What You Need to Know Before Off-piste Skiing in Chamonix

February 22, 2016 4:29 pm

So, I’m no an expert in off-piste skiing or avalanche awareness and do not claim to be. However, I thought it might be useful to spread some of the very basic knowledge and observations I have gained over my first year living in the Chamonix Valley!

There’s a reason people refer to Chamonix as the “death-sports capital of the world.” The adrenaline fuelled cocktail of alluring steep off-piste terrain combined with high-mountain acceptability such as the Aiguille du Midi, Grands Montets ‘top lift’ and touring opportunities over the back side of Brevent being at your fingertips can be a recipe for disaster with insufficient ability, knowledge and experience.

I have to admit until recently I never really ventured off-piste besides the little fluffy bits off the side of a marked slope or playing in the trees on a powder day. I was as the local ‘Chamonites’ would say a ‘Piste Hero’! I think this boils down to experiencing the death of a peer on one of my earlier ski holidays. I was on a university ski trip to Tignes and on arrival we were all squeezed into a room where the local mountain patrollers and pisters held an emergency meeting to explain that the resort was at category 5 avalanche risk and that no-one is to step foot off-piste. They even explained a local guide had recently been caught up in an avalanche. It was clear to me these guys were not trying to be a ‘kill joy’ and that they meant every word of their warning. Unfortunately, despite this quite prominent warning some fellow students were buried in an avalanche when off piste the very next morning. Neither had avalanche transceivers or other related avalanche equipment and for one unfortunate soul this was a fatal mistake. Although I did not know this individual personally, it hit home quite hard and I have had a lot of respect for the mountain and it deterred me from off-piste skiing for a significant amount of time. I was very much a piste skier.
Peak Transfer are Avalanche Aware when Skiing in Chamonix
So when I arrived in the Chamonix Valley just over a year ago I was absolutely astounded at the off-piste routes that just your ‘regular joe’s’ would be attempting in the valley with and without the use of an International Mountain Guide. Chamonix’s mindset was completely alien to me and I was surprised by the risk’s people took. It is just the norm here to ski off piste, in fact that’s the main reason that keen skiers and snowboarders from all over the world flock to Chamonix every winter, to experience the endless off-piste opportunities.

It didn’t take long for the locals to convince me to sample the truly amazing experience of off-piste skiing in the Valley and I am ashamed to say that this in itself was very naive of me and those that I followed blindly. As although they knew the area well (Grands Montets) I did not have any avalanche safety gear. It was not until I took advantage of a free off-piste, avalanche and crevasse awareness talk that I realised how stupid I had been and the risks I had taken unknowingly. There were over 100 fatalities in the Alps last year due to avalanches, 45 of these in France and 3 in Chamonix itself, some of these involving experienced local skiers and boarders who knew the area well. It does happen. So here are a few things I believe everyone should know at the very minimum before venturing off-piste in Chamonix

A very informative ‘Know Before You Go’ Avalanche Awareness Video by Utah Avalanche Centre

1. Avalanche Awareness

Just like the exposed rock formations that can be easily seen, the snow we ski on is also made of numerous layers of different thickness and texture depending on the weather conditions during and after it fell. Avalanches occur when a layer of snow has not bonded well to the layer beneath it and breaks away.There are any different types of avalanches which can be triggered or spontaneously released. If you are planning to go off-piste you need to be aware of this science. Avalanches can occur without any obvious warning and even the most practised local off-piste experts can get into trouble.

Many can be fooled into a false sense of security with the avalanche risk. Even at Category 2 or 3 the risk of avalanche is still considerable. Slopes between 30 and 45 degrees are most likely to avalanche. Slopes less than 30 degrees, although not impossible are less likely to avalanche as they are not generally steep enough to warrant a slide. Whereas slopes over 45 degrees do not tend to hold large amounts of snow due to being too steep.
Be Avalanche Aware in Chamonix
If you want to take advantage of the off-piste delicacies the Chamonix Valley, and in fact the entire Alps have to offer then booking onto an Avalanche Awareness Course is invaluable. But do not fear, these are not all ‘back to school’ boring science lectures sucking the fun out of a pastime you thoroughly enjoy. Run by local guides who mix the theory in with practical scenarios and a significant amount of off-piste skiing in the process. The Avalanche Academy are one such outfit, a group of guides dedicated to promoting avalanche and off-piste skiing awareness year round, providing very reasonably priced courses. The first being the Avalanche Foundation Course where you will get to learn the basic avalanche theory and rescue skills required including use of safety equipment.  It will explain how avalanches occur, how to avoid them and how to perform a rescue using your avalanche safety equipment (transceiver, shovel and probe). At £89 for a full day course these are an absolute bargain and just may well save yours or a fellow skiers life…. priceless in my opinion. For more information about the Avalanche Foundation Course click here.

