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Whether you are ducking under the ropes to grab some freshies, or heading deep into the backcountry, knowledge is key. Here are some off-piste safety tips from Black Diamond athlete Jérémy Prévost and IFMGA mountain guide Fred Bernard
Tobin Seagel, Wasatch Mountains, Utah
photo: Adam Clark
Freeride skiing has inherent risks, but on top of these there are the dangers of not knowing the mountains. When skiing out of bounds, there is the risk of avalanches, cliffs, trees, cold temperatures, crevasses…
It is a hostile terrain that is constantly changing. “Having the right gear is essential,” says professional freeride skier Jérémy Prévost. “But it is not because we have the best freeride equipment in the world that we are freeriders! Being conscientious and methodical is key when preparing each outing. Keep in mind your level of physical fitness and state of mind, check the snow and weather conditions, check your equipment and make sure that you are familiar with it and know how it works.”
Jérémy has teamed up with trusted IFMGA mountain guide Fred Bernard to share some advice about staying safe in the mountains this winter:
WHAT SAFETY TIPS CAN YOU GIVE TO FREERIDERS?
JP: There are three main things you can do to stay safe. Firstly, learn to ski. This seems pretty obvious, but it is important to get proper training before heading into the mountains on your own! Ski professionals are available to help skiers learn about freeriding.
Secondly, ski in a group. Find a squad of buddies who are level-headed with whom you can have a good time. Look for information and prepare your outing, make sure that your equipment is in good condition and respect the rules of safety in the mountains.
Finally, be aware of your limits and respect them. Don’t jump in over your head knowing that you do not have the required ability level or experience. There are risks, and the consequences can be deadly.
FB: I think that the key is to ski as much as possible throughout the winter, skiing many types of terrain. You can read every book on the shelf about snow pack, but if you do not experience it for yourself, it will not be helpful. You need to feel the elements, think before you act and more than anything else, be prepared to turn back if something does not feel right.
WHAT ARE THE KEY STEPS PRIOR TO HEADING OUT?
JP: Here are my planning tips:
1. Eat a healthy and substantial breakfast that will get you through the day.
2. Check the weather forecast, snow and avalanche report, as well as the map that covers the terrain you plan to ski.
3. Wear appropriate clothing. It is better to be overdressed than to spend the day freezing. Weather changes quickly in the mountains!
4. Check to see that your airbag backpack is charged and in good condition. In addition, pack a shovel, probe pole and avalanche beacon (and make sure that you know how to use all three items). You can also put on your beacon to avoid forgetting it. Be sure to check that it has fully-charged batteries.
5. Add a water bottle and some snacks (energy bars or jerky for example).
6. Add a second pair of gloves and an extra thermal top.
7. For those heading onto the glacier, make sure you have appropriate glacier gear.
8. And last but not least, check with the local ski patrol to find out what is happening with the snow pack, the weather, the wind and the avalanche conditions. These additional resources will help you finalise your plan prior to heading out.
FB: In my opinion it is really important to have properly serviced skis. I dedicate a lot of time to tuning my skis, as not only does this ensure my safety, but it also makes my skiing more pleasurable. A fast ski can not only get one out of trouble in sketchy situations with speed, but also provides a good grip when needed.
It is essential to proactively plan routes or ski lines, keeping in mind the possible exit points and knowing what is going on with the local snowpack. Take the appropriate safety equipment needed for the terrain which you will encounter (glacier or non-glacier terrain). Above all, avoid heading out on your own.
AND DURING THE OUTING?
JP: I think the main tip is not to head out anywhere blindly. Out of bound lines can be full of nasty surprises. Be sure to keep a safe distance between skiers. Fully enjoy the moment, without overestimating yourself and thinking that you are a super hero. Stay within your mental, physical and technical level.
FB: Ask local professionals about the history of the snowpack in the area where you are planning to ski. Take the time to look at the line and the safety spots that you can reach in case of an unexpected danger or emergency. Never start skiing with the mindset of ‘I’ll go and see’. Be familiar with the methods used to do a quick check of the snowpack on which you plan to ski. Communicate with each other as riders!
