Off piste awareness Part 3 — The right safety equipment and tips on how to use it
Off piste riding is becoming more and more popular as we all search for that untracked bit of awesomeness, however there are a few things worth considering before you start venturing out of bounds.
You’ll certainly want to check what you’re covered for. If you venture off piste and something happens then you could be heading for a serious bill. It could be as simple as a twisted knee, but if you cannot get back to a piste then you’ll need support that could include a helicopter. For many policies the technical definition is:
“if you are one metre the other side of the pole (piste marker) you are off-piste and you are responsible for your own risk.”
In addition many policies stipulate that you will need a guide or a minimum number of suitably equipped riders. A guide does not necessarily mean an instructor. A level 3 ISIA (BASI) snowboard instructor will be allowed to lead parties off piste within the ski area boundary. That means no hiking or unstrapping. A level 4 ISTD (BASI) can lead parties off piste outside of ski boundaries, but not on glacier terrain. Other than that it will be the realm of a IFMG Mountain Guide. If it any doubt always default to the local IFMG guides as a random mate taking you off piste might not be enough to cover things.
An essential bit of kit that you really need to get used to using and wearing on a regular basis. Each transceiver (beacon) will have it own little ways of searching and its strengths and weaknesses. Most beacons are digital now.
When in search mode you will get an audible sound that increases in intensity and volume as you reach your victim, plus a digital distance and direction indicator. You really need to use your beacon before you head off piste. Understand how to put it into search mode, how to block other signals if that’s an available feature and the sequence of use when trying to find a person. Effective use of a beacon is the make or break of a search. You can burn a massive amount of time trying to search and realistically you only have a 15 minute window to save someone.
If all that it is place you’ll want to check that there is sufficient battery life and that you’ve done a test of all beacons before you head off piste. That way you know they’re all turned on and functioning correctly. Don’t bother to turn them off over lunch. When a beacon is in transmit mode it hardly uses any power. Aim to use non-rechargeable batteries as rechargeables could suddenly drop in power level. Plus wear the beacon just one layer down, i.e under your jacket so in a emergency you can easily get to it.
You’ll want something that collapses and does not have a plastic blade as they can break when trying to dig into compacted avalanche snow. Most will have a detachable handle that can fit into a pack easily.
There are plenty of options out there. My shovel includes a snow saw for preparing snow pits. Others are extendable for better leverage when trying to dig snow. Most of the time I use a shovel for building off piste kickers.
Without a probe you’ll struggle to locate a victim in an avalanche. Once you’ve isolated a signal its the best method to fine tune your search and enable you to start digging at the right spot. Outside of avalanche searching they’re great tools for supporting boards when building kickers off piste. You can also probe the landing of jumps to make sure you’re not going to land on any big rocks just underneath the snow. We also mark out our drop in, so when people are compacting the snow they know what track to follow.
The usual pack from Sports Direct may not cut it. Your choice of pack will depend on your length of stay in the mountains and how much time you spend off piste. For day tours off piste I use a Northface ABS Patrol 24. Its a small pack, with just enough room for the essentials. It would be ideal for someone who does not carry any extra camera gear. It also includes the airbag system with a carbon canister to save weight.
If I plan to do some mellow days where it’s just a case of mini pow hits and building some jumps then I’ll swap the Northface out for a standard Dakine Heli Pro or Mission that hits around the 25L mark. Not too big and light that it does not effect my riding. For big tours were I require more safety equipment, like ropes etc, then I will boost up to a BCA Stash 40L pack.
All of this equipment can be hired locally for around €20 per day, so it’s well worth having it. For most of my courses the team will get into a routine of riding with this equipment and using it. We may not be venturing far off piste, but just being comfortable and reenforcing positive habits is crucial.
You can also buy some packs of equipment. Ortovox supply an avalanche rescue kit that contains shovel, transceiver and probe. A lot of places have these on sale, especially on ebay.
Just remember this information is not a substitute for an avalanche class. Get educated before heading into the winter backcountry.