01 April 2013

Take an Avalanche Safety Class!

I am lucky. I am lucky to live in a fantastic place that affords me lots of skiing and mountain access. I am lucky that I have fantastic friends who practice safe skiing and climbing techniques. I am lucky these friends have generiously passed on their knowledge and expertise to me, and I hope that I will someday be able to pay it forward to impart my brain grapes onto future adventurers.

Another way to learn to safely navigate risky endeavors is to take an avalanche class. The AIARE (American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education) Level I course is designed to teach decision making in avalanche terrain. The 3 day course focuses on identifying the right questions to ask and finding the red flags of backcountry travel. It also provides a basic understanding of avalanches - what causes them, what slopes/aspects are most likely to slide, what weather patterns make for "ripe" avalanche conditions - and teaches students how to perform beacon search and rescue.

I say that I'm lucky in that I traveled in the backcountry more than 30 days before I was able to take my AIARE I class. Most skiers/snowshoers should really take it before ever venturing out into the BC. I am not a special case, I should have taken it sooner, but the timing of the classes just worked out that I couldn't. So, readers out there, safety FIRST (not third in this case) - take a class!

I got my AIARE certification through Cascade Powder Cats in a three day course near Steven's Pass off of Highway 2. I feel I should mention that on this trip there were 12 clients, 2 guides, and a cook. That's 15 people. I was the only girl. *Sigh* Pretty standard for the backcountry I'm afraid. Did you know that you are most likely to have a successful BC ski trip if there are two or more girls on your trip? Fun fact for you to ponder...

Okay, now to pics! The course started with a ride in a Ski Cat, which took us to our Yurt! Our home away from home for the next three days!

Fancy two story Yurt! First floor kitchen, stove, eating area.

2nd Story bunks. Sweet roof design.

We unloaded the cat on day 1, then set out to learn to use our beacons and do beacon rescue! We started with just one hidden beacon, testing the range of different devices. I regret to say that I only have a Tracer 1, the most basic of beacons, which just isn't as accurate when searching as some of the other options out there. I hope to upgrade soon, but for now, it what's I've got.

Sunset Night 1

The morning of the second day we divided into two groups and set out on our skis to dig a snow profile, known to most people as a "pit".

We all lined up and dug and dug and dug until we each had an area about 4' wide by 5' deep

Our deposition zone

As a backcountry traveler, you want to dig a profile when you are unsure of the sability of the conditions. Here you can perform compression tests (where you isolate a column of snow and "tap" it with increasing force to see if and where it will slide) and look at the snow layers using your eyes and hands to test the density of the snowpack at various points.

Nathan performing a compression test. Our guide showing us the layer that sheared off.

Thor Performing a skier roucheblock test. Even off his skis this slope didn't go. Pretty stable avy conditions.

After our tests we were free to make a few laps skiing. The conditions were stable and lovely =) However, as you often see, we observed a HUGE slide on a south facing slope across the valley from us. This just goes to show that while one place can be completely stable, another slope will not be nearly as safe. Thus - digging a profile to check out conditions.

Big wet slab slide down to the dirt

Over dinner that night (it was so weird to be "served"...I'm used to helping with that sort of thing on trips) we planned a BC tour for the next day. We looked at slope angle, aspects, and general terrain features as well as overall elevation gain. We had our primary goal, and set up turnaround points where we would evaluate conditions, with backup plans for safe descent should we deem the conditions unstable. On our third day, we awoke and executed the planned ski trip!

Skiing up

Thor breaking trail

I am happy to report our tour was beautiful and we had clear skies and the sun even came out! The views from the top of our summit were stunning.

More cascade volcanoes

Highway 2

I don't know what this is, but I like it!

The men of the group

So what did I learn? To be honest, I didn't learn much that I hadn't already heard on my many tours, but it solidified more of those ideas in my mind. I now feel confident I can talk about faceted snow and slop angles and compression and consolidation and know what I'm talking about. Do you know what those things mean? If not, and you plan to get out int eh backcountry, sign up for an AIARE class asap. It just may save your life.

Grandpa Max says SAFETY FIRST!

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