Ski safety is a hot topic at the moment, with stories of various accidents popping up in the press recently – most notably, Michael Schumacher’s accident. As with any sport, there is always a risk of injury and there's never a solid guarantee that you won't have an accident. However, if you stay within your capabilities, wear the correct equipment and follow safety guidelines then you can reduce the chances of a serious injury and feel more comfortable when out in the mountains.
What Basic Equipment Do I Need For My Ski Holiday?
When riding on piste, it’s always useful to invest in some good padding to give you extra protection when you do take a tumble - bum pads, knee pads and elbow pads will help save you from unwanted aches and pains in those areas most vulnerable to impact. Wearing a helmet is also highly recommended as it reduces the severity of head injuries by up to 50%.
Another important point to remember when on your holiday is to never ski outside of your abilities. Only take the runs that you know you are capable of completing (if you’re a complete beginner, a black run is not such a good idea!). If you feel that you need to brush up on your technique before you head out, there are some excellent snow domes and dry slopes around the UK offering lessons for the very beginner through to the most advanced. Alternatively, if you want to master those black runs while out at the resort, you can always get one-to-one lessons on piste.
What Do I Need To Know If I Choose To Go Off-Piste?
When venturing out into the back country, it is important that you have a good sense of avalanche awareness, know which terrains to look out for and that you are properly prepared. If you are inexperienced in this type of riding then it is strongly advised that you go with a guide. Alternatively, if you are a more experienced freerider and you want to head out without a guide, then always make sure you have at least one other person with you.
These pieces of equipment are available for off-piste riding:
• Helmet – There are more rocks and trees in the back country than there are on piste. A helmet is highly recommended and could greatly reduce the risk of a severe head injury.
Helmet prices start at around £15 for a basic model and can go up to and beyond £200 depending on the brand and features, such as built-in goggles.
• ABS airbag – An airbag inside of a backpack, which you inflate in the case of an avalanche. It works on the principal that air will always float to the top, meaning you are likely to be buried less deeply when the avalanche finally comes to a stop.
Airbag prices start from around £450 (bear in mind that the gas canisters used to activate them cannot be taken on the plane and must be bought at the resort). You can also hire them from most resorts for approx. £25 per day.
• Transceiver– This is a radio beacon tracking device that you wear underneath your outer layers. If you become buried, or even injured somewhere remote , then others will be able to find your location and vice versa.
Transceiver’s can be bought for around £15 from most outdoor shops.
• Collapsible Avalanche Probe – Once the location of the buried person has been found, the probe can be used to pinpoint their exact location in the snow.
• Shovel – An essential tool if you need to dig someone out.
Some resorts offer full off piste kit hire, including everything listed above. Prices for this are usually around £25 per day without an airbag or £35 per day with the airbag included.
Here’s a video from Roxy Snow, explaining a little more about the equipment needed for off-piste riding.
Once you have all of your equipment, it is now important to learn how to recognise the warning signs of an avalanche. Before leaving the piste, you should always check the resort weather conditions and make sure to look at the avalanche risk charts. You can usually find this information at the base of the ski lifts. If there has been heavy rain, heavy snow or strong winds then it is likely that the avalanche risk is higher, as these are all elements that can weaken the snowpack. A sudden rise in temperature is also something to look out for, as the melting of the snow can cause a layer of water underneath the snow base, increasing the risk of a slide.
If you have access to the internet whilst at the resort, you can almost always find weather conditions on their website. Some other useful websites to check are:
Ski Club of Great Britain
Analysing the Terrain
Even after you’ve checked the weather conditions, it’s wise to analyse the mountain terrain. To begin with, avalanches are most likely to occur on slopes of 30-45 degrees (you can buy Slope meter’s which will test the angle of the incline). You can spot signs of previous avalanches by looking to see if there are any obvious cracks and breaks in the snow. Watch out for terrain traps, such as ditches and basins at the bottom of a slope, as in the case of an avalanche, you could end up buried quite deeply in one of these. Stay away from slopes that have cliffs or sudden drops at the bottom as you could be swept over the edge.
Learning to Test the Snowpack
The most unstable part of the snow is usually the cornice (the snow that collects at the very top of the mountain). This snow is heavily windblown and often overhangs mountain edges, making it at a high risk of snapping off. To look for avalanche-prone snow on other parts of the mountain, you can dig a snow pit, where it is possible to test the various layers to see if there are any weak spots.
If you want to know more about testing the snowpack, then this video will tell you how to asses stability by performing an extended column test.
When you have found a safe slope to ride on, descend one at a time, leaving a good distance between you. Never descend directly above another rider as this is more likely to breakages in the snow.
The Skiers Code
While on your skiing / boarding holiday, it’s important to bear in mind these ten useful points which make up The International Ski Federation (FIS) skiers code. Following these simples rules will help to reduce the chances on injury and can even carry legal implications if you are found not to be following them.
1. Respect others on the slopes and do not behave in a way that may endanger them.
2. You must be able to ski or snowboard in a controlled manner. Learn how to adapt your skiing or snowboarding to allow for changes in weather and terrain.
3. Choose your route carefully when coming from behind – do not endanger skiers or snowboarders in front of you.
4. Overtake carefully and give the other skier or snowboarder enough room to make any further movements.
5. Before entering a run, always look up and down the mountain to make sure it is safe to continue.
6. Stop on the edges of the piste or where you can easily be seen.
7. When climbing the piste always be sure to keep to the side.
8. Follow all signs you come across on the slopes.
9. If there is an accident, alert the rescue service.
10. If you are involved in or witness an accident, always swap names and addresses with the other parties.
Happy skiing / snowboarding all and stay safe!