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Mountain Safety & Advice

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Plenty of us have been skiing for yonks without even a scrape but now and again, accidents happen. With skiing and snowboarding - as with all sports - it’s always best to stay sensible and clued up on how to act if you do find yourself in a spot of bother.

Dr Mike Langran (Director of the Scottish Snow Sports Safety Study) has researched the subject a lot and concludes: “the overall injury risk combining all the snow sports is about 0.2-0.4%” - super low - but there are various ways to keep that little bit safer!

Skiing Safely in Different Conditions

A whiteout happens in heavy snowfall or foggy conditions and has a big effect on visibility. Always wear goggles to keep the snow from your eyes and look for runs that are lined with trees - these will provide better visibility as the cloud isn’t as dense here. Use piste markers and skiers ahead of you to guide you down safely.

Cloudy conditions can react with the sunlight causing flat light - shadows and contrast disappear, making it a struggle to see bumps and gradients, which can cause some people to feel dizzy, nauseous or plain panicky. Lowering your centre of gravity helps make any surprise bumps more manageable. Keeping calm’s important too (whether it’s stopping off and stretching, deep breaths or having a good singsong…) as tense limbs make everything more difficult. Some people touch the piste with their pole as they ski to feel more secure. It can be hard to tell how fast or slow you’re skiing, so focus on the feel under your skis and make lots of turns to keep your speed in check. Keep your eyes peeled for markers or skiers ahead of you that can lead you in the right direction. If you can, stick below the treeline as it’s usually easier to see details in the snow here, and when possible, stay on pistes you’re familiar with. To be best prepared, get goggle lenses (the yellowy-rose ones) that increase the contrast.

It can get pretty chilly at high altitudes - layering up is the best place to start as you can remove clothes if you get too warm. Be sure to keep those extremities warm: a good pair of gloves will keep your fingers from going numb, and mittens even more so. Wiggle fingers and toes on chair lifts, which is when you usually feel the cold most, and invest in hand and feet warmers if need be. A neck gaiter that covers the bit of your face that’s exposed between your googles and jacket is great when it comes to keeping your skin sheltered from the elements. Last but not least, frequent hot chocolate stops can be godsends.

Icy pistes can be daunting, and staying calm is one of the best places to start. Keeping your weight at the centre of your skis and spreading your skis further apart helps with stability. Leaning into the slope and tilting your feet and ankles into the slope can help the edges of your skis to get a better grip. Avoid turning on ice - ski to the edge of the slope and turn there as the snow is often softer.

The sun is much stronger at attitude, and gets even stronger as the season goes on. Sun cream and an SPF lip balm are two essentials, whether there are blue skies or not as UV rays can penetrate the clouds too. As it gets warmer, snow gets slushier which makes skiing that bit trickier – you won’t be able to whoosh over churned up slush in the same way you would a smooth slope, so slow it down to stay in control. The best thing to do is avoid the slopes that get the slushiest which are the lower and south facing ones – high (ideally above 2000m) and north facing pistes are your best bet.

Loose bonds between snow particles can cause an avalanche. You should be safe from an avalanche if you stick to marked runs as the resorts have technology which can dislodge the snow safely. It’s a bit riskier heading off piste as this technology isn’t there, so hire a mountain guide who will have the best idea of the safer descents.

FIS Code of Conduct

The safest way to ski is by sticking to the International Ski Federation’s code of conduct. These ten rules - the highway code of ski resorts - are practiced on mountains around the world: 

  • Respect: don’t ski or board in a way that could endanger others. 
  • Control: the way you ski or snowboard should be suitable for your ability, the conditions on the mountain and the people around you. 
  • Choice of route: choose a route that won’t put the people around you in danger. 
  • Overtaking: leave enough room for whoever you’re overtaking so they can safely move about. 
  • Starting/entering/moving: look all around you before you move off, join a new run or move up the slopes. 
  • Stopping: make sure it’s an appropriate place (somewhere wide, visible, and not in the middle of the piste). 
  • Climbing/descending on foot: stick to the edge to avoid those coming down the piste. 
  • Signs and markings: look out for these and respect what they’re telling you. 
  • Assistance: if you see an accident, you are obliged to help those involved. 
  • Identification: always swap details at an accident, whether you were directly involved or a witness. 

Terrain park safety 

Lessons are the place to start - lots of ski schools run freestyle classes which let you learn under the watchful eye of an instructor who has your safety as their priority. They’ll make sure you have the right techniques before you take to the air.

All snow parks are different and even the same park differs from day to day – weather, grooming, usage and time of day can all take their toll on features, so scout the park and speak to the patrollers first. Riding past the features gives you a better idea of what’s there and lets you see other people tackle them, showing how you should (and possibly shouldn’t…) go at it yourself.

