A mountain guide’s guide to packing

Have you ever puzzled over what you should put in your backpack for a day’s off-piste skiing? Here are some tips from a professional.

Peter Mason, American mountain guide based in the French Alps

Peter Mason gives courses in mountain safety and avalanche awareness

Peter Mason is a 35-year-old mountain guide based in St. Gervais in the French Alps. Originally from New York state, he moved to France in 2003, and gained full qualification as a mountain guide in June 2009 – only the second US citizen to do so through the French guide programme.

He told me what he considers to be the day pack essentials for off-piste skiing and for ski touring. Those planning to stay on piste will find some handy ideas too.

This is the list – including his explanations – of the gear he carries:

Standard avalanche safety equipment: “Shovel, probe and transceiver, which I’ll put on before setting out.”

Duct tape: “Although it’s actually on my ski pole. I cut off a length and wind it round and round the shaft. With that and a Leatherman you can solve just about any problem. If your binding breaks, you can even tape your boot to your ski and hop out. Sounds ridiculous, but if you’re in 1½ft of fresh snow, it’s better than walking out in your boot.”

An extra layer: “A big warm fluffy one, which I can give to someone else if they need it. I’m a guide, I have to prepare for the worst.”

Water: “Your performance drops significantly when you are dehydrated. In a worst-case scenario, you have to get out of somewhere and you are tired – if you haven’t eaten or drunk anything for a while, your mind can start to play tricks.”

Headlamp - a useful piece of kit for multi-day ski tours

Headlamp – useful for multi-day ski tours

A headlamp: “The ones with LED lights weigh nothing. If you take the wrong turning and drop down into another valley, it can easily be a 1½ hour taxi ride home – and first you might have a long pole down to the valley, in the dark.”An extra pair of gloves – thick and warm: “If someone drops a glove, it can be drastic in the wrong situation – we can be talking frostbite, losing a finger.”

An apple, and a power bar or granola bar: “I prefer natural-fruit bars to candy, which just gives you an instant rush, but your energy drops off again afterwards.”

A wipe for goggles, and a chammy for sunglasses

Sunscreen: “Not just because you could get skin cancer, but because the sun takes it out of you. If I get too much sun, my eyes are tired, my face is cooked. I just want to sleep.”

Chapstick

An extra pair of goggles: “On a powder day, they can easily get wet or fogged up. In my experience, if you screw a pair of goggles, you’re screwed for the day. If you can change them for a dry pair, it’s awesome – so bring a second pair, for you or your friends.”

A spare hat: “I bring the ugliest hat I can find. That way if I loan it to someone, I’m sure to get it back. Plus it smells.”

Leatherman multi-tool - a useful piece of kit for ski touring

Leatherman multi-tool – a useful piece of kit for ski touring

A Leatherman multi-tool

First aid kit: aspirin, Compeed (for cold sores and blisters), bandages, alcohol wipes: “You can be in a situation where you would have to go back to the lodge to put a Band-Aid on, but if you have some with you, you can keep skiing.”

Space blanket: “It weighs just a few grams, but it can make all the difference. You can cover yourself with it, build an igloo with it, even use it as a splint. Some are really cheap and light, almost disposable – better to get one that is a little tougher.”

Cash: “If you unexpectedly have to pay for a taxi home, it’s good to have money.”

Spare snack: “Right at the bottom of my bag there’s a snack. It’s supposed to stay there, I don’t eat it. But if I forget to pack one, or if someone else forgets, there’s always a spare.”

  • Peter Mason was teaching mountaincraft skills as part of a ski instructor course with the Warren Smith Ski Academy (www.warrensmith-skiacademy.com).
  • Further information: the Switzerland Travel Centre (00800 100 200 30, www.MySwitzerland.com) and the local tourist office (www.verbier.ch).
  • Train tickets from the UK to major Swiss cities are available through Rail Europe (0844 848 4070; www.raileurope.co.uk); onward travel within Switzerland through the Swiss Federal Railways (www.sbb.ch)
  • Equipment rental through Ski Service (00 41 27 771 67 70; www.skiservice.com).