Ask Josh: January 2003

Ask Dr. Flake


I’m always hearing people say that you can ski off-piste wherever and whenever you want in Europe with no fear of getting your ticket clipped. What’s the real deal over there?
Bridgette Jansen, via the Internet

Ah, Bridgette! There remain more painful consequences of going off-piste than getting your ticket clipped: avalanches, getting freeze-flayed in a crevasse, skiing joyfully off a 300-foot cliff…you get the idea. The freedom is no myth, however, although Europeans don’t make a big deal out of it. Here’s Verbier’s laconic response to Skiing’s request for details on its policy: “You can go off-piste, but you are responsible for the consequences.” The same is true of Les Trois Vall?es, La Grave, and, until we’re told otherwise, the rest of Europe, too. There may also be some confusion on your part, in that Europeans commonly refer to any ungroomed snow as off-piste. Piste actually means beaten or pounded down, so parts of the ski area that are never groomed are in fact off-piste. Regardless, it is also true that European resorts won’t prosecute you for ducking a rope. With this assumption of risk, though, comes responsibility. You are likely to be the one who’ll pay for your rescue. For this reason, it’s wise to buy rescue insurance.

If you get lost overnight in the backcountry, is it better to keep moving to stay warm or should you dig a snow cave and wait it out? If it’s the latter, can you survive a 10-degree night in a cave wearing just a shell, fleece, and base layer?
Max Switzer, via the Internet

The snow cave is better, and yes, you’ll probably survive in your above-described getup. Snow caves without any heat source other than a human body (say a candle) can reach temperatures roughly 40 degrees warmer than the outdoors. Based on your 10-degree night, such a shelter would hover around 50 degrees. Stomping around outside to stay warm, on the other hand, will take more energy, which, ultimately, you may run out of. No more energy, no more moving, game over. Look at it this way: The act of building a snow cave keeps you warm, except after an hour you get to go someplace nice. But moving around by itself yields only more moving around. And more. All friggin’ night, if you last that long. In the cave, much of the heat you shed stays in the shelter. Outdoors, that same heat disperses into the atmosphere. I should add that if you’re planning to go backcountry, pack a down jacket and a closed-cell foam insulating pad. And practice digging a snow cave before you get stuck needing one. You might get it right the first time-but then again, you might not.

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