WHAT EQUIPMENT DO YOU RECOMMEND?
JP: The three essentials are a shovel, avalanche beacon and probe pole. These should be carried in an airbag backpack. You’ll also need fat skis for powder skiing, plus a helmet and goggles.
FB: An avalanche beacon, shovel and probe pole are the key items, as they are simple, efficient and always the same, once one knows how to use them properly. To that list I would add a 30m rope, crevasse rescue gear, a first aid kit, and something to eat and drink, all of which goes into my Jet Force backpack.
ANY FINAL THOUGHTS?
JP: Remember that the batteries in your avalanche beacon are more important than those in your action camera! And do not just follow tracks… we do not all have the same equipment, nor do we have the same ability level.
FB: Always remember that having the right gear does not replace experience and knowledge. You often need both, and it is important to ask yourself the following question: “If I didn’t have the equipment, would I still be going?”
ANY SCARY MOMENTS YOU HAVE EXPERIENCED PERSONALLY?
FB: In British Columbia I found myself stuck in the base of a valley where the only possible exit was to cross a river. The bridge on the map had been washed out by the strong spring current, and locals did not realise that the bridge was gone.
Climbing back up the 1300m vertical meters that we had just skied down with 40°-45° slopes in deep powder was simply not an option. We buckled down our ski boots as tightly as possible and made our way across one-by-one. It was February, and I found myself waist-deep in water, being the first to cross the river. Being taken out by the current would have been dramatic. So, I was happy to have a rope to ensure that my two clients could follow me safely. Having crossed to the other side, there were several kilometers to meander our way through the forest to reach the village.
It is important to adapt our choices to the country in which we find ourselves and to know our personal limits.
The key is to anticipate situations that can have an impact on safety and survival, without overthinking. One cannot ‘wing it’; one needs to learn the required skills. Staying alive remains the primary focus, so it is crucial to calculate the risk. Take the time to appreciate the environment in which you find yourself so that you can make the most of your experience.
MEET JÉRÉMY PRÉVOST
Born in 1989
1st place – Freeride World Qualifier 2010
1st place – FWT in Kirkwood, 2nd place – Verbier Xtreme, 3rd place overall FWT 2011
Jérémy’s latest projects:
Check out the magnificent and poetic film ‘Really’ produced by Jérémy Prévost in collaboration with Black Diamond Equipment and Cébé:
And since images are stronger than words:
BLACK DIAMOND’S KEY OFF-PISTE KIT
HALO 28 JETFORCE
A perfect pack for day tours with medium-size volume, featuring back panel access, a specific avalanche safety tools pocket and our JetForce technology. This revolutionary airbag technology brings an added margin of safety to avalanche tool kits with the three essentials: shovel, probe pole and avalanche beacon.
In 2015, Black Diamond launched its Avalung Element: a ready-to-attach Avalung that can be used with any AvaLung-comptatible pack, including the new Dawn Patrol 15 and Dawn Patrol 25.
MISSION PANTS WITH PIEPS POCKET
For secure avalanche beacon storage and easy access, the padded PIEPS Pocket is sitting on the right thigh and features protective PORON XRD impact foam and an integrated internal harness system which provides an alternative to a classic chest harness.
As a company, Black Diamond Equipment works on the design and development of much more than snow safety equipment. Through its involvement in initiatives such as ‘The Human Factor’, ‘A Question of Risk’ and its collaboration with the ‘Livigno Freeride Project’, Black Diamond fosters the dialogue between the challenges of risk management and snow safety in a healthy manner. Athletes not only actively participate in the development of new products, but also collaborate with BD on various other subjects.
THE HUMAN FACTOR
‘The Human Factor’ is a multimedia series split into five episodes telling the story of how freeriders evaluate the risks before skiing exposed slopes.
A QUESTION OF RISK
Sequences in this film are not only impressive, but also touching. The world’s best mountaineers and freeriders share their notion of risk. To find out more:
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