With all the fatal avalanches we’ve seen this season, a good chunk of them at resorts, there is renewed awareness that skiing inbounds doesn’t guarantee 100% safety. Patrollers do a skillful job keeping our resorts controlled, but avalanches don’t play by the rules. And while my ski crew is always safe and takes precautions, getting my AIARE Level 1 avalanche certification was in order so that I could make good decisions when skiing – either in the Bowl or in the backcountry – without relying on others to make those decisions for me.
This winter I signed up with Aspen Alpine Guides for a 3-day hut trip/avy course. Hut trips were the primary reason I got into backcountry skiing in the first place; therefore, it was an easy decision to sign up for this class (and having someone else be in charge of dinners is always a bonus!). There is something about being out in the backcountry for three days that really nails home the importance of avalanche education.
Our group of 16, plus three instructors (Scott, Debbie and Chad), met at the Leadville Hostel on Thursday night. We had a short session of introductions, basic avy overview and what the weekend was going to bring. The group was diverse – a mixture of newbies, Midwesterners, and experienced skier and “pros” that needed to be formally trained.
Friday morning we loaded up and made our way to the Sangree M. Froelicher Hut just outside of Leadville. It was a manageable 3.5-mile skin, stopping along the way to observe snow conditions and review safe group travel. Scott brought us off the official trail to observe a slope and to see what we all thought of traveling beneath it. After studying the slope angle (first lesson in using slope meters) and a terrain trap that lay to our other side (a buried creek bed), we opted to cross to the other side of the creek bed and get back into the trees.
Although we ended up skiing the questionable slope on the way out, working on how to handle it was a good first exercise in precaution and deciding as a group where to travel. Knowing that the 10th Mountain Huts system sets routes in safe areas, I’ve rarely paid attention to my surroundings as it relates to avy paths while traveling to huts. This was good practice to observe the route – and check out potential skiing on the way out. Just as you should behave as if ski resort avalanche control isn’t perfect, you shouldn’t be blindly skiing the trail into a hut — stuff happens.
Once we got to the hut, it was the basic hut arrival — getting the fire going, filling the snow pot, finding the toilet flags. The Sangree hut was built with a classroom beneath it, and we spent two sessions each day — morning and night — going over our manual, learning the Observation Checklist and doing route finding for our tours for the day. Then out in the field we dug pits to analyze the snow pack, did beacon searches, had friendly group competition and of course got in some turns. My group was typical of a real life situation: me and the boys. Of the 16 of us, most came as couples, but a few of us came without our other halves. I was the only female without my partner, and I naturally migrated to the other “singles.”
Now that I’m AIARE Certified, I feel that I have an educated say in group safety talks in the backcountry. Plus I now know that when the guys are talking about surface hoar, they’re not talking about some shallow girl someone met in the bar the night before.
For avalanche courses:
Aspen Alpine Guides
American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education (AIARE)
(Guest blogger Jessica Downing supports her husband, Dave, in Whitefish, Montana, skis with boys and is a constant threat to Dave’s Nintendo Wii Ski record.)