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Taking Avy One

post #1 of 22
Thread Starter 

Copied from my blog: http://bounceswoosh.org/2014/12/31/taking-avy-one/

 

During the last weekend of 2014, I took the AIARE Level 1 Avalanche Course throughColorado Mountain School (CMS). I took it because, more and more, I’m becoming aware of the fact that safe ski slopes don’t just happen. There’s an enormous amount of science, engineering, and intuition – not to mention just plain hard work – that ski patrol puts into keeping skiers safe on the mountain. The more I ski “extreme” terrain at the resorts, the less comfortable I am with my own ignorance about the process.  I also took the course because I want to understand more about the risks I might be accepting in the backcountry, and how to mitigate them. I’ve owned the equipment – beacon, shovel, probe, and skis with AT bindings and skins – for several years,  but I have skied in the backcountry only rarely. Actually, only once outside of a class. I didn’t have the knowledge to evaluate avalanche terrain; then again, I didn’t want to have to blindly trust in my friends’ judgment. I also had the general impression that in Colorado, snowpack is so fickle that anything safe to ski would be either relatively boring (low angle) or relatively unpleasant (wind-scoured or sun-baked).

pow!

The boring, low-angle, sunbaked and wind-scoured slope we actually skied on Monday

The course spanned three days, each consisting of some classroom time and some field work. Because of the extremely cold weather, we may have spent more time in the classroom than another class would – in particular, the last day had more classroom time than planned. I don’t think anyone minded – the cold was brutal. On the flip side, we were also blessed with plenty of fresh snow, allowing us to observe changing Colorado Avalanche Information Center (CAIC) bulletins – and allowing us to play in the powder.

Before this class, I had a fair amount of previous exposure to snow safety information. I attended a free REI seminar on beacon usage; I took the Intro to Backcountry day trip through CMS; I’d read Staying Alive in Avalanche Terrain and Snow Sense; and just the weekend prior, I’d attended the Copper S.A.F.E. A.S. women’s snow safety clinic, which was an intense day of classroom and snow time, focused on avoiding human factors and practicing rescue scenarios.

I had heard that in the last few years, Avy 1 has converted from largely teaching snow science – digging a pit and other observational tools – to focusing on human factors. That’s not exactly what I experienced. What I saw, instead, was that the course taught us how to interpret the daily avalanche bulletin and develop a plan based on that information. We did touch on human factors, but I suspect the idea is more to avoid human factors – and just plain errors – that might come into play when novices try to interpret snowpack test results. Or maybe we didn’t get a ton of time to discuss human factors because I kept asking so many questions …

Our class had 24 students and four guides. We did the classroom portion as a large group, then broke into smaller groups for the field work. This gave us an opportunity to work closely with three different guides.

On day one, we learned about the types of avalanches, the conditions for their creation, and their indicators. We then went to the entrance of Hidden Valley in Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP) to learn about our beacons and practice with them.

On day two, we learned how to read the daily CAIC avalanche bulletin (there’s a lot of information packed into that site!) and how to fill out a Field Book to create a trip plan based on the bulletin, as well as recording our own observations. We dug a snow pit somewhere near Bear Lake. I struggled with kick turns; then I struggled trying to ski down through trees and powder on my skins, and intentionally fell rather than risking a run-in with a tree. It was not my day to shine.

On day three, we discussed human factors, then broke into our smaller group to interpret the bulletin and use it to plan a trip that would meet all of our objectives. I’d never actually planned a trip by looking at maps and studying the route, so that in itself was valuable to me. (Mental note: take some orienteering/navigation classes this summer.)

Day three is also when I found out that skiing supposedly low-angle terrain can still be exciting and challenging. While I’d heard people say that they enjoyed meadow skipping, I pictured practically flat expanses of powder, where you’d be poling as much as you’d be sliding. Pretty, but not exactly fun skiing. Or I pictured the day I’d skied Banana Bowl – not only low-angle, but also wind-affected, nasty slab snow. So while I was interested in learning about avalanche danger, I suspected it would confirm my own expectations – that I wouldn’t be going into the backcountry much, and that if I did so, it would be purely for the social or fitness aspects, not for the fun skiing. After all, fun skiing was dangerous, and safe skiing was boring. That’s what I thought.

