It was midday on a Saturday in Les Houches, Chamonix, less than 5 minutes away from the nearest chairlift, and yet – in the middle of this crowded resort – it was completely silent. No other skiers were in sight, and ahead of us lay hundreds of metres of untracked powder. I’d signed up for a 3 day off-piste course with BASS Chamonix, and this was my first extended experience of off-piste skiing. Having skied for 20 years, I’d always stayed clear of the deep, soft stuff that lies off the prepared piste – invariably burying my skis and falling over. This year I was determined to make the transition.
First tip – the right skis for the job make a huge difference. Shona Tate, the leader of our group, had advised ‘all terrain’ skis 90mm wide under the foot. With rocker and wide tips my new skis not only floated over the soft snow, but swallowed seemingly impossible bumps and hollows.
In deep snow, turns have to be much shallower than on-piste carving – any sideways movement immediately trips you up. For example, ski racers new to off-piste skiing tend to fall repeatedly, as the skills required are subtly different. Being centred in the boot with a more upright stance facilitates balance and absorption of terrain.
As I ski down to Shona, the soft snow cushions the skis – and I overshoot her slightly, stopping beneath her. Time for a gentle telling off. “Always stop behind the guide” she tells me. “You don’t know what dangers are there. Your guide has stopped for a reason”. Off-piste, safety is paramount. We are all carrying avalanche equipment – a transceiver, shovel and probe. Second tip – although expensive, this kit can be readily hired. Every morning, before we leave the car park, we switch on and test our transceivers. We spend 90 minutes on the first afternoon practising search and rescue. If the worst happens, you want your companions to be competent rescuers. The risk of avalanche and deadly falls is real, and many avalanche deaths happen within sight of a piste. Only venture off-piste with expert skiers trained to recognise the dangers.
A magical day at Les Houches is followed by another at Les Grands Montets. This time, we take the direct routes down the mountain, cutting the corners of wide sweeping pistes – down into the ‘Magic Forest’, a grotto of rabbit runs and squeezes.
On our third day, we ski with Robbie Fenlon, a Chamonix guide and Director of ‘Wilderplaces’. He takes us off the beaten track at Le Tour, with exhilarating runs often just metres away from the ‘motorway’ traffic on-piste. Mercifully, these runs are served by chairlifts, saving us from the uphill slog of hardcore touring.
At the end of 3 days I’d seen a completely new side to 3 resorts that I had thought I knew intimately. Unlike pistes, which remain (fairly) consistent from day to day, off-piste runs change with the conditions and constantly challenge. The freedom and closeness to nature that skiing off-piste offers is almost limitless, and Chamonix is a perfect environment to learn. This was an introduction that left me gasping for more.