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The Mount Baker Experience guide to avalanches

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Photo by Jason Griffith.

The ski season is just getting underway and as the saying goes, if there’s enough snow to ride, there’s enough snow to slide. We put together some of our favorite avalanche stories and resources together to help activate your avalanche brain at the beginning of the season.

How to get started

There are plenty of ways to dip your toes into the world of avalanche awareness for free locally, including:

Level 1 course

Most backcountry travelers take an AIARE (American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education) level 1 course or an AST 1 (Avalanche Skills Training 1, in Canada) as a prerequisite. Those are offered locally through several outlets, including the American Alpine Institute, Baker Mountain Guides and Canada West Mountain School.

Get a feel for what to expect in those courses with stories in our archives here and here.

The Northwest Avalanche Center publishes a list of classes here, and AIARE keeps a list of upcoming course offerings throughout the country here. Here’s Avalanche Canada’s version: avalanche.ca/training/courses

Speaking of NWAC and Avalanche Canada, both agencies put out a daily forecast that is the first step for most skiers and snowboarders when planning a tour. Find those at NWAC.us and avalanche.ca and brush up on how to read these avalanche bulletins here:

Avalanche Forecast Refresher: Brush-up and stay safe in the backcountry

 

 

Beyond AIARE I

The AIARE program changed in 2018, and now, for those ready to beyond AIARE I, there are two options, as John Minier of Baker Mountain Guides details in the link below:

Find Your Class: Avalanche education splits into professional and recreational tracks

“The long awaited professional-recreational split has arrived. With input from avalanche educators, the American Avalanche Association created new standards that reflect the split in recreational and professional avalanche education. The new AIARE Level 2 course has an emphasis on touring and decision-making that is more applicable for recreational backcountry travel. Aspiring avalanche professionals also get new curriculum that focuses on their needs, with more snow science.”

Heuristics and mental traps

When it comes down to it, avalanches don’t care how much you know about snow science. Beyond the basics, your time is probably best spent studying the human factors that lead to avalanche burials. Brush up on some common mental traps in the story below by American Alpine Institute’s Jason Martin.

Photo by Jason Hummel.

Avalanche Skills Guide: Identifying the mental traps that lead to most accidents

  • “You’ve skied this slope a hundred times and nothing’s ever happened before.
  • The line isn’t what you thought, but, hey, you’re here. You may as well stick to it.
  • You know you’re a badass. You can ski anything. You know all about avalanche terrain. You’ll be fine!
  • It’s a beautiful day. Nothing could possibly go wrong!
  • It doesn’t matter what the report said. Nothing’s happened all day, there’s no avalanche debris, you can ski this last steep run. The snow is solid.”

Look for the mental traps that Jason Martin lays out above in the following stories below:

Close call in the Canadian Rockies

“We eventually found all of the gear, but still hadn’t really figured out how to talk about what had happened. We all knew that avalanches could happen in the terrain we were in, and now that they had happened multiple times on moderate terrain during relatively “safe” days, were we willing to commit to more conservative decisions in the future?”


Back country bullfighting: Lessons from a fatal avalanche on Mt. Herman

 

“If you expect to play the game for any length of time, you must be willing to approach it with a professional mindset. In many ways, there is no such thing as a recreational backcountry skier or snowboarder. It’s like saying you’re a recreational bullfighter.”

Rescue technique

If the unthinkable ever does happen, you want to have practiced rescue, rather than be fumbling through it.

When all else fails: Avalanche companion rescue skills

“This list might seem obvious to the climber or skier sitting in the coffee shop and reading this, but when there’s an emergency, it’s easy to forget these steps. Rehