aiare avalanche 1

Today was the third and final day of my “avy 1” course, taught by Sierra Mountain Guides. This marks the second wilderness-y course I’ve taken where the school portion was in an RV park’s common area, the first being my WFR.

While it’s still fresh in my head, here’s my thoughts on the course. Most of this is the AIARE curriculum mind you, none of my negatives are at the feet of Sierra Mountain Guides. In fact, they’re a super top notch organization. My instructors were experienced, personable, and solid at teaching.

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Avy 1 is a whole bunch of people poking around in the backcountry. Part of my class.

There were maybe ~24 students in the class with four instructors, and folks traveled from San Diego, Orange County, and Los Angeles for the course. Only a few of us were locals. Additionally, the snow this season has been utter garbage so it was hard for our instructors to really show us dangerous snow conditions because frankly there is almost none in the Eastern Sierra right now.

What went well and what I think the big takeaway is that I learned the framework of how to properly prepare a safe backcountry trip. I learned how important your companions are, how much you need to gel with them, and how much risk you can dodge by terrain selection. If you eyeball the fatal avalanche data, you can note that slides under 30 degrees are rare. And 30 degrees is actually pretty steep, if you look at something like “the wall“. So if you stick to intermediate-esque backcountry runs (with nothing bigger around or above that can run-out into you) you’ve effectively eliminated your avalanche risk: poof-walla.

There’s obviously more to learn in 3 full days time than the above paragraph, but hopefully it shows that there are smart terrain choices you can make that slash your risk considerably.

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Digging and studying snow pits.

Possibly the least interesting part of the course for me was the snow-science itself. On SAR I’ve learned that everyone has some stuff they’re really into and other stuff they’re just not as excited by. Maybe you like rigging, maybe you like medicine, maybe you like snowmobiles: you probably aren’t interested equally in all three but in SAR you have to be trained on a dozen different disciplines whether you’re into them or not.

It was very cool to learn about the layers that exist in the snowpack and how they relate to avalanches. But ultimately there is no magic fortune cookie at the bottom of a snow pit that will tell you whether something is safe. You just get more data:

  • Data from the terrain (angle, aspect to the sun, etc).
  • Data from the avalanche advisory bulletin that covers that area. Ours is the Eastern Sierra Avalanche Center.
  • Data from poking your poles / probe into the snow.
  • Data from looking at the snow. Was there an avalanche 100 yards away from where you are now? Is there a big ass cornice staring at you? Etc.

In reality you need to know the faceting and depth hoar processes as building blocks to understanding what they do in a snowpack which of course means you need to know how to identify them in the first place. If you’re venturing into avalanche terrain, and even just knowing what avalanche terrain even is, you really should get trained up.

Thinking a little harder, another thing about this course versus most of my medical ones is that in medicine it’s about people’s lives. It’s important and you cannot screw it up. With avalanches it’s almost always about allowing people to recreate and have fun, which just doesn’t have the reality check that exists in rescue medicine.

I guess I’ll see you in the backcountry, but I’m sticking to the coward slopes. They’re safer on the way down and easier on the way up.

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