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View of Mt Blanc from Val Thorens

Off piste safety

Ski patrol hut, 3 Valleys

This page deals with some of the off piste safety considerations. There's an outline of the risks involved, an equipment list, and a checklist of preparations. There are also notes on how to conduct a descent, and on accident procedure. Read about off piste safety here.

The notes here are brief guidelines, and not a substitute for information in a full reference work and/or a proper training course.

Off piste safety: the risks

Beware cliff (falaise) sign

There are risks involved in off piste expeditions. It's essential to have a knowledge of, and respect for, the mountain environment. When you choose to ski or board off piste, you take a calculated risk, and you accept responsibility for yourself, the friends you're with, and anyone else you encounter. Remember that: 

  • *by definition, off piste areas are not marked or surveyed by the ski patrol 
  • *slopes are not made safe from avalanches
  • *snow conditions are different to bashed pistes

Off piste safety: training

Proper training is vital. You should know the equipment you need, and how to use it. You ought to have avalanche safety, mountain survival, and first aid skills. If you don't, it's sensible to hire a local instructor or mountain guide. 

Off piste safety: local instructors and guides

Off piste skier in Val Thorens

Local instructors and mountain guides know the area, and have seen the evolution of the snowpack over the winter season. With them, you can have a safer and more enjoyable off piste experience. 

The high mountain guides in Val Thorens can be contacted through the main ESF office in place de Caron. A guide is usually present at the ski school office from 5pm. The Office de la Montagne Val Thorens website represents the high mountain guides, and the instructors specialising in off piste. One of the guides is Alain Stevenet.

Off piste safety: equipment

Transceiver, shovel, and probe

The equipment you need depends on the itinerary you're doing. The basic kit you always need is:

  • *transceiver (and spare batteries)
  • *shovel
  • *probe
  • *map and compass
  • *First Aid kit
  • *survival bag/blanket

You can rent or buy off piste equipment in Val Thorens.

You'll carry these items in a rucksack. If you do a lot of off piste, and/or you have the money, it's worth investing in an airbag rucksack. Airbag rucksacks have an airbag which can be inflated by pulling a handle on the strap. In an avalanche, it keeps you on the surface, and prevents you getting buried. The video shows a test in Zenith ski shop.

You may also wish to take an altimeter. Generally, you'll want to carry some food and drink.

More kit is needed for glacier skiing, including harnesses and ropes. That's beyond the scope of this page.

Off piste safety: preparation for a trip

Ski patrol hut, 3 Valleys

For each trip, there are a few essential preparations to make. You should:

  • *plan the route - never just follow other people's tracks, unless you know where they lead 
  • *check the most recent weather forecast
  • *read the avalanche bulletin - in Val Thorens, this is posted outside the tourist office, and outside the ski patrol office opposite the Chamois d'Or
  • *do a transceiver check before the start of your off piste route.

Don't hesitate to ask the ski patrol (pisteurs) for information and advice. They will usually be helpful. Avalanche information is given through flags flying outside the ski patrol huts, and/or an information board.

If the weather forecast or the avalanche risk make it unsafe to proceed with your itinerary, be prepared to change your plans.

Off piste safety: avalanche risk scale

There is a European avalanche risk scale, with five levels. This is the scale:

Avalanche risk Description Flag in France Considerations
1 Low risk Yellow avalanche flag for risk 1 or 2 Generally well-bonded and stable. Triggering is possible by groups of skiers on few very steep extreme slopes. Small natural avalanches (sluffs ) are possible.
2 Moderate risk Yellow flag for avalanche risk 1 or 2 Less well-bonded on some steep slopes, otherwise generally well-bonded. Triggering is possible by groups of skiers, particularly on steep slopes. Large natural avalanches may occur, but are not likely.
3 Considerable risk Chequered flag for avalanche risk 3 or 4 Moderately- to weakly-bonded on many steep slopes. Triggering is possible, even by individual skiers. The bulletin may indicate many slopes which are particularly affected. Medium and occasionally large natural avalanches may occur.
4 High risk Chequered flag for avalanche risk 3 or 4 Weakly-bonded in most places. Triggering is likely, even with single skiers, on many steep slopes. Frequent medium or large sized avalanches are likely.
5 Very high (extreme) risk Black flag for avalanche risk 5 Weakly-bonded and largely unstable. Numerous large natural avalanches are likely, even on moderately steep terrain.

Off piste safety: conducting a descent

Off piste descent

These are a few guidelines for a safe descent off piste:

  • *ski in a small group, of 3-6 people
  • *regroup systematically after each section
  • *the group stops above the lead skier, contrary to piste skiing, in case there is a danger below
  • *avoid potential avalanche terrain, such as the sides of gullies or convex rolls, which could have been loaded with windslab; choose irregular slopes rather than big uniform slopes
  • *avoid long traverses, or if unavoidable, traverse as high as possible
  • *in an area where you suspect avalanche danger, remove ski pole straps, and rucksack waist straps (but not if it's an airbag rucksack). Proceed one-by-one from one safe point (such as a tree or rock) to another

Again, don't follow other people's tracks, unless you know where they lead.

Off piste safety: accident procedure

First aid courses fully cover what to do in case of an accident. Some of the considerations are:

  • *danger: before going to the victim, consider whether you're putting yourself in danger
  • *if you need help, alert the rescue services, by telephone or radio if possible; if not, send someone for help. (The ski patrol number is always on the local piste map)
  • *apply normal First Aid principles to care of the casualty: don't move them if spinal injury is suspected, unless you must because they're in a position of danger, or you must in order to perform CPR; make sure they're breathing, and if not, perform CPR; if unconscious but breathing, place in the recovery position, to prevent suffocation; keep the casualty warm
  • *in the event of helicopter rescue, two arms upstretched in a 'V' means 'we need rescuing'; one arm up, one arm down means we don't need anything; fix down any item that could blow into the air; when the helicopter arrives, get down on one knee, and lower your arms; approach the helicopter from the front, so the pilot can see you

Ski hire

Zenith Ski Shop, Val Thorens

Our suggestion for quality ski and snowboard hire at fair prices - Zenith ski shop, in the centre of resort.

Ski shops

All the ski shops in Val Thorens, with a location map.

Ski schools in Val Thorens

ESF in Val Thorens

A guide to all the ski schools in Val Thorens, including the ESF, Prosneige, Ski Cool, Evolution 2, and Free School Attitude.

Weather and snow conditions in Val Thorens

Whether you're anticipating a trip to Val Thorens, or already in resort, you'll want to know the weather forecast, see the snow report, and look at the webcams. We have it all covered.

Ski patrol hutOff piste descent to PralognanFalaise (cliff) sign

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