After waiting your turn on a feature, signal that you’re dropping by calling out. If you see someone fall, signal to those waiting to stop them proceeding (and get hold of the park patrollers if it’s a serious injury).

Make sure you’re in control – your speed and control on the take-off is key to sticking that landing. It goes without saying that helmets are a must to help reduce the chance of serious head injury.

On piste safety

A piste is only open if it’s safe – if it’s closed there will be a very good reason, and skiing it anyway could end you in a heap of trouble (or mud). Unless you fancy flying over moguls, check whether a piste is groomed or not. If it hasn’t been smoothed by a piste basher, hazards like exposed rocks may not be marked for you.

Skiing in a group is much safer than going it alone, so if you’re on a solo holiday, look into accommodation that arranges social skiing or book into group lessons or tours. If you do want the piste to yourself, make sure someone knows you’re heading out. There’s nothing like a warming tipple in a mountainside bar but don’t forget that alcohol affects you more at higher altitudes – especially if you have to make your way down on skis later on…

Off piste safety

Nothing beats the feeling of floating on powder snow, but you need your head screwed on to enjoy it safely. Some resorts have un-groomed itinerary runs that give you a similar experience to going off piste, but are marked, avalanche protected and sometime patrolled. These are a cracking place to get familiar with un-pisted conditions before you head into proper backcountry.

There are all manner of obstacles to contend with off piste - exposed rocks, sudden drops, trees… – so make sure you’re experienced enough to cope with and avoid them. Don’t head off piste alone, you need someone who’s aware you’re there, that can get help if you get into a sticky situation. Most of the ski schools run guided trips off piste where you ski as part of a group with a local professional who knows the area inside out.

Deep powder snow tends to be easier on snowboards than skis because of the large surface area. Hire or buy skis which are designed for powder skiing – they’ll be wider with a bigger sidecut to provide less resistance over the snow. Remember to pack your essential avalanche equipment – specifically avalanche transceivers, a probe, and a collapsible shovel. And of course, don’t forget your helmet.

Equipment Advice

  • Skis/Snowboard – It sounds like we’re stating the obvious, but what’s important is that they’re properly set up. Ski shops will be able to match you with skis that suit your weight, height and ability; however cheap they were on eBay or groovy their design, the wrong ones will find you losing control on the slopes. If your bindings aren’t adjusted correctly they might release too easily and cause you to fall, or they won’t release when you do fall, which increases your chances of injury. If you’re not happy with the equipment you’ve hired, take it back to the shop and try something else.
  • Boots and socks – Your boots should be well fitted and done up to the right tightness – too tight and you’ll get cold toes, not tight enough and your ankles won’t be supported well enough. It’s really easy to leave your boots undone after stopping for lunch or walking around resort, so make it a habit to check in the lift queue. We know first-hand the problems that come with the wrong socks… You want them to reach under the knee and be the right thickness – thicker socks aren’t always the best as they can might make boots too tight and uncomfortable.  
  • Helmet – Over the past few years, wearing helmets has become the norm – which is brilliant. Though they aren’t generally compulsory for adults (most resorts insist children have them) they can prevent some nasty head injuries. If you’re wearing one make sure it’s snowsports specific, properly fitted, and always fastened under the chin.  
  • Wrist Guards – If you’re starting out on a board, wrist guards let you protect the parts of your body that will take a lot of the impact as you get to grips with the slopes. 
  • Goggles & Glasses – your eyewear should protect you from both the sun AND the snow. It’s much brighter on a snow covered mountain so a cheap pair of fashion sunglasses won’t fare you very well. Goggles are essential when it’s snowing and it’s worth investing: you want a pair that won’t fog up – and you can buy different lenses to suit different skiing conditions (the yellow-rose lenses are a life-saver in flat light). When you’re not wearing them, keep them in a protective case to avoid any scratching.  
  • Proper clothing – Layer up – thermals look much more flattering than they used to! Make sure your salopettes and jacket are water resistant and windproof as soggy skiing is never fun.  
  • Sun cream – The sun’s a lot stronger at high altitudes, and UV rays can affect you even if it’s cloudy. ‘One day’ lotions are worth slapping on before you set off in the morning, and most will last you for the whole ski day. Lip salves with SPF are a handy thing to have in your pocket.  
  • A phone (or walkie-talkies if you’re old school) – Keeping in touch by text or phone call is great for groups who might get separated on a piste. Keep it in an inside pocket as the cold can drain batteries. 
  • Avalanche safety equipment - If you’re planning to go off-piste. 

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