My AIARE 1 Avalanche Course Experience

This past weekend, I took my AIARE 1 Avalanche Course right here in Park City. This course was long overdue, in my opinion. Since the beginning of this season, I knew I had to sign up for a course; but by the time I got around to it, the earliest availability was in February (a.k.a. not soon enough). So as the season progressed, I crept more and more into the backcountry, without the education I need. 

Day 1: The Classroom – – Day 2: Rescue and Travel – – Day 3: Student Lead Tour

Like most backcountry skiers, I got my first experience, heading out of the gate with a ski partner who had previous avalanche education. I assumed they knew what they were doing, and what they were getting me into. Blind trust. He has years of experience, and I had none. And because of that day, and the incredible snow I skied, I dove head first into my avalanche education. Quickly reading through, “Snow Sense, A Guide to Evaluating Snow Avalanche Hazard”, completing the online coursework from Know Before You Go, as well as the AIARE’s online learning. Everything I could get my hands on, I read or listened to, but I still did not feel comfortable traveling in avalanche terrain, nor skiing it. I played it safe, choosing only to ski lines were less than 30 degrees. I still felt like I was missing something.

So this weekend, I took off work on Friday, so that I could start my 3-day avalanche course. First day takes places in the classroom, followed by two days in the field. And by Sunday, my perception of traveling in Avalanche Terrain completely changed. Heading into this class, I feared avalanches, I feared not understanding the snowpack, and definitely not understanding the types of avalanches. There’s only so much you can learn in a book, or online, until you need to hear the words from the mouth of an experienced professional.

Day 1: The Classroom

In the class, we discussed the type of gear that we’ll use in the backcountry, like the required beacon, shovel, probe, as well as the pack, shell, food, repair kit, and first aid. After that, we discussed the definition and types of avalanche that exists. Both of which, I had been pretty aware of before, so I was not gaining much use out of the class. That is, until we went out into the field halfway through the day, for some hands on experience with our beacon, shovel, and probe.

Sure, I “knew” how to use my beacon; but in reality, I had zero practice with it. Send mode, search mode, what else was there to know right? Turns out, way more than I expected. Learning how to do a departure check, correctly, as well as a range check with your specific device to understand the range between you and your partner’s beacon. As well as finding out that when your beacons are not pointed toward each other, one being faced upward (or whatever), shortens the signal range between the two devices by about half. After a few beacon drills, we were instructed on how to assemble and probe correctly after we complete a fine search.

Image result for snow type facet hoar

After the brief field experience, we headed back to the classroom to learn more about rescue situations which we would put to the test the following day. The last classroom learning we did was the snow science. Albeit, a nerdy subject, but I found the most interesting. I had known faceted snow caused the instability in the snowpack, but I had no idea what facets exactly were, what they looked like, nor how they were formed. But after discussing how a cold, clear night forms facets in the surface layer which eventually could be buried by the next snowfall, preventing layers from bonding. Additionally, how surface hoar is the winter equivalent of dew. And lastly, how depth hoar is formed by a completely different process and can last the entire season long! It was unbelievably interesting to me.

Day 2: Rescue and Travel

The following 2 days, we all met up in the White Pine Touring shop to go over trip planning. Another aspect of backcountry travel that I thought I knew what I was doing, and turned out I didn’t have the slightest clue of. I used to check the Avi Report, check the weather, and head out. My whole world was flipped upside down when we were handed these trip planning books that break down the three major components of every tour: Plan, Ride, and Debrief.

The planning phase contained such detailed notes as not only the current forecast, but how will that information effect where and how you will be traveling. Is the avi report stating moderate at upper elevations due to wind slap, but winds are expected to pickup throughout the day. Is it possible that the avi danger could rise due to more snow being moved? Also, this section makes you clearly define the terrain you plan to travel in and ski. This is beyond helpful in the field to allow you to make fewer decisions based on what “looks” good rather than what you know will be safe AND good. It wraps up by discussing emergency plans, exit strategies, and asks you a question about if you think you can carry out the plan you’ve set out for yourself effectively and safely. Always great to double check before you head up from the trailhead.

The second section is the Ride Safely portion, this section has places to take observation and test notes from throughout your day. It also has bullet points that remind you to monitor conditions along the route, check in with the group if you need to reassess you plan, recognize avalanche terrain, and then using the terrain to reduce risk. All things that should constantly be running through your head when traveling in the backcountry from the moment you click in, until the moment you drinking a beer on the tailgate.

The last section is the Debrief. To discuss with your partners how the day went. Were the conditions as forecasted? How the day’s decisions went (both good and bad)? And how you could improve your plan for the next time out.

Once this part of the day was complete, we piled into the trucks and head up to the Colony by the Canyons Resort. Once we arrived, having driven passed all the mega mansions I’ll never be able to afford, we unpacked the trucks and threw our skins on. For most of my classmates, this was their first time putting on skins. We headed up the Cat-track a bit before we broke into groups under the 3 instructors to begin our rescue training.

The rescue training consisted of 2 beacon recovery drills. Half the group would dig a big hole and throw the test beacon into it with send mode activated. They’d then burry said beacon for the other group to come downhill to find it. If you’ve never buried a beacon to test yourself, I cannot highly recommend it enough. My first attempt, I was rushed, nervous, and my adrenaline was pumping. It was on a simulation, but it was stressful. The three of us turned down hill when the “avalanche” happened. One person took out their phone to “call” 911 while me and my other partner threw our beacons into search mode and skied down the flanks of the “slide path”. I was rushed, moving way too fast. I B-lined it to where my beacon was pointing me, and still had skis on at 10m, resulting in me skiing passed the buried beacon.

