Kristen Jonsson is a Swedish /French alpinist and IFMGA mountain guide who loves playing on any terrain. Here is his vision on steep skiing…
Climbing, especially alpine mixed climbing, can be a dangerous activity. But the risks involved in attempting a steep gully on skis take the challenge a couple of steps further.
Personally, I consider descending steep snow slopes and couloirs to be one of the most serious games you can play in the mountains.
It is also the activity to which I’ve lost the most friends in accidents.
Working as a mountain guide, I often get questions about taking clients to attempt a steep ski descent. Often the person doesn’t feel safe on his or her own, (often it is a he) and wants to increase his chances of making the descent a positive experience. When guiding steep skiing, I only go with very competent, strong clients.
As a comparison, when guiding a difficult climb, my client is always on a rope, safe and tight. On a ski descent this isn’t possible, since belayed skiing is extremely complicated. So holding a fall on a steep descent is not in the cards. Or it would mean rappelling, which takes the adventure out of skiing.
If I’m aiming to ski a steep or exposed descent, my first consideration is the weather over the previous days. Has it been windy or snowy, or have their been any changes in temperature? These are basic things in evaluating avalanche risk. But it also depends on how the slope is oriented; whether it’s south or north facing. I also try to find out if the descent has been skied earlier, if at all.
For the first descent of the east face of Kebnekaise, the highest peak in Sweden, I scouted the route a couple of times. On the day of my descent, the visibility was poor, but conditions were otherwise fine, with cold, stable weather. After almost an hour of waiting the clouds cleared and I could safely ski it, going from one island of safety to the next.
Two days later, the whole thing avalanched, but the only thing that had changed, other than the recent ski track, was that the temperature had gone up 3 or 4 degrees Celsius. It goes to show how small the margins are in steep skiing.
couloir James Bond / Aravis ©Krister Jonsson
When evaluating a descent, I also consider whether or not there are islands of safety to escape to, and where it is safe or unsafe to stop. You can think about safety in pluses and minuses. Wind slabs and ice, for example, are a minus, but a cold, clear day about 4 or 5 days after the last snowfall is a plus.
If I want to ski a steep couloir, I’d rather climb up it before I ski it, in order to get a feel for the snow conditions and possible changes in the snowpack. Are there any icy sections, and are there islands of safety to stop in or escape to if it slides?
As I see it, the risk is much greater if I decide to first bootpack up a steep, open face, since the avalanche hazard is much more difficult to predict than on a narrow couloir. Personally, I feel much more vulnerable on this kind of terrain.
The hazards on a steep face are not just me and the snowpack. I’ve seen reindeer take off running when frightened by humans, setting off big slabs below them. I’ve also seen other skiers cut in above, sending slabs down onto people below without even realizing that they might be endangering someone other than themselves.
Keep in mind that you affect the snowpack much more on foot then on skis. Skiing with a light, gentle feel adds a plus to the scale.
I once skied one of the more famous runs in Les Deux Alpes with a couple of friends. Everything felt just perfect; it was a little tracked up but most of the time we could still find fresh powder. On the way back to the piste, a helicopter hovered just behind us. It felt a bit odd, but I didn’t think much of it until a few years later, when I learned that two people from the ski patrol had done the same run just 10 minutes after us and the whole thing had avalanched, killing the two patrollers.
It’s easy to realize when you’re in trouble, but it isn’t always easy to know when you’ve had a very close call on a particular day!
Being located in the center of the Alps, close to Chamonix, there is always a lot of interesting skiing to be done, especially when you’re equipped with easy, quick turning skis and lightweight, high performance boots, or whatever gear you feel best using. Most of the time you need a solid set of ski poles, one or two ice axes, an avalanche beacon and a helmet on your head.
But most importantly, you need an open mind and a clear head. There is a lot of great skiing to be done out there. Just make sure that you make your own decisions and choose your runs yourself. Don’t make the popular mistake of skiing something just because “everyone else is doing it.”
If the conditions aren’t perfect, save it for another day!