What I Did On My Winter Vacation: Avalanche Training

Senior Editor Shannon Davis gives you an inside look at avalanche training
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Senior Editor Shannon Davis gives you an inside look at avalanche training

First off, winter vacation is a misnomer. It was more of a long weekend, and it consisted of 10-hour days filled with lectures, power point presentations, snowshoeing, “strategic shoveling,” shovel tap tests, signal searching, probing, and eating lots and lots of donut holes. Can you guess what I was doing?

Here's a multiple-choice quiz to help you narrow your guesses:

Shannon was:

1.Taking an American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education (AIARE) Level 1 Avalanche Course.

2. Auditioning for a new reality television program called Norwegian Idol.

3. Actually in Mexico drinking on the beach. He made up the stuff on this list so his boss would think his absence was work-related and not dock a personal day.

If you guessed #1, thumbs up for yout: I was taking an AIARE Level 1 Avalanche Course. And if you guessed 2 or 3, thanks for believing that I am that Norwegiously talented or that ballsy. Alas, I am just more knowledgeable about avalanche terrain and making good decisions in said terrain than I was before.

If you snowshoe in the backcountry, winter camp, backcountry ski or splitboard, or fancy yourself a mountaineer, AIARE 1 is an extremely valuable course. Over the three days we spent in Rocky Mountain National Park (during which we got over a foot of fresh pow), I learned a ton. Here are some highlights:

--The biggest red flag in assessing avalanche terrain is slope angle, and avalanches occur most often on slopes between 30 and 45 degrees. It’s astonishing how benign a 30-degree slope looks, so add a slope meter to your winter gear kit. Some other red flags: 12 inches or more of snow in one day, wind (will create snow slaps on leeward slopes), rapidly warming temps, new soft snow layers on solar aspects (parts of a mountain that get the most solar radiation).

--When properly excavating an avalanche victim, you will move between one and 1.5 tons of snow (this is more than my truck weighs). The guidelines of “strategic shoveling” require that you dig a platform downslope from the probe-strike, two meters wide and 1.5 times the depth of the probe strike long. This will enable you to dig to the level of the victim and have a surface to provide first aid once the victim is extracted. Your beacon search, probing, and shoveling should all be completed within 15 minutes; survival drops off considerably after this benchmark.

--Snowflakes are pretty! I haven’t thought about this much since probably 3rd grade, but I think macro shots of single flakes will be my new decorating scheme. Bye bye Ansel Adams prints, hello flakes. My wife will love this. And fresh snow in the park is damn pretty, too.

--Pretrip planning is so important. Check the avalanche forecast (Colorado has a great one: http://avalanche.state.co.us/index.php), then look at your intended route on the map. Predetermine risky areas and alternate routes, then create points on the map where you are going to stop and assess conditions, your best route options, and your travel technique. Pretty soon you’ll be saying stuff like: “Conditions are high on north to southeast facing aspects at treeline and above on slopes of 30 degrees or higher. We’re going to hit that terrain at mile 2.5 right after this tight switchback on the map. We’ll stop there and check snowpack.”

--Three essential pieces of gear: avalanche beacon, probe, and shovel. Don’t leave home without them, and don’t strap them to the outside of your pack—stuff tends to fall off when lashed to the outside. You wouldn’t lash your lunch to the outside of our pack would you? This stuff is even more important.

--The Colorado Mountain School is an awesome place to take a course (or sign up for a climb). Our instructors, Russel and Andrew, were super-professional and made learning delicious and calorie-packed (free donuts every morn!). Plus, there’s a bunkhouse at their Estes Park base with a full kitchen that’s only $25/night. Russel even blogged about the course. Check it out here. http://www.coloradomountainschool.blogspot.com/

—Shannon Davis

Image credit: Strange Ones