To add insult to injury, since I was first the beacon, my partners let me conduct the fine search while they began to assemble their probes and shovels. Rather than taking a breath, and calmly locating my min point, I dropped to the ground to conduct the fine search, wasting precious time! Once I got close, my partner came in with a probe and struct the target. We all quickly started to dig, right on top of the probe strike (aka not what you’re supposed to do). This resulted in a vertical hole, impossible to remove snow properly from, and ended up having us standing on the “victim” by the time we recovered it. So many mistakes, but that’s what the practice is for.

The second recovery went exponentially better. We went into it with a “what-if” plan, who would do what type of deal. So when the “avalanche” happened, we all took our roles. We took a breath, I checked my watch for a start time, and we calmly, systematically moved downhill. Once my partner got 10m, I relinquished my search and took out my probe and shovel. To save time, I passed the probe to the 2nd partner to begin probing while I prepared to shovel. Once we completed the fine search, and had a probe strike, I began the digging… down hill. I started 1m away from the probe and began to move snow out. We took turns digging down, and towards the probe. At one point, we dug too far, beyond where our probe strike hit. Alarm bells were going off that we were missing something and wasting time. I quickly stopped digging, re-probed the area, and realized we struck the edge of the target. Our hole was off by 2 inches. But this was not an issue since we had dug a correct pit, with enough snow excavated downhill that it only took a few additional seconds to move thee feet of snow off the target to recover it. Boom, nailed it!After this exercise, I felt much more confident about my abilities to find, and rescue a partner were. Safe to say, without practice, it’s almost guaranteed you won’t find your partner within 10minutes.

We then headed up the ridgeline for some lesson in traveling through avalanche terrain. This became more of an exercise in touring than avalanche safety, but it was still informative, nonetheless. The best part of the day was digging a pit. Our instructor, Kelly Robinson, took us through each layer in our snow pit. Explaining where the faceted layers came from, and which storms brought the stable snow in between. First hand, I was now beginning to understand how a snowpack is formed, and what drives the instabilities. This was only furthered when he began to show us the compression tests that you can perform to test the snow’s stability. Our tests resulted in exactly what we expected. A 6″ layer of loose dry snow from the latest storm, followed by two faceted layers deeper from warm/rain spells we got at the end of January, and then a potential facet layer 1m deep from the late December dry spell.

The second day was capped off with a ski down the ridgeline, through the aspens, back to the cat track where our trucks were waiting. The day was filled with information and an incredible experience. And we still had another day of learning to do!

Day 3: Student Lead Tour

The last day of the course started out the same as the prior. Meeting in White Pine Touring’s shop to discuss the day’s touring plan; except, this time, we were headed to PC Powder Cat’s operational headquarters in the Uintas. A place with much wilder weather, and a more unstable snowpack. I was excited to say the least, that is, until they received a phone call letting the instructors know the Cat had mechanical issues and we couldn’t go. Not to worry, since we’d be headed back to the Colony, a place where the weather was going to be better, and we were already familiar with the terrain from the day before.

Unlike the day before, we did not start off with beacon recovery practice. Instead, we broke up into our teams and just headed up the drainage for a student-lead tour. Having more experience touring and in the backcountry than my classmates, I took the lead and broke trail. The pace was much slower than normal, so I didn’t mind breaking the powdery trail ahead for our tour. This was the part of the course I enjoyed the most. Simply touring through a landscape, learning the in’s and out’s on how to travel safely through avalanche terrain. Our instructor for the day, Sean Zimmerman-Wall, would point out things to look out for, snow tests we could perform on road cuts, as well as how to set a skin-track for a group with different fitness levels.

We finally topped out on the shoulder of the ridge between No Name and No No Name Bowls, making a perfect spot for lunch in the blue bird afternoon. Sean told us stories and gave us more advice to efficiently move through the terrain, and tips for making even more fun for a group. And after the 6 of us wrapped up eating lunch, we proceeded down the ridge towards an open snowfield, begging to be skied. Looking around, the others pointed to me to take first dibs since I broke trail coming up. Stoked at the opportunity, I headed downslope, carving back and forth in the fresh snow. Just when I started to feel comfortable, and thinking about putting in a big GS turn, I skied down the convexity…right into a 6″ layer of wind and sun effected snow. My ski tips went right under the snow, and sent me head first downhill. Both skies pop off, and now I’m tomahawking down the slope, fully flipping head then feet. By the second rotation, I realized I needed to arrest my tumble and by the time my feet came around for a second rotation, I jammed them into the snow. Yup, full yardsale with a double tomahawk.

After recovering my one ski from 20yds uphill, I slalom skied on one ski down to the other at the bottom of the hill. Luckily, the rest of the day went much better, even though our next skin track lead us right to the base of a steep pitch approximately 35 degrees. Even though I think we could have made it, it gave us the opportunity reassess our plan. Instead of moving uphill, into potentially hazardous terrain, we traversed the slope instead one by one to minimize the exposure to the steep slope above. Something that maybe isn’t a big deal to most people, but it was a serious learning experience that capped off the day.

Another few hundred feet above, we reached the next ridgeline, for our last ski descent of the course. It was an incredible course, more incredible and educational than I imagined it would be. I entered this course with a fear of the avalanche terrain, without completely understanding it. I never skied anything more than 30 degrees, and always obeyed the avalanche forecast to a “T”. And after this course, I have a completely different feeling towards avalanches and the terrain they occur in. I now feel more confident in my ability to travel in the backcountry, safely. This course is usually taken too late or not at all for most backcountry skiers, so I can’t recommend this early enough.

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