By David Gladwin
The Portes du Soleil offers so much lift accessible off-piste terrain and for most people, the transition from pisted runs to off-piste is usually made by entering an area commonly known as ‘just off the piste’. We’ve all seen people in this area from the chair lift as we ascend the mountain. People riding powder, within sight of the lift, sometimes even just over the other side of the piste barrier. So it must be safe if I see people there all the time, right? Riding fresh powder off-piste and just-off-piste is exciting, exhilarating and damn awesome fun, but it does come with risks.
What do you need to consider before jumping over the barrier and venturing just-off-piste?
Do I have the right kit?
The most prevalent danger when riding any off-piste is an avalanche. During an avalanche, hundreds of tonnes of snow can move in seconds and without warning. Don’t be fooled, this can and does happen regularly in the just-off-piste area. At the very least you should be wearing a transceiver and carrying a probe and shovel so if the worst does happen, you can be found quickly, or if need be you can find your friends. This equipment is only as good as the people using it, so make sure that you and the people you are riding with have had training and know how to use it.
Where does the line go?
Looking down from a chairlift, you can see the line you want to follow and for most, this is the focus of their attention when looking to ride just off the piste. Now put yourself on the ground, your perspective of what lies ahead is completely different and this can lead to disorientation, the result of which could be you heading down a line which at best might lead to a dead end but at worst lead to the edge of a cliff. Before you head off do your research, look at local maps to see if there are dangers you should be aware of and search for clear landmark positions that you can navigate yourself from. Always ensure you know how to escape the line if something does go wrong.
Should I actually go?
What has led you to this point? Did you see other people ride this powder line yesterday or the day before? So it must be safe? Snow conditions can change within hours as a result of many factors, including rising or falling temperatures, rainfall, wind and fresh snow. All of these can significantly affect the likelihood of an avalanche happening. Just because people rode it safely yesterday, or even this morning, that doesn’t mean it’s safe now.
Following other people’s lines!
This is fundamentally one of the deadliest approaches you can take to riding anywhere off-piste and many people have come unstuck from following a random track in the snow. You don’t have to believe me, there are plenty of YouTube videos and anecdotes from friends of people who have come unstuck from following this principle. Following someone else’s line without prior knowledge of the area is the surest and quickest route to disaster, so don’t do it.
If something did go wrong would you know what to do?
Do you know how to use your transceiver to find your friend? Do you know who you should contact or your location so you tell someone where you are? If you have planned your line and know the name and location of local landmarks, then it will be easy for you to explain where you are to the emergency services. Each French ski resort has its own specific piste patrol emergency contact number, these can be found on the piste maps. Always carry a fully charged mobile phone and make sure you and your friends have the local area piste patrol number saved in your contacts.
What should I do next?
My number one piece of advice is to pay for a mountain guide to take you riding off-piste. I know people may be thinking about the cost and that my mate J.Bloggs has ridden for years and I’m sure I will be safe with him, but can he really keep you safe? Does he really know what to do if things go wrong? A mountain guide has years of training in the mountains and on snow, they will have an intimate knowledge of the local area and they will know the best area to ride given the conditions on the day. They will teach you about mountain awareness and can train you how to carry out search and rescue. First and foremost though, they will make sure you ride the best possible lines and that you get home safe and sound, so you can tell all your friends about what an epic day you have had.
David Gladwin is a mountain guide and snowboard instructor with Morzine-based snowboard school MINT Snowboarding. David has lived and holidayed in the Portes du Soleil area for most of his life, he has been snowboarding for over 20 years, and has been a snowboard instructor for over 10 years. David is one of the few people in the world to hold the French Carte Pro (ISTD BASI level 4) and UIAGM Mountain Guide qualifications, which means he can take anyone anywhere in the world, snowboarding, skiing and mountaineering.