THE INTERNATIONAL SNOW TRAINING ACADEMY (ISTA)
It is deeply engrained within our human nature, especially in those who partake in our adrenaline-fuelled sports, not to follow the path set out for us. However, on the mountains and without the proper knowledge, ducking the rope and leaving the piste to find new and exciting routes presents a unique set of challenges and dangers.
With an increase in the ease of access to freeride terrain through cheaper flights, the number of freeride specific skis and equipment available, more and more people are experiencing the freedom of the mountain. Whilst the growth of freeride is undoubtedly a good thing, those who enter the side or back-country, or even leave the piste should have the knowledge and equipment to keep themselves safe.
Dominique Perret is a passionate and driven individual whose experience over the last 30 years in the most extreme environments on earth shouldn’t be underestimated. He has a list of accomplishments spanning from a three-month expedition to ski the North Face of Everest without camp or oxygen and holding world records for largest cliff drops and vertical difference, to being named the best freerider of the century and releasing numerous influential ski films shot all over the world. Despite a resume most could only dream of the Swiss master is incredibly humble and exudes an infectious love for skiing and being in the mountains.
Due to his well-earned fame and respect, Perret was thrust into the public eye as a spokesperson for our sport during the horrific 2014 season, where we sadly saw 75 avalanche fatalities before March had even begun. Rather than shirking away, Dominique rose above the attacks from press and threats of tightened legislation, instead stating that he aimed to never again let it happen. Through education, he hoped to secure the freedoms enjoyed by skiers and boarders but also to help others stay safe whilst enjoying everything that the mountains have to offer. ISTA was born.
The International Snow Training Academy (ISTA), aims to provide education to the new breed of skier with a consistent and methodical grounding in snow safety. Pulling on the knowledge of 40 experts across the fields of psychology, pedagogy, snow safety, meteorology but also mountain guides and snow sports professionals, ISTA have created a programme that can be applied to any ski area across a broad spectrum of snow sports. The course focuses on instilling the information that allows an individual to avoid ever entering a situation where an avalanche could be triggered. Participants are taught rescue technique, however the attitude and habits of the seasoned but perhaps under-prepared skier is what the course aims to change. For those already with knowledge, ISTA doesn’t aim to replace competencies but add to the expertise. The entire method is based around the four pillars of; universal terminology, knowledge of what to do before, during and after an incident, certified and progressive education and a human-factors self-assessment.
Our journey started on the mountain roads leading to Zermatt. Between Pink Floyd singles, Phillipe our contact with ISTA and all-round snowboard/ mountain biking expert explained the method behind the course and spoke passionately about how it can benefit even the most experienced guides and instructors. Once arriving in the resort nestled under the shadow of the Matterhorn and after a hearty lunch, we talked through the theory of the first level (discovery course). Much of the initial training emphasises the importance of planning and being aware of the environment but also the human factors.
On the mountain, fuelled by an (un)healthy amount of fondue, ISTA certified mountain guide Fabian Pavillard led us through the practical aspect of the course. Having the chance to ski, board or climb with an expert in their own terrain always proves to be valuable, more so when they are able to safely showcase the theory and let you put into practice the skills and competencies that you have been taught. Despite the conditions not being the most favourable, Fabian took us through the course, showcasing the types of terrain and the associated risks. From windslab to unsupported slopes and terrain traps we saw all of the environmental factors taught earlier. More than just riding fantastic untracked powder, we were able to understand how these runs could present risk, and how we can minimise this. Inevitably, Zermatt provided gorgeous skiing across the glacier, plus, a fresh dump of powder coupled with a fairly cold night gave us a wonderful light layer on which to ride.
As a whole the course highlighted how naïve I had been before. Like many, I find the promise of virgin lines hard to resist and had sought these out with little formal training to allow me to assess the risk involved. The expertise and passion of the ISTA team has been recognised and now The Freeride World Tour athletes have the training in order to keep them safe in training and competition. You can find ISTA instructors and guides in resorts across Europe and soon in America, Canada and New Zealand where you will be able to start your course and stay safe on the mountain.
If you’d like to follow in my (ski) tracks, this is the equipment and clothing I took:
- Salomon QST 99 skis, provided a stable base on piste and power, the ski is well balanced and remains planted on hard-packed snow while retaining ability on the deeper stuff.
- Atomic Waymaker 110 boots, with a free/lock function the waymakers are easy to hike in whilst maintaining maximum power transmission.
- Arc’teryx Rush Gore-Tex Jacket, Sabre Gore-tex pant Lorum Polartec hoody, despite -12c and 35km/h winds the Arc’teryx outfit kept me warm and comfortable for the whole day.
- Anon Mig goggles, with a magnetic facemask and full-range of view.
Your transceiver leads to the probe, your probe leads to the shovel, your shovel leads to your friend. These three items are the most vital part of any backcountry skiers’ equipment; you should never step into the backcountry without them. With so many options on the market, finding the right avalanche safety set up can be difficult. To help clear the confusion and aid you in the decision, we have assembled a guide to walk you through everything you will need to know when purchasing avalanche safety equipment that could save your life.
With a slow start to the winter season and following recent weeks of heavy snowfall, snowpacks across Europe can be unstable and prone to lethal avalanches. Whilst you should never head into the backcountry without full backcountry equipment and a qualified local professional, we’re of the belief that avalanche safety starts with understanding snowpacks and preventing avalanches before they occur.
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