That was all before day three.

On day three, our group discussed our objectives, which ranged from getting some sweet turns, to getting some experience with skinning, to studying the snowpack more, to getting more beacon practice. Our guide suggested a route that would allow us to do a little bit of all of that. So there we were. We skinned up a well-traveled trail for a while; then we departed from the beaten path, our guide breaking trail in gradual switchbacks. It thus came to my attention that there can be more to snow country travel than following signs and established routes.

Of course, following someone who already knows the area intimately is a great way to head straight to the goods.  The day might not have gone so smoothly (understatement!) if we’d been puzzling out the route on our own. We were soon at the top of a lovely pitch of untracked snow and majestic trees. In fact. Hm. It looked kind of steep and tight, especially after being warned that rocks lurked just beneath the surface, and being told to ski extremely conservatively – “On a scale of one to ten, with one being pizza – ski at a two or a three.”  “How steep did you say this slope is?” “Twenty-eight degrees.” Huh. It seemed plenty steep to me. And I always struggle with the switch from skins and loose heels to slick skis and locked heels. What on earth had made me think I needed to be on a 38 degree slope to make a backcountry excursion worthwhile?

So, we skied the short pitch. And in two or three turns, I fell in love. I made maybe one decent turn; the other two were frankly pretty ugly, and rocks left their marks on my bases. But the snow. The beauty. The thought that we were probably the first people to ski this particular run this season. The realization that backcountry skiing could be both magical and safe, and that I had the tools now to choose these sorts of slopes myself. Intoxicating.

Fearless Leader

Mike Soucy

My only complaint about the class is a feature, not a bug – they don’t go into how snow pits and other observations get translated into specific advisories. The curriculum sticks to generalities, not particulars.  Students are not given the tools to make their own snow predictions; that’s not the point. My husband and I, out of sheer enthusiasm and our innate need to know how everything works, kept asking questions that were far more detailed than the class structure allowed.  So I’m pretty sure that in a year or two, I’m going to take Avy 2. Not so much because I want to be making those predictions myself, but because I want to understand what goes into those predictions. My quest for knowledge continues.

Our guides:

Mike Soucy (course leader)

Ian Fowler

Brent Butler

Mike Lewis

post #2 of 22
The more specific snow pack analysis comes with level 2 and up.
post #3 of 22
Thread Starter 
Quote:
Originally Posted by markojp View Post

The more specific snow pack analysis comes with level 2 and up.

Yup - that's why I said I want to take it.
post #4 of 22
Nice. Best wishes on your endeavors.
post #5 of 22

Time well spent.

Looking out the window at greenish grass at my home on the coast of Maine, I believe the avy danger here today is painfully low.

D1

post #6 of 22

Seeing the news reports about snow pack in Colorado makes this all the more reason to pursue.  

Good report.  Thanks for sharing. 

post #7 of 22

Very nice review. I really enjoy your writing style. The other thing to remember, is that avalanches just don't happen out of bounds, but in bounds too. We need to be aware of the snow at all times.

post #8 of 22
Very nice report, Bounce. A group of us (segbrown, SkiNurse, FairToMiddlin, Big Salad and myself) took Avy I in early December. The knowledge I gained and the respect for the environs our group travels and plans to explore in the future is substantial. I know I look at the mountains differently than before. Avy I was a great investment.
post #9 of 22
Thread Starter 
Quote:
Originally Posted by SkiNurse View Post

Very nice review. I really enjoy your writing style. The other thing to remember, is that avalanches just don't happen out of bounds, but in bounds too. We need to be aware of the snow at all times.

Absolutely. I don't expect to be able to second guess the snow safety teams at resorts, but at the same time, I want to be able to look at a situation and at least be able to form an opinion about the safety. Ski patrollers are human.
post #10 of 22
Thread Starter 
Quote:
Originally Posted by Drahtguy View Post

Very nice report, Bounce. A group of us (segbrown, SkiNurse, FairToMiddlin, Big Salad and myself) took Avy I in early December. The knowledge I gained and the respect for the environs our group travels and plans to explore in the future is substantial. I know I look at the mountains differently than before. Avy I was a great investment.

