We have discussed this year’s fabulous snow several times, and you all know or will have heard about the numerous avalanche warnings that have been abundant throughout the northern hemisphere this season. You will have seen the signs and warnings at ski resorts – “Expert skiers only”, “This lift services only expert terrain skiers, snow conditions vary”, “piste closed” “warning – avalanche”…
So, what’s it all about then?
Skiing, and snowboarding, although extreme sports, are not inherently dangerous, but they do require you to be fit and to be conscious of where you are, where you’re going and to not take unnecessary chances.
Skiing off piste is a whole different story. To ski off piste you must be a competent skier. The most important thing of skiing off piste is – SAFETY. Every season people are killed when they ski off piste and in the majority of cases you find that these accidents could have been prevented either by skiing off piste with a qualified guide, by having the right safety equipment and/or by taking the correct precautions.
Neil McNab, a keen off piste skier has a mantra: “look up, look down, look all around…” He continues, “Amongst the high peaks, the laws of nature rule. Here slopes can shed their snow in avalanche, rocks can fall from high above and cornices can collapse without warning. The rules of engagement here are simple, you follow and respect the laws of nature, you learn from the environment around you and you heed the warning signs and guidance offered all around; and then you make your decisions based upon good judgement and common sense.”
Even though nature sets off most of the avalanches, 90% of the skiers that experience an avalanche are directly responsible for releasing them. Skiers set off avalanches by disturbing a weak bond in the snow pack between snow layers or between the snow and the ground. About 70% of all the skiers/boarders that are avalanched are caught in a slab avalanche. Slab avalanches are less easy to predict than loose snow avalanches which sometimes have more obvious warning signs, such as roller balls running down the hill or small loose snow avalanches starting to release. Thanks to mailadress222 for posting this video.
If you are going to ski off piste (or backcountry as it is sometimes known) you should never ski without the following equipment:
- a transceiver – this is a device which constantly sends out a signal which allows you to be found under the snow
- a metal shovel – NOT a plastic one
- a probe – a collapsible length of tubing that allows you to look for someone under the snow
- and make sure you know how to use this equipment!
There is some new equipment on the market which is also adviseable:
- an ABS airbag – a backpack which, when inflated, helps you stay near the surface of the snow
- the Avalung – a very clever new device. It is a zippered mesh vest with pockets and a breathing tube attached to a snow filter on the side. If you are buried in an avalanche the tube and one-way valve allows you to vent your CO2-rich breath out of the BACK of the vest. This prevents CO2 narcosis and the icing up that normally forms a fatal ice-mask sealing the porous snow which prevents you from breathing air that does exist even in the most densely packed snow. this video was posted by BlackDiamondVideo.
- before heading off piste, obtain and read the avalanche report where one is available
- and speak to the Ski Patrollers
Improvements over the last 20 years in boots, skis and bindings have also made the sport as safe as possible, but you still can get hurt whether on piste or off.
So, another thing to take note of: there’s a world of difference between getting hurt in the United States or Canada and getting hurt in Europe and that difference is all about money!
You are very well protected if you get hurt in North America. There is no charge for the ski patrol, no charge for the services of the clinic. US and Canadian skiing resorts are like that. Medical services are readily available almost everywhere and the volunteer US Ski Patrol is a class act and one that skiers are grateful for.
However, getting hurt in Europe can be another story. When you purchase a lift ticket in France, Italy, and Switzerland, you may be asked if you want to buy insurance. Say “yes” – always. There is no equivalent of the free US Ski Patrol in Europe. Should you need to be taken off a mountain, you’re going to pay for time and services of those who got you down.
This insurance is a minimal charge – the equivalent of about US$3.00 per day, so that the cost of the helicopter, the on-board doctors, and the lift attendants etc will be covered. But if you don’t take out this cover, and you have an accident, expect to pay at least $1,500-$2,500 for the helicopter ride alone – and that’s before everything else…
However, it is also adviseable to be sure that you understand the terms of the insurance cover you have bought. Make sure you are getting the cover you think you are paying for – check the small print.
Different countries and even different resorts have different rules. Know what they are and what local conditions and customs are. Information is readily available and every ski area has a tourist information desk or office. These people are there to help you enjoy the sport and to make sure that you’re safe, and not sorry… like this story I am about to recount:
Two snowboarders, who were killed off-piste in 2006, had insurance cover to go off-piste. However, the company refused to meet the claim, citing a clause in the policy which negates cover if there is “exposure to danger which is reasonably foreseeable”. At the time, there was a Factor Three warning of an avalanche, which meant, to the insurance company, that the risk was “considerable”.
Both men were extremely competent snowboarders who were well within their capabilities to go off-piste. The ropes and warning signs were only the standard markers which are there all season to warn less competent skiers away from the off piste area.
“Our argument is not with the rescue teams, who did a great job and deserve to get paid for what they did,” said the father of one of the young men. ” It is the insurance company that is to blame. They are just trying to wriggle out of their responsibilities by claiming that the pair were acting dangerously. I just want people to be aware that insurance for skiing and snowboarding is not necessarily cut and dried. Policies should be changed to make sure there are none of these grey areas.”
The insurance company refused to cover the claim, and the respective families were asked to cough up the £10,200 per snowboarder…
The above was all rather serious, so I thought I’d end on a chuckle – tho’ perhaps not for the flick-flacker in the video. Thanks dxtinct for posting it.