Backcountry skiing, free riding, ski touring, or skiing "off-piste" as they say in The Alps - call it what you will - blazing out of bounds comes with risks and rewards. Ski resort trail maps show you what everyone else sees and skis. The temptation to venture off the beaten path and score fresh powder in the outback or side-country is obvious. However, skiing OB, Out of Bounds, or off-piste has huge risks. This terrain is unmarked, with no avalanche control, no signs of cliffs, you get the picture. But to get the most of out your Alps ski adventure, you want to ski some of the thousands of acres of untouched snow in this amazing natural alpine environment. Hiring a Guide or Berfuhrer, Maestro De Ski, is the best way to explore safely and reach ski terrain that you dream about.
In the Alps, skiers are instructed to stay on piste (the marked groomed trails) and they do to a great extent, there are "mortal" warnings as reminders. Ski resorts in Italy, Switzerland, France and Austria, for example, often have vast untracked snowfields and open bowls beyond the marked groomed runs. But there also lies grave danger, hidden crevasses and cliffs, jagged rocks and the ever-present possibility of avalanche. Therefore, you should always hire a Guide to explore this wild un-managed terrain safely.
Cost for a Ski Guide ranges in price from $200 - $800 USD ($286 - $1,145 AUD) per person per day, which sounds expensive but the rewards can be awesome as your guide delivers you safely to secret stashes of powder you would never have otherwise found, or maybe not returned safely. And can you really put a price tag on safety? When you hire your own guide, you can dictate who you ski with and the size of your guided party, of course, the price is commensurate with the number of skiers. Venturing off piste with an experienced knowledgeable guide, we have had private powder that rival days of heli skiing and cat skiing.
Good Ski Guides check the weather, the avalanche warning reports, know the terrain, and make a plan based on those factors and your preferences. Your input and feedback with the Guide is important so you achieve what you want as the customer. The safety decisions are the responsibility of the Guide so you must respect and heed their instruction and direction.
Guides can outfit and equip you with beacons - this is either included in your ski guide service fee or available for an extra rental. Avalanche air bags and shovels may also be available.
In Austria, Switzerland, Italy and France, Ski Guides - Bergführer, are the upper echelon in ski resort towns. The Mountain Guide Association of the Alps dates back to 1858. Becoming a Bergführer is no small accomplishment. Many guides are a legacy to previous generations, predominantly male and all quite athletic and skilled in alpine safety. The hierarchy in the mountains is rumoured to be Bergführer first, ski instructor next, hoteliers and restaurateurs, tourism departments, and on down the line - that's how it rolls. We have hired guides that are super friendly, humble and competent, and we have witnessed those that think they walk on water, or snow as the case maybe. We have watched Guides walk into a crowded chalet with their group, without reservation, and insist on a table, they proceed to smoke cigarettes and stand in the way of waiters and other patrons until they are served. We have also seen a few incredibly polite and gracious guides that are unbelievably strong skiers and take great pride of giving their clients the most amazing ski day possible.
Some of our best ski days in the Alps have been with a Ski Guide, some of our best off piste adventures and deep fresh powder in The Jungfrau, Engelberg Titlis, and Zermatt Switzerland. Along the way and through the day, we have learnt so much about the ski history of where we are skiing from our mountain guide, St Anton, for example, from the earliest skiers to resort gossip, where to go for après ski and where the new lifts would be installed for example. We have also met some real characters, like the Guide who thought he was Jesus and one Guide that spent the day trying to hit on our teenage daughter (blame that one on Canada though). In the Italian Dolomites, our Maestro di Ski in Cortina - our 5 star ski instructors Luca and Paolo found us the best snow, the finest on mountain chalets for lunch, and kept us laughing and smiling all the way. In Courchevel at Les 3 Vallées, our Mountain Guide found us fresh powder in the trees we'd never have scored ourselves, and brought us to Courchevel's best on mountain chalet where our fireside table was reserved.
Guides are typically a great investment for safe but also for seriously incredible off piste skiing. Hiring a ski guide doesn't guarantee your safety - but it does vastly improve it. Skiing the backcountry without a guide is becoming more and more prevalent. Unfortunately so are the losses - with more skier triggered avalanches, buried and lost skiers. Get a guide.
Tips on getting the most from your Ski Guide:
Clarify the hours, price and expectations of your Guided Ski Day: How long is the day? Is lunch included? Typically you take your guide to lunch if it's all day.
Ask what safety gear is included and/or required: PEEPS, transceivers, Airbag backpack?
Describe your ski ability accurately, don't over or underestimate your skill level.
Tell your Guide what type of skiing you prefer before your adventure begins.
Ask about the conditions, understanding the 1:5 avalanche ratings and that weather and snow will affect where you can go.
Communicate with your Guide as you go how you are feeling - if you want to go faster, slower, more chatting or less, etc.
Respect your Guide's expertise and experience, ultimately they decide what is safe to ski.
Ask questions, Guides are a great resource for local information - both environmental and trivial.
NEVER pass your Guide, always stop above your ski guide unless instructed otherwise.