Going off-piste is a great way to find the best snow but don’t take your safety lightly. Harry Harris joined a unique touring group in Chamonix to learn about the hazards.
07 March 2011
It felt like a pivotal film scene, a slow motion stunt in an off-piste Matrix sequence, but entirely real, as our guide slipped down from his fresh track ahead in a powdery duvet.
My heart skipped several beats, and his wife called out in shock, but the guide, Guy Willet, was back up on his skis, pointing at detached layers in the powder where the snow had fallen. He directed upwards with his pole to where the large lump of snow had split over a rock – it’s his kind of experience you need this far off the beaten-white-track.
We were hiking at just over 2000 metres up through La Flegere in Chamonix towards the Col du Belvédère to make fresh tracks, searching for the newest snow. This was far more than your average search for good off-piste, this was a risk prevention masterclass in the freshest of powder.
Avalanches are never far from the headlines during peak ski season, and only last year the Italian government announced it was considering legislation which could see off-piste lovers facing heavy fines and even jail if involved in setting off fatal avalanches. The news came after eight people died in just 48 hours in avalanches across the Italian Alps and the Apennines early last year.
But the possibility of new enforcements has been met with criticism, including prominent mountain climber Reinhold Messner, who called Italy’s proposals a “hysterical reaction”, and after the initial bold proposals action seems to have stalled. So I was interested to hear what Kenton Cool, one of our expert guides thought. Kenton, or Mr. Cool, is the only European to summit Mount Everest seven times, and he’s got a different view on using penalties:
Kenton and Guy, are the expertise behind Dream Guides, combining their Ant and Dec style banter with formidable mountain knowledge. They’re the Miyjagi to my Karate Kid, and like the young warrior I was eager to learn – from two off-piste gods.
Guy Willet, the first man to make the 1800m ski descent of Manaslu in Nepal, trained me in all things avalanche awareness at the luxurious Adventure Base chalet down in the valley, and in-between the Jacuzzi and my bed, I grappled with transceiver training in a snow-covered garden. Up the mountain, Kenton gave precise advice, pointing out possible danger areas and giving tips on how to tackle certain off-piste obstacles.
Rather ironically, it was the hiking which took its toll on me; the robotic snow-shoes trapped to my feet were hardly subtle, and the wind catching the snowboard on my back made my body sway like a dodgy John Travolta.
When we finally reached a peak towards the Col du Belvédère our hike was rewarded with magnificent views of Chamonix’s stunning mountain range reaching through the clouds. And as our small group grabbed our breath, Guy and Kenton pointed excitedly to the long route down; the golden carrot to a rather intense hike.
The deep powder was easy to steer my board through, and I smoothly glided along beautifully shaped curvature, embracing my fast increasing adrenaline.
Half way down and rising clouds made the passage through snow-swamped trees hard to navigate but Guy and Kenton quickly stepped in, highlighting the way, and giving clear instruction towards the bottom.
It’s this free-feeling of going far off piste whilst learning about the risks which is particularly satisfying, because if you love the fresh stuff, then learning about how to avoid the dangers makes it even more enjoyable.
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