 

Thanks! I think in my case, it was almost the opposite. I had been so freaked out about the risks that I thought I wasn't going to ski anything interesting in the Colorado backcountry. This class made me realize there is a lot of fun to be had in relative safety. But aspect is still a real challenge for me - I don't have much of a sense of direction. I bought a compass and plan to wield it. Also remembering to pay attention to what's above, not just below. And paying attention to changing terrain while skinning, because uphill travel is so tiring for me that I tend to just put my head down (literally) and shuffle forward. So generally - just paying attention.

post #11 of 22
Quote:
Originally Posted by SkiNurse View Post
 

Very nice review. I really enjoy your writing style. The other thing to remember, is that avalanches just don't happen out of bounds, but in bounds too. We need to be aware of the snow at all times.

 

Or in one's backyard (so what's the tree spacing at the cabin? ;-) )  Frequent I-70 travelers will recognize this ... I  just took photo this morning -- didn't get a very good pic 

but there is a little slide above Lowe's and the outlets in Silverthorne. You can kind of make out the crown, the debris is more obvious. 

 

As far as human factors, I guess maybe that is a matter of semantics. The CAIC forecast is aimed directly at helping us make decisions. That's not to say there aren't other choices we make along the way, but it should be the foundation for many of them.

post #12 of 22
Quote:
Originally Posted by segbrown View Post
 

 

Or in one's backyard (so what's the tree spacing at the cabin? ;-) )  Frequent I-70 travelers will recognize this ... I  just took photo this morning -- didn't get a very good pic 

but there is a little slide above Lowe's and the outlets in Silverthorne. You can kind of make out the crown, the debris is more obvious. 

 

As far as human factors, I guess maybe that is a matter of semantics. The CAIC forecast is aimed directly at helping us make decisions. That's not to say there aren't other choices we make along the way, but it should be the foundation for many of them.

Ha!  The tree spacing at the cabin is definitely >6 feet and the pitch in areas is probably close to 30 degrees (I'll have to play with my inclinometer). Which of course makes it perfect skiing IF my snowpack ever stays long enough....and if that snowpack ever stays, then yes, it could slide. 

 

Of course, Pali & the Montezuma cornices at Abasin have slid & caught skiers. Iron Mask & Riva Ridge in Vail. Patrol Chute in Spalding Bowl at Copper. Let's not forget the patrollers that were caught in Highlands Bowl in '84. http://www.aspensnowmassshrines.com/index.php?48-The-Kessler-Soddy-and-Snyder-Plaques-Aspen-Highlands

 

Hopefully, with Bounceswoosh's post, more people will become snow aware, in bounds & out of bounds. Especially as resorts open more terrain for us to play in.

 

PS I think this thread might have doubled my post count. :beercheer:

post #13 of 22

great thread and I hope others will take this course.  Thumbs Up

post #14 of 22
Thread Starter 
Quote:
Originally Posted by segbrown View Post
 
Quote:
Originally Posted by SkiNurse View Post
 

Very nice review. I really enjoy your writing style. The other thing to remember, is that avalanches just don't happen out of bounds, but in bounds too. We need to be aware of the snow at all times.

 

Or in one's backyard (so what's the tree spacing at the cabin? ;-) )  Frequent I-70 travelers will recognize this ... I  just took photo this morning -- didn't get a very good pic 

but there is a little slide above Lowe's and the outlets in Silverthorne. You can kind of make out the crown, the debris is more obvious. 

 

As far as human factors, I guess maybe that is a matter of semantics. The CAIC forecast is aimed directly at helping us make decisions. That's not to say there aren't other choices we make along the way, but it should be the foundation for many of them.

 

See now, that is the stuff that freaks me out. That looks pretty darn shallow. I can't tell from the picture, but it does look pretty minor? Not enough to bury a person unless they were extremely unlucky?

