The sky burns blue above my head as I slide one foot ahead of the other, setting a rhythm with my ski poles as I traverse across a steep snow slope, in a long line of skiers. The silent mountain drops away beneath us as my world narrows into the swish of skis on snow and my own even breathing. We have this place to ourselves and it’s a million miles away from the experience of being on a busy piste in a ski resort.
I’m high up on Wendenlücke above the Swiss resort of Engleberg with one of their Snow & Safety instructors. We’re only here because we’ve abandoned the pistes and chairlifts to put ‘skins’ onto the bottom of our skis and split snowboards, in order to travel upwards. The summit lurks high above us, hidden by the slope and 400m vertical higher than our starting point.
There’s no easy exit from here. We’re committed to the summit and after that a long descent, dropping 900m down steep gullies and out into wide open bowls of powder. To get this far we’ve had to assess the risk of avalanches, prepare equipment to save each other in an emergency, and master essential snow safety skills. This is the minimum requirement for entry, but the payoffs are enormous. The day before, we had skied down one of Engelberg’s Big Five freeride runs – the Steinberg – a breath-taking descent down the glacier from 3020m to 1764m at Trübsee. Today we’re going from the lung-busting exertion of the ski tour to the top, to the exhilaration of dropping into an unbroken snowscape, the only people in sight.
Here’s what we learnt on Engleberg’s three-day Snow & Safety course, which runs several times each winter and is complimentary if you stay in one of the resort’s hotels:
1. The Backcountry Is Mindful
Leaving the safety of pisted runs behind really does hone your mind. Everything takes on a sharper edge in the backcountry and you focus down into your movements. Concentrating on the job in hand makes you more present, you feel the pure mountain air flooding your lungs with each breath. Your experience of the landscape makes you feel like a part of it, as you float down through the powder. It’s a rich and intensely mindful experience, which is important when you consider you have to be responsible for the risks you take to be here…
2. First Check Your Safety Kit
Before we set out this morning we did a mandatory check of our kit. The basic backcountry pack contains a transceiver which sends out a continuous radio signal (in case you are buried by an avalanche) but can also be switched into receive mode to detect signals from buried skiers. The battery level and signal needs to be checked each time out and you also need to carry a shovel and an avalanche probe.
I’m also kitted out with a avabag. This backpack contains an emergency bag, which inflates when you pull a handle, if you are caught in a slide, and is designed to help you float to the top of the snow. I check to see if the gas cylinder is properly seated. If any of you or your guide/ companions don’t have or don’t know how to use your kit then your off-piste adventure is a non-starter. And a first aid kit is mandatory.
‘The biggest risk is a weak layer of old snow under a newer layer that suddenly slides’
3. Know Your Snow
There’s more to assessing avalanche risk than just checking the resort’s daily score (usually out of five.) You also need to know the local conditions – did it snow heavily overnight? Is there are an unstable layer of old snow sitting under newer falls? Is the snow wet due to rain? How about the wind, has it made the snow drift? All of these are avalanche risks. According to our guide Niclas Farrar, the biggest risk of the lot can be a weak layer of old snow in the snowpack, sometimes caused by rain that freezes and then is covered with snow. This can cause a sudden slide, triggered when a skier goes over it. This is another reason to go with a guide who has detailed recent knowledge of the conditions.
4. Check The Angle Of The Slope
On slopes steeper than 30° there is a risk of an avalanche. If you are heading up the mountain you will be getting into steeper terrain so becomes even more important to assess the risk. Over 30° natural avalanches can be triggered by many things including wind drifted snow releasing as a slab, or the weight of wet snow that has been weakened by water or sunshine. It can be hard to measure the angle of a slope and it may be steeper above you, so always be cautious.
‘The most important thing in an avalanche emergency is to take charge’
5. Learn How To Uncover A Casualty
It’s one thing carrying avalanche equipment, but using it in the middle of an emergency is quite another, which is why it pays to be prepared. ‘It’s important to identify the point where you last saw the skier,’ Farrar says, so that you can search the slope below. We split into pairs – one person buries the transceiver and then the other searches for it by switching their to receive. The beeps and distance marker get me close to the buried ‘person’. ‘Now make a cross in the air with the transceiver to pinpoint the location,’ says Farrar. This is the time to take out the avalanche probe and insert it vertically into the snow at 10 inch intervals, making sure that the probe is at 90° to the angle of the slope, because this gives you the best chance to find the person below.
6. The Art Of Digging
After fine searching with the transceiver I use the probe and feel the springy resistance of a backpack. So, I leave the pole in the show and get my shovel out. Nicolas organises some helpers behind me in a V shape (with 2m gaps) to replace me as soon as I get tired and to move the cleared snow to create a flat platform beneath the hole, which will be useful when the rescuers arrive. The snow is quite hard and resists the shovel, which combined with the altitude makes shovelling snow surprisingly hard work.
7. Take The Lead In An Emergency
‘The most important thing in an emergency is to take charge,’ says Nicolas. There’s no point having avalanche equipment if everyone panics and effort is wasted – time is life in this scenario. So, nominate yourself leader and quickly hand out roles. One person should call mountain rescue, one needs to start searching with the transceiver and others need to be ready with a shovel and a pole to save vital seconds, and to clear a landing zone for a helicopter. The sooner your casualty gets medical attention and is evacuated, the more likely they are to survive.
8. Proceed With Caution
It’s not just in an emergency that you need to stay sharp. As we prepare to begin the 900m of vertical drop down to Engstlensee, we face a steep initial section down to a ridgeline. Farrar tells us that we need to go one at a time on this terrain, so if a slide is triggered by one skier then the others can go to their aid. It makes sense to travel in small groups in the backcountry. As the slope flattens out we are able to ride together, but always maintaining 20m between each other to avoid loading the snowpack.
By the end of the course, learning about the risks and experience of what to do in an emergency has made me more confident off-piste, but also much more aware. I wouldn’t hesitate to step up and act if someone was caught in a slide, and it’s that which can be the difference between life and death.
WHAT NEXT? Practise makes perfect when it comes to using an avalanche transceiver – you don’t want to be trying to work out the finer points of the technique during a real emergency. So, if you want to head off piste yourself then first take advantage of the avalanche training facilities in resorts, such as Engelberg’s ATC at Trübsee. It has ten avalanche devices buried in the snow that you can search for. Visit Enelberg’s website for more information. And to book your place on a Engelberg Snow & Safety Course for next winter go here.
Photos: Matt Ray, Engelberg Press Image
Comments are for information only and should not replace snow safety instruction from a qualified guide – you should never venture off piste without a qualified guide and the correct safety equipment, and without taking individual responsibility for checking and understanding the resorts’ avalanche risk that day.
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