Off-piste skiing (Getty Images)Off-piste skiing (Getty Images) © Copyright

How to survive in the wild

With more and more skiers and boarders heading off-piste in search of adrenaline-fuelled winter kicks, it’s crucial to know how to stay as safe as possible in unpredictable backcountry terrain and what to do if things do go wrong.

Off-piste skiing  (GettyImages-159601659)

According to FreeRide snowboard and ski website, 67 people died in European avalanches last year. 

Avalanches, falling off cliffs, and getting lost or succumbing to dehydration are all massive risks to adventurous skiers. 

To keep you safe on your next trip, we asked three members of the ski patrol team at Crested Butte – a US resort with some of the country’s most challenging backcountry – to give you the inside track on how to prepare for a backcountry adventure, and what to do if you get caught out in the wilds. Each of them has been involved in off-piste rescue missions, and had a few close calls, so they’re well- positioned to offer advice that might just save your skin. 


“Plan your route on a trail map, and talk to the locals you overheard talking about it in the bar to find out how hard it was to reach,” says Ryan Rees, a 32-year-old ski patroller with ten years in the game. “It’s also a good idea to run your plan past ski patrol at the bottom of the mountain before you head off so that someone knows where you’re going in case you go missing. Most importantly, never go into the backcountry on your own – a partner might be able to get you out of trouble or get help if you get stuck.” 


“One time, I was using dynamite to bomb a steep channel so that I could set off an avalanche, making it free of unstable snow,” says 25-year ski patrol veteran Chris Myall – or Buck, as he’s known to the rest of the Crested Butte ski patrol. 

“While climbing into it with ropes, I fell a few feet and ended up hanging upside down over a sheer drop with a heavy pack full of dynamite,” says Buck. This in itself was a problem, but it wasn’t until afterwards that Buck discovered just how precarious his situation had actually been. 

“I’d been in such hurry before work that morning that it turned out I’d packed the wrong rope. 

“The one I was hanging from wasn’t officially strong enough to hold a person’s weight – ever since, I’ve made sure I really take my time when assessing the kit I’m taking up on the mountain.” 

While you’re not going to need to carry explosives, there are a few pieces of life-saving kit you need for a backcountry trip. 

Firstly, a walkie-talkie to stay in contact with your group. You also need an avalanche probe, a transceiver and a spade to help locate and dig out anyone that gets buried under deep snow. Then you need food and water to keep your energy and hydration levels up, and a backpack with a quick-release airbag that will help you stay above the snow if you get caught in an avalanche. Take an avalanche course in the UK or in the resort before you head out. 


Avalanche danger (ThinkstockPhotos-122400505)

Most experienced skiers and snowboarders will, at some point, have ducked under resort safety ropes to hit a tree run or drop they could spy from the piste. But no matter how many years of skiing or boarding you’ve got under your belt,  you should never do this. 

“The signs are in place for a reason,’ says ski patroller Leslie Miemietz. “Ski patrol will have been into the area, and established that there’s a genuine threat to your life. 

“Two seasons ago, we had a guy duck a rope in a bid to take a shortcut back to the resort – but it just took him out into the middle of nowhere and he got lost. We had to send two crews out, and it took until 9pm to locate him. If you get stuck out in the wilds overnight, there’s a serious risk you could freeze.” 


One of the most terrifying backcountry situations you can find yourself in is being stuck on a steep pitch that leads to the edge of a cliff. “No matter how sheer or slippery it feels under your skis or board, don’t unclip or unstrap,” says Rees. “The sharp edge of your board or skis gives you purchase on the snow. Take them off and any fall could bring your slippy ski gear into direct contact with the snow, which could lead to an uncheckable slide towards the edge. We’re trained to deal with steep evacuations using roped techniques so, provided we can find you, we should be able to rescue you.” 


There are easy ways to increase the chances of ski patrol finding you. “Be calm and patient,” says Buck. “Things are often better than they seem, and when you succumb to panic, you often make rash decisions that can have awful consequences.” 

“As soon as you realise you’re in trouble, stay where you are,” adds Miemietz. “It’s harder for us to catch a moving target – if you’ve told ski patrol, or a friend who’s stayed on-piste, where you’re planning to go, it narrows the search area. 

“And call for help. If you’re in contact with friends via walkie- talkie, let them know what’s happened so they can raise the alarm.” If you have a signal, you can even phone the ski patrol office, so make sure you have their number before you leave. 


Avalanche  (ThinkstockPhotos-530528657)


Avalanches can be fatal, but if you get lucky, and are able to employ the right techniques, you can survive. “I got caught in one in 1991,” says Buck. 

“The snow collapsed under me, and I got carried 500m over a cliff. I just swam like a motherf**ker, which kept me above it, and the snow cushioned my fall. 

“When it came to a stop, my head and arms were above the meat of it, so I was able to dig enough space to breathe. 

“My companions eventually pulled me out, and aside from bruised pride, and broken goggles, I was fine.” 

If you find yourself in sliding snow, stay above it by using a crawl technique and moving down and to the side to try to get clear – a deployed airbag will also help you stay afloat. If you see something rooted to ground, like a tree, grab it. If you do go under, cup your hands around your mouth to create an air pocket. This will buy you time to breathe while you await help. 

 Want more adventure sport? Check out our interview with bike king Danny MacAskill - Danny stunt champion of the world 



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