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Don’t poke the dragon in the eye

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Don’t poke the dragon in the eye

Why every backcountry traveller should take an avalanche course

By Ian Ferguson

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Digging snow pits in the Mt. Baker backcountry. Photo by John Grace, courtesy AAI.

I’ve considered myself a backcountry skier since 2004 when, at the age of 14, I hiked Tuckerman Ravine on Mt. Washington with skis on my back and skied the Sherburne trail back to the parking lot. Every year since, I’ve increased my time in the backcountry. To go backcountry skiing for 10 years without formal avalanche training is pretty inexcusable, but it’s never too late. I finally took the plunge two weekends ago with the capable guides of the American Alpine Institute.

Over the three-day course our group learned how to assess avalanche danger and plan a backcountry trip accordingly. Those two tasks might seem easy, but they require complex skills: observing and understanding avalanche bulletins, weather data and the landscape, testing and assessing the snowpack, understanding avalanche terrain and your group dynamics and synthesizing all that information to choose the best routes of access and descent.

In addition to learning how to avoid avalanches, we learned what do to in the event of a burial. We learned how to properly execute a search and practiced searching for and recovering buried backpacks with avalanche transceivers.

It was a lot to learn in three days. Instead of overloading us with facts or trying to drill a rigid system of hard and fast rules into our heads, our instructors provided us with a solid base of applicable knowledge and a decision-making framework. They taught us to ask a lot of questions and think critically about how the answers should inform our decisions.

I won’t try to choose a few nuggets of avalanche wisdom to distill in a short blog post because any bits of knowledge would suffer from a lack of context from the whole class, but I will say that the snowpack in avalanche terrain is analogous to a sleeping dragon. As our instructor told us, your goal as a backcountry traveler should be to avoid poking the dragon in the eye. The course helps you accomplish that goal and has undoubtedly saved many lives.

On top of being potentially lifesaving, the course is a fun way to spend a weekend. You get to put your learning cap on, meet a bunch of folks with similar interests and tour around the Mt. Baker backcountry. Also, if you’re lucky you get to shred the “sicky gnar gnar” as our Coloradoan instructor Ben Gardner would jest. We weren’t so lucky – the danger of loose wet slides was very high on the weekend I went. On the plus side we saw a lot of recent avalanche signs that made for good examples of what to watch out for.

An avalanche class gives you the skills and knowledge to play safer out there, but as instructor Richard Riquelme pointed out, there is no such thing as completely safe in the backcountry. It’s up to you to apply the knowledge gained from an avy class to minimize risk. Statistically, I am now more likely to be caught in an avalanche now that I’ve taken the class. This is kind of a “duh” fact – those who have taken an avalanche course will probably increase their time spent in the backcountry, and the more time one spends in avalanche terrain the higher the statistical likelihood of getting caught in an avalanche. But it does hint at the fact that overconfidence plays a major role in many incidents. Often, avalanche victims are highly trained guides or avalanche specialists who took a calculated risk and lost. Regardless, there’s no denying that the more you know about how avalanches work, the easier it should be to avoid them. Taking the class gives you the tools to minimize the risk. Once you have that knowledge, it’s up to you to apply it.

Local guide services offering AAIARE avalanche courses:

American Alpine Institute: alpineinstitute.com

Mt. Baker Mountain Guides: mtbakerguides.com