Taking an avalanche course will have you looking at snow differently. It’s easy to look at snow-covered mountains and take for granted the dynamic nature of the snow. At a glance you have no idea what’s going on under the surface, and a lot can happen as things change with temperature, wind, precipitation, and other factors (including human ones).
I love learning new things and have great respect for nature and the mountains. So taking an AIARE 1 (American Institute of Avalanche Research and Education) course seemed like a responsible, and interesting, thing to do before spending more time splitboarding in the backcountry.
My expectations for the course were far exceeded. I was quite surprised by how interesting and engaging the whole weekend was. There was an incredible amount of information to take in over three days, but perhaps the most important thing we learned is that it’s up to us to choose terrain wisely to stay out of the way of potential avalanches.
The AIARE course devotes a lot of attention to the factors that you can control out there. You cannot do anything about the state of the snowpack. You can examine it, look for it’s strengths and weaknesses, and get an idea of what the concerns are for the day. But you cannot change that snowpack.
The one real factor that you can control is the terrain you choose to ride. So choosing your terrain wisely is of the utmost importance. The course gives you tools to start doing that. And there are a lot of other programs out there that can give you a taste of how to stay safe in the backcountry too.
The Know Before You Go program breaks things down into 5 pieces.
Get the gear. You need to have a beacon, probe, and shovel.
Get the training. You need to learn to properly use that gear and practice- a lot. You don’t want to have to figure it out when you are in an emergency and you have precious little time. It needs to be second nature. Your window to rescue someone is basically 10-15 minutes. After 15 minutes of being buried survival rates drop drastically. So the process needs to be fluid and efficient.
Get the forecast. You need to check the weather forecast and avalanche bulletin, and actually read and understand them. Checking the risk level on the bulletin is not enough. There is so much more information contained in the bulletin. You can learn what areas or aspects are prone to what type of activity. If the concerns are wind slab, the bulletin will tell you where there are potential loaded slabs based on the wind directions. If the danger is storm slab because of recent snow, the bulletin will caution you what areas are most at risk from it.
The bulletin will even tell you what areas you should avoid. And there’s a projection for the potential extent of an avalanche should one occur.
The forecast also provides essential information. Are temperatures rising or falling? Are winds calm or howling? Are they coming out of one direction all day or changing direction. Is it going to be cloudy or sunny? What is the forecast saying will be the trend over the course of the day? Environmental changes mean changes to the snowpack. And those changes can make things more or less stable. You need to learn what changes will likely produce what effects under what conditions in order to assess whether or not a zone will be safe to ride.
Get the picture. So you have the forecast and have read the bulletin. When you get outside you need to pay attention to what’s actually going on. Are you observing any evidence of recent slides, areas that are being warmed rapidly, rapid cooling, wind loading, etc.? What are you actually seeing when you get out there? And does it support what you read and discussed from the forecast and bulletin?
Get out of harm’s way. So ultimately it all comes down to terrain choice. If you choose your terrain wisely you can stay out of potential avalanches. But sometimes the call of the siren is too alluring and you are tempted to take risks that might not be advised.
What goes into choosing terrain wisely?
Your group dynamic is of the utmost importance. Everyone in your group has a voice and needs to be heard. What sets off a red flag for one person might not for others, but could be the difference between a great day in the mountains or a disaster. And there are many human factors that can contribute to making unwise decision. (see next week’s post) Recognizing them and being conscious to avoid those traps is key.
You need to have a plan with contingencies to accommodate what you find as you go. Having a plan is important so everyone is on the same page, and you should send a copy of your plan to someone who is not accompanying you for safety sake. But you need to stay in constant communication and constantly evaluate the conditions and whether they support your plan or not.
Constant communication and observation are hugely important. You can never get the full picture of what’s going on until you are out there. Pay attention to your surroundings, listen, look, and feel what’s happening around you. Constantly evaluate the conditions and discuss them along the way. As you gain elevation, or conditions change, or you changes aspects on a mountain, the snowpack may be different. Even if something doesn’t seem too significant to you, mention it. It could be niggling at others too, and everyone decides to keep their mouth shut because no one else is speaking up. You are entrusting your life to these people, and they are entrusting theirs to you. That’s not something to take lightly.