Avalanche Awareness – Planning & Preparation Video

Avalanche Awareness – Snowpack Observations And Warning Signs Video

2. Crevasse Awareness

There are crevasses all over Chamonix, including on the marked ski areas. Many visitors are unaware that when skiing areas such as the Grands Montets, they are in fact skiing on a glacier rife with cravasses! These cravases can be hundres of meters deep and are disguised by overlaying snow and snow bridges. Although all the marked slopes are protected against these, when you are off piste there is no such protection. If you don’t know where you’re going, be sure to hire a guide or ski instructor who does. If you plan to ski glaciated terrain in the future (such as the Vallee Blanche it is well worth investing in a Crevasse Rescue Course and purchasing all the equipment you require (harness, rope, ice screw, hardware etc).
Crevasse Hidden From Above by Snow Bridge when Skiing Off Piste
Avalanche Academy run frequent affordable Crevasse Rescue courses where on an intensive yet concise one day course you can learn the skills required to perform a multitude of cravasses rescues (including self, companion and unconscious casualties) to cover most scenarios, how to build solid anchors, and most importantly how to avoid falling into one in the first place. For more information about their courses check out their website here.

Cravasses are in abundance here in Chamonix, they are deep, and unfortunately people every year fall into them so make sure you are Crevasse Aware!
 Inside a Glacial Crevasse

3. Essential Off-piste Equipment

If you’re planning on venturing off-piste then there are some essential pieces of equipment that need to go with you! This is not only for your safety but for the safety for all members of your group. This is a Transceiver (a.k.a. Beacon or Beeper), Probe and Shovel. A transceiver is to be worn by every member of the group ideally under a few layers and turned onto ‘send’ mode before you start skiing for the day. It is advisable to purchase a three antenna transceiver to make locating any unfortunate victim buried in an avalanche much easier.
Peak Transfer Recommend Pieps Avalanche Tranciever when Skiing Off Piste in Chamonix
It is recommended to get a strong probe that is at least 2.4m long, used in the secondary phase of a rescue to pinpoint a burial victim exactly so no time is wasted digging in the wrong place. Collapsable (a bit like a tent pole) it is carried securely in a backpack whilst skiing alongside your shovel. Avalanche debris can be rock hard (literally), sets like concrete and heavy so get a robust metal shovel (NOT PLASTIC) ideally with a D-ring handle. Generally these are also collapsible to make them easier to fit comfortably in a pack. These should all be securely stored within a good fitted rucksack, nothing should be tied to the outside as these could be easily snagged whilst skiing or ripped away from you if caught in a slide.

Avalanche Awareness – Essential Equipment For Mountain Safety Video 

But simply carrying these pieces of equipment are pretty pointless unless you know how to use them properly. There are plenty of opportunities to learn how to in Chamonix including specific Avalanche Courses or booking a day with a guide. Once you have learnt how to use them it is advisable to practise occasionally, in Chamonix there is an Arvo park located on the Grands Montets Ski area for this. You can practise using your transceiver and probe to locate a number of hidden boxes to mimic those buried in a slide, invaluable training and experience to hone in your skills before heading off-piste.

Avalanche Awareness – Dealing With An Avalanche Situation And Performing Rescue Techniques Video

ABS packs are more recent safety equipment to hit the off-piste market and it is down to personal preference on whether these appeal to you or not. The pros are that there is research to show they are very effective at keeping someone caught in an avalanche from being buried deeper due to the larger surface area created. However, there are a few cons, especially to the more dated systems including their heavy weight, only one inflation then they have to be taken back to be refilled and their expensive price tag.

Essential Avalanche Safety Equipment when Skiing Off Piste in Chamonix
As mentioned in our first point if you are planning to ski over glaciated terrain then you will need to take a few more essential glacier travel equipment including harness, ice screws, ropes and other hardware. Also to note although Helmets are not compulsory they are heavily recommended, especially in Chamonix where the terrain is rather rocky. Many of these rocks are exposed which can lead to some nasty injuries if not wearing a lid!

4. Where to Find Snow Report

Chamonix is the last resort on earth to be a kill joy for off piste enthusiasts. In fact it’s openly promoted in the domain, as long as you know what you are doing. But do respect the pisters office decision. If a particular lift is not open it’s very likely that its to prevent access to a particular unstable snowpack with high avalanche risk. It’s a good idea to find out the conditions before you head up the mountain to make sure you are aware of what slopes will have the best conditions and which aspects to avoid. All this information can be found readily available at the following sources:

