With a Level 1 Avalanche Course under my belt, I want to share a few takeaways that I believe are valuable and may not be immediately obvious to the new backcountry skier.
I completed my course with Avalanche Science out of Idaho City. I would argue the instructor, Santiago Rodriguez (Chago), is easily the best snow science professional in the business. If you’ve skied the Boise Mountains, you’re probably familiar with his conditions blog, Mores Creek Summit. I can’t imagine learning more at any another avalanche class. With the small group size, we had ample time to ask every question possible to fully comprehend our applied learning. We started each day in the classroom at Idaho City, and made our way north to Mores Creek Summit for field-based learning, and of course prime powder skiing.
While each of the points below could be a dedicated to an entire post, I want to offer a high level overview. There are assumptions I had before the class that were incorrect, some of which are explained below.
The photo above is from the January 11-12 avalanche cycle near The Knob at Mores Creek Summit.
1. Study the framework, and stick to it.
An overarching goal of a level 1 class is to learn and implement a decision making framework for everything. While portions of this framework can be redundant every time you ski, it is imperative that you stick with it. Before my level 1, trip planning was loose, and more akin to a “seat of the pants” style. I would make decisions not necessarily based on data, but simply how I felt the day might line up. Now, I have a step by step process that I follow and will not deviate from every time I enter the backcountry. This process begins with my morning coffee and trip planning, or even the night before, and ends with a wrap up and review of the day’s decisions. Every partner needs to be on board.
Before we leave, consider these questions: what’s our initial plan, and what type of terrain is it? What is the avalanche bulletin reporting? If we’ve skied it 1000 times, what could catch us off guard if we (likely) become complacent? What is our backup? Just as we complete a beacon check before every outing, obvious things such as weather, communication (radio), evac, and routes are also written down every single trip.
In the field, jot down every piece of data that could influence a decision. Is it warming more than forecast? Any naturally occuring slides during the initial skin? Is the avalanche bulletin accurate (especially key if you are not close to a forecast zone)?
Doing this helps to minimize uncertainty, set expectations, and keeps us from clinging to only a single piece of data. By writing, we engrain the process and data in our mind, and keep a record that we can review for the next tour.
2. Make sure your equipment is dialed.
While this one seems obvious, knowing your gear and it’s specific nuances in different conditions is key. Dynafit/pin-style bindings take time to get used to, and easily ice up and wreak havoc on your day - it’s a good idea to have a good amount of confidence in your gear before a level 1. Breaking down on day one of a three day course is not fun.
Skins can also become iced and ineffective, and knowing that you need to apply new glue or add a tailclip can save many future headaches. If you charge your backcountry gear hard inbounds, you will need to replace pin bindings more often and will have a higher likelihood of breaking. Spraying olive oil on my bindings is now part of my pre-trip ritual, while hose clamps and gorilla tape have earned permanent spots in the pack.
3. Rescue gear: weight is your friend.
With gear that has to be carried on our backs and feet, it is easy to gravitate towards the ultralight mindset and start saving pounds by spending money. Unlike backpacking, however, there are areas where having more weight is mandatory. Above all, carbon, and other weight-saving materials should never be considered for rescue gear.
A heavy shovel aids in digging with its swing weight - an advantage as avalanche debris is often concrete-like (try digging a plow bank with a lifeline shovel, and let me know how many minutes you get before it bends or breaks). A heavy probe won’t wiggle around when searching for a strike - it will give better feedback under heavy debris, and likely be less prone to snapping. You should be able to deploy and lock your probe in place instantly. After spending thousands of dollars on light skis, light bindings, and efficient boots, it’s disappointing to see skiers skimp on rescue gear.
4. The way you evaluate a partner will change.
I think I can speak for every backcountry skier when saying partner evaluation can be challenging. It’s not always easy to find skiiers that are on the same page regarding risk assessment, fitness, communication, and awareness. This as an extremely important part of backcountry travel in general, especially as human factors often contribute to many avoidable mistakes. I am confident in my abilities to use my beacon and rescue gear, and need to know that I can rely on my partners and that they can do the same.
As a partner, you need to be confident and well-practiced with your rescue gear. It’s frustrating to see someone you trust struggle with their gear. This should be part of your framework, and practiced during your beacon check before each tour.
5. There is no leader during a rescue.
While it may sound surprising, there should never be a leader in a rescue situation. If an avalanche occurs, every partner immediately has an equal job in picking up an initial beacon signal if no visual clues are present. Each partner should know which role to assume next based on proper rescue practice. After the first person acquires a signal, the next deploys their probe, and the next readies their shovel. Once a strike is made via probe, the next shovel is deployed to relieve the initial digger.
Practice to ensure you have confidence in your beacon receiving your partner’s beacons, and be sure to shout the distance reading during your search. Additionally, you need to know if you or your partner’s beacon switches out of rescue mode after a certain time period. Discuss and practice this at every tour’s beacon check.
Simple things such as not letting your beacon dangle are easily overlooked. If an avalanche search and rescue is in motion, there is a likelihood that more could occur, and you need to protect yourself by protecting your beacon. Mark the reading, and stash the beacon.
Save minutes by spending seconds. Keeping your backpack and gloves on ensures an organized rescue and prevents frostbite. The last thing you want is missing gear (first aid/trauma kit) and frozen fingers when tending to a patient.
6. Don’t skin the run!
It’s easy to zone out during an uphill slog, and skinning presents a simple but often overlooked data gathering opportunity. Set your skin track so that you can get a good look at your run, but without tracking it. There is almost always a better up-route than traversing the run you intend to ski. Use micro-terrain features to your advantage - while going straight up might be the shortest route, cutting switchbacks through the trees can leave you with more energy at the top.
7. Always review and improve.
Finally - the sun is setting, you’ve made it to the car, and you had a great day of powder skiing. As per the framework, compare your pre-trip assessments with data points from the field. Did the forecast line up? Did conditions match the avalanche bulletin? Would we use the same route next time? You now have plenty of practical information that will be ready for your next tour.
- Don’t mistake tiggers for anchors. Anchors break the connection in the snowpack, and this is not an easy distinction to make.
- Carry wax not for your skis, but your skins on warm, wet days. Try scraping your skins on your ski edge if snow starts sticking.
- Get your amature radio license and program local repeaters into your radio. In Idaho, you can often hit a repeater even when there is no cell coverage. Additionally, VHF and a good antenna perform much better than the FRS bubble-pack radios such as the BCA Links.
- Have your diet and fitness in order before your level 1 class.
- Analyze accident reports, consider where things went wrong, and apply this to your decision making framework.
- Keep a mental checklist of where each piece of gear is and which pocket it’s located. Find a location for your blue book that you can access without removing your pack.
- Beware of the halo effect, and be especially aware of people that think a run is “stable” because they’ve been skiing a location their entire life.