “I’ve been skiing here all my life, it’s as safe as houses”. James wanted another run, I said “NO, you couldn’t pay me enough to do it again, it’s changed and unsafe”. So we went and played golf. The next day we heard that the skier and boarder were caught in an avalanche roughly half an hour after we pulled the pin on skiing it again. The skier died but was wearing a transceiver – the boarder however wasn’t so by the time he’d got out to get the alarm raised the skier may already have been dead.
So to reiterate, your equipment WILL NOT SAVE YOU, it will help and is very advisable to carry and know how to use but only if the rest of your party have great skills too. No matter how good you are if all of you are skiing at the same time and all get caught, there’s no one left to find and dig you out! or raise the alarm!
Let’s end on a wish, I hope that the snow pack becomes transformed into a safer one, that no one else gets injured or killed and that we all get to ski some amazing but safe powder this season. If it doesn’t maybe it’s a year to practice on piste!! Also I’m not scaremongering or trying to put people off skiing powder, as I think I remember my favourite day or morning last year was in waist deep snow but we need to make good decisions and stay as safe as we can, happy deep white stuff, Joe Beer BASI ISTD L4, Telemark L3 and current BASI trainer.