 

As for human factors - yes, I get that. I just find the psychology part really interesting. The current Avy 1 class addresses the experts' concerns about the students' human factors influence; it does not spend a ton of time dissecting human factors. If you're a woman who does find that interesting, the S.A.F.E. A.S. clinic really hammered home the FACETS acronym. Elyse Saugstad and Michelle Parker's first hand stories of being in avalanches, and the human factors leading up to those events, made the whole thing very real.

post #15 of 22
Quote:
Originally Posted by bounceswoosh View Post
 

 

See now, that is the stuff that freaks me out. That looks pretty darn shallow. I can't tell from the picture, but it does look pretty minor? Not enough to bury a person unless they were extremely unlucky?

 

 

Yeah, probably. I just looked it up and it was categorized as D1.5. 

 

Here's one I took in Austria a few years ago (or possibly we were in Germany at this point, not sure)

 

post #16 of 22
Thread Starter 
Quote:
Originally Posted by segbrown View Post

 

Yeah, probably. I just looked it up and it was categorized as D1.5. 

 

Where/how did you look it up? I don't see it here: http://avalanche.state.co.us/observations/avalanches/

post #17 of 22
Quote:
Originally Posted by bounceswoosh View Post
 

 

Where/how did you look it up? I don't see it here: http://avalanche.state.co.us/observations/avalanches/

Yeah, it's there. Second page, 12/26, under Vail/Summit (Buffalo Mountain). 

 

Much better photo, too:

 

post #18 of 22
Thread Starter 

My husband just pointed this out - yesterday Colorado had the first avalanche fatality of the season: http://avalanche.state.co.us/caic/acc/acc_report.php?acc_id=555&accfm=rep

post #19 of 22

28 degrees? That's still pretty darn steep for some. It would be within about 5 degrees of the steepest slope I've ever skied as an intermediate skier.

 

Though I guess for folks hiking back country, I could see how it would be on the tame side.

 

Great report on the class! Sounds very interesting as a topic I know very little about.

post #20 of 22
Thread Starter 
Quote:
Originally Posted by dbostedo View Post
 

28 degrees? That's still pretty darn steep for some. It would be within about 5 degrees of the steepest slope I've ever skied as an intermediate skier.

 

Though I guess for folks hiking back country, I could see how it would be on the tame side.

 

Great report on the class! Sounds very interesting as a topic I know very little about.

 

Thanks!

 

I wouldn't necessarily conflate backcountry exposure to skill at skiing steeps. As I mentioned - I haven't done much in the backcountry at all. But I think my problem is two-fold. One, people routinely inflate the steepness of inbounds pitches we've skied at Breck, and I haven't actually verified any of it myself. Two, I tend to remember the numbers for the steepest things I've skied, not the stuff I ski all the time. I'm like that about a lot of stuff - I always leapfrog my expectations to match the hardest/best thing I've ever done. So you know - having skied a 38 degree pitch a few times, maybe even steeper - automatically that makes anything less steep sound pedestrian. But as I found out, I was mistaken. A 38 degree slope with Monday's conditions would have had me pretty freaked out - not just because of avalanche danger.

 

And yes, you're absolutely right that steepness is in the eye of the beholder. I haven't been an intermediate skier for a while, so my viewpoint is skewed.

post #21 of 22
Quote:
Originally Posted by bounceswoosh View Post
 

... One, people routinely inflate the steepness of inbounds pitches we've skied at Breck, and I haven't actually verified any of it myself... 

 

Well there are the hillmap.com maps like over in the "Steepest in Summit County" thread. But I don't know if the snowfall actually changes the pitch that you ski at...

post #22 of 22
Thread Starter 
Quote:
Originally Posted by dbostedo View Post
 
Quote:
Originally Posted by bounceswoosh View Post
 

... One, people routinely inflate the steepness of inbounds pitches we've skied at Breck, and I haven't actually verified any of it myself... 

 

Well there are the hillmap.com maps like over in the "Steepest in Summit County" thread. But I don't know if the snowfall actually changes the pitch that you ski at...

 

Large amounts of snow over the season will settle down toward the bottom, reducing the pitch. But when you're measuring in the field, you measure the slope on top of the snow, so I guess that's okay. But these sorts of tools also tend to use the slope between each topographical line as their basis, which means they can obscure short, steep sections. That's fine if you're comparing pitches to talk about what you like to ski, but can be misleading in gauging avalanche risk.

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