  • A detailed snow report is posted each day on the information board at the bottom station of most major lifts. This will provide details about the weather, conditions, current snow conditions and snowpack history to allow you to make educated and safe decisions on where and where not to ski off-piste
  • A detailed and possibly more accessible tool for information is the Meteo France Website  . They provide weather and mountain specific forecasts which are invaluable when planning an off-piste itinerary. To get to Chamonix’s specific mountain report simply follow the following tabs: Montagne-Rhone Alps-Haute-Savoie-Chamonix (Mont Blanc). Unfortunately this site only comes in French but it’s nothing a little google translate and common knowledge cannot decipher. It also is a very visual resource. Like the pisters report this will give you a detailed guide to the current snow conditions, which aspects are at highest risk of avalanche and what types (i.e. wind slab/ wet slab etc) and other important snippets of information.
  • Pisters office – a detailed report is provided, but if you are particularly concerned about a route, or are new to the area why not pop in and have a chat to the pisters themselves! They would rather give you some advice to begin with than have to arrange your rescue or go retrieve/ dig out people later.
  • Flags – this is obvious but check the latest avalanche warning

Avalanche Warning Flags
Make sure before you head off piste that you understand the information you have been given and that you know how to apply this. if you are unsure book yourself onto an Advanced Off-piste and/ or Avalanche Progression Course. The Avalanche Academy Progression course will give you the knowledge and skills to become a safer off-piste skier and a more effective rescuer. This is by teaching you how to plan an off piste itinerary using off-piste guidebooks, maps, and avalanche forecasts. Identification of avalanche terrain and simple snow profiling exercises so that you can  assess risk for yourself, and make effective route finding decisions. In addition to how to deal with complex and multiple burial rescue scenarios.

5. Off-Piste Etiquette

Just like on-piste there is an underlying off-piste etiquette (usually common sense actions) that should be followed for the benefit of every skier’s safety. The usual respect for the environment and fellow other skiers is unquestionable, but these are a few off-piste specific guidelines to put into practise:

Never Go Solo

Ensure everyone has all the right kit, knows how to use it and that they are switched on and talking to each other by performing a kit and transceiver check before heading out. It’s also a good ideas to check everyone has the appropriate emergency phone numbers saved to their mobiles and a good idea of the day’s itinerary. Chamonix has a great app you can download that has all lift information and even an emergency button (right at the bottom of the app page) that provides you with your exact coordinates and alerts the Chamonix Mountain Rescue of an incident. It’s also worth telling someone independent of the group where you’re heading and when you should be back.

Ride One at a Time

It may mean taking it in turns to get the fresh tracks each pitch but it is vital to have more than adequate spacing between skiers. The most common trigger of a release is external loading. When you make a turn in fresh snow you can exert a lot of pressure on the snow beneath your skis. If two riders are descending at the same time not only is the load doubled but if the rider above triggers a release both riders can be caught in the avalanche. Also this prevents the risk of collision with fellow skiers which if occur off-piste can have rather serious consequences.
Its Essential to take Avalanche Safety Equipment with You when Skiing Off Piste in Chamonix

Keep your Distance and Stop in a Safe Spot

Many avalanches are triggered when a group a little too excited to get a good look on their next adventure all crowd together on the top of a convex roll-over to check out the slope below and overload it. Be sure to spread out and give plenty of space between others as much as possible especially when traversing

Plan your Emergency Exits and Safety Zones

As the name implies it’s worth having a clear idea of your bail out or emergency exit points (if any) on your line and know where you plan to stop to join/ wait for the rest of your group. This should be a protected spot clear of any danger from above. Ideally you want to be out of the path of any avalanche but close enough to offer assistance to riders still on the slope if anything was to happen.
Pitching and planning – Break steep and/or long slopes into pitches to ensure eyes are on skiers at all times to keep within easy contact of fellow skiers. Like mentioned previously establish ‘rendezvous points’ which are out of the line of fire from above, and ride one at a time where necessary.
Avalanche Awareness – Reducing Risk In Avalanche Terrain Video

Don’t Follow Other Tracks or Gullies

Many people in Chamonix get caught out following other people’s tracks and gullies. A group of 8 skiers and snowboarders had to spend a rather unpleasant night on the mountain in Chamonix recently when they followed someone else’s tracks in an unfamiliar area. What they did not allow for is the mountaineer whose tracks they followed had been carrying 50m of rope to rappel down a cliff edge. They spent the rest of the day trying to hike back up in over waist deep powder as they also didn’t have adequate off-piste insurance and were too scared to phone Mountain rescue. Chamonix is a mountaineering mecca and it’s not uncommon for keen ski tourers and backcountry skiers to have significant mountaineering and climbing knowledge to access more remote ski terrain. Unless you know where a gully is headed it’s best to keep out of it. Not only is this a choke point for an avalanche they are notoriously difficult to get out of if a retreat is necessary.
Chamonix Off Piste Terrain is Prone to Avalanche and Cravasses

If you don’t know the area then hire a Guide!

The mountain does not respect whether you’re the most amazing skier to grace the snow, it takes no prisoners nor fools and you have to prepare for the worst case scenario and take action. Avalanches do happen and unfortunately people do fall in to cravasses. If you don’t know how to perform an avalanche or crevasse rescue, have to appropriate safety gear, or know how to avoid getting into these scenarios then make sure you book onto a course or train with a local guide.

KNOW BEFORE YOU GO