BEIRUT: When a group of 10 students set off on an off-piste skiing adventure last weekend, little did they know their excursion would end in a rescue operation involving the Lebanese Army, Civil Defense teams, local municipality officers and Red Cross volunteers.
Finding themselves lost between the villages of Tarshish and Kfar Salwan in Mount Lebanon, three of the group then fell into an icy ravine, and all sustained injuries, one serious.
Luckily, however, this particular group of skiers was relatively prepared. They were able to contact local authorities by cellphone, and were soon rescued and taken to hospital.
To stay safe while skiing – whether off-piste or on the slopes – Ronald Sayegh, founder of SKILEB.com, a website that organizes ski trips, recommends certain precautions.
Firstly, Sayegh, says, equipment, and especially bindings, must be double checked.
“They have to be adjusted by the weight and level of skier, so they have to release if you fall down, but if you’re skiing aggressively they should not release,” he says.
At SKILEB.com classes, all children must wear helmets, and Sayegh recommends this for adult skiers also.
While at resorts – there are six in the country – Sayegh says it is important to follow the general rules of the road: “The uphill skier is obviously responsible for those below him, just like driving a car,” he says.
The website also reminds skiers that they must always be in control and able to stop to avoid others or objects. However, skiers should remember not to stop in a place where they obstruct a trail, or are out of sight of those above them on the slope.
If skiing off-piste, Sayegh stresses the importance of taking the correct equipment with you – including of course a mobile phone, preprogrammed with the numbers of emergency services.
After Sunday’s incident, the Army also reiterated the need to add the number of the local Army Command to one’s address book, details of which can be found at the bottom of this article.
However there might not always be network coverage, which makes it important, in Sayegh’s opinion, to take a skiing guide on off-piste excursions.
“It’s always best to hire a mountain guide; one who knows the way and has GPS,” says Sayegh, adding that it is also advisable to hire a guide from the local area.
“He will have a sense of the mountain, and will know the area well.”
“There are areas that are more sensitive than others, so you should always hire a local guide. But at the end of day, accidents do happen, so you have to be cautious.”
While there are always risks associated with skiing and mountaineering, Sayegh says that being prepared can help minimize these.
If not hiring a guide, off-piste skiers should never venture out alone, and must always be accompanied, the ski expert stresses.
As well as a cellphone, GPS and maps are helpful, and a small rescue box – containing a first aid kit and basic tools – is essential, Sayegh adds, as well as enough food and water.
Christian Rizk, director of the Mzaar ski resort, himself never skis off-piste and recommends staying on the slopes.
“I don’t recommend it, especially now. There’s not snow everywhere, and there can be rocks, and it’s dangerous,” Rizk says. “I never go off piste, and you do so at your own risk.”
After a big storm is the best time to ski off-piste, Rizk adds, as there is then sufficient, or better, snow coverage.
On the slopes, skiers must be aware of signalization, and to take a cellphone with them at all times, in case they get lost in fog.
With over 20 years experience, Rizk says that his staff are usually able to find skiers lost within the resort fairly easily.
“We know the mountain, so usually we can find them as they always get lost in the same places,” Rizk says.
While there are dangers associated with skiing, both SKILEB.com and Rizk stress that it is safer than some other sports.
Rizk estimates around 1-2 percent of skiers incur injuries, and often these are minor – such as broken hands or feet – while the skiing portal states that “the injury rate for cyclists and in-line skaters is far greater than for skiers, and the fatality rate for snowmobilers and jet-skiers is greater than for skiers and snowboarders.”
To contact the central Army Command, call 1701, ext. 20335. For the Bekaa region dial 08-901-261, ext. 6603. For Mount Lebanon, call 05-956-126. In north Lebanon, contact the local Army Command on 06-390-848 and in south Lebanon, call 07-725-800, ext. 56031.