Avalanche Skills

As I mentioned in my last post, getting out of the resort and into the backcountry is one of my biggest skiing goals. But that brings a whole set of new challenges and risks with it, and it’s smart to be prepared for those. So for my birthday J bought me a place on Canada West Mountain School‘s AST1+ Avalanche Skills Training Course.

We started out with an evening classroom session on basic avalanche theory. As someone whose job involves delivering training courses on how to be a good trainer, it was fascinating to see how attentive every single face in the classroom was for the full three hours. There’s no better motivation than to have your life depend on what you’re learning.

Two days later we found ourselves on Mount Seymour at the crack of dawn for the first field day. A thick layer of cloud blanketed the city and wrapped itself around the middle of the mountain, but higher up the skies were blue and the sun rose in a blaze of colours as we gathered at the trailhead. After another week of clear skies and freeze-thaw temperatures, the skin track was bulletproof ice and we immediately got a crash course in what our instructor described as “skinning 403, rather than 101.” Every step of the hike was an education as we looked at terrain features, tested the snow pack, learned more about the layers and crystals we were looking at, and periodically fell on our faces on the sheet ice on the steeper sections.

By the time we reached Brockton Peak the clouds had closed in and we carried out our practice beacon searches in a thick fog. It was a totally different experience trying to locate buried beacons compared to testing them out at home or in parks. We also found that it’s pretty tricky probing for something as small as a single beacon, especially when there are tree roots and branches in the way in a relatively thin snowpack.

Beacon searches complete, we dug a snowpit and practiced stress testing on snow columns before heading back down the icy ski runs to the lodge. A second classroom session covered snow metamorphism and decision making models for backcountry travel, a fantastic tool which I can see being very useful in many other outdoor situations. I left with my head literally swimming from all the information, and very excited about day two.

For the second field day our group was scheduled to meet at Blackcomb’s Base II at 7.45am, which meant a 5.30am departure. Blinking and desperately in need of coffee, we found ourselves on the Sea to Sky under a full moon that blazed as bright as day and drenched the waters of Howe Sound in silver light. I’ve travelled that highway more times than I can count, but this was something completely new.

At Blackcomb Base we debriefed and then rode the lifts up to Seventh Heaven on a bitingly cold, clear day. We skied about halfway down Cloud 9, then cut across Lakeside Bowl and left the ski area for a skin over to Disease Ridge. Again, every step of the way was an opportunity for a lesson, and the deep alpine snow couldn’t have been more different to the bomber crust at Seymour. We stopped for a variety of terrain assessments and snow tests, and then skinned all the way up into Body Bag Bowl before making some memorable turns down the bowl and out through the meadows.

I can’t even begin to describe the joy of travelling through the backcountry on skis, or skiing turns you’ve earned with a long slog uphill. It’s a totally different experience to riding the lifts. You can’t cover nearly as much ground, but the terrain you do travel on is silent and pristine and it belongs to you in a very different way. This is still very new to me, but it’s already changing my understanding of what it means to be a skier.

After the run down we regrouped and carried out a multiple burial drill, where we buried backpacks with beacons in them on a simulated avalanche path and then groups of four took it in turns to search and probe for them. Our group uncovered six “victims” in thirteen minutes, and also practiced forming a probe line to search for bodies without beacons. It was a very different exercise to the single beacon searches the day before; with multiple signals and multiple searchers it was very easy to see how confusion sets in.

We made the time for one more run down a meadow full of soft snow and small trees, and then cruised back into the ski area and down to Base II where we did some final debriefing and received our certificates. B and I celebrated with a stop at Milestones for the largest steaks on the menu before heading home to Vancouver.

The course was a fantastic experience, and one I would highly recommend to anyone considering getting into backcountry travel. It was a great mix of classroom theory and learning in the field, and our instructors really knew their stuff and had an amazing array of experience. I found myself both inspired and a little bit daunted at the end of it. I have a new appreciation for just how much I don’t know yet, which I think is a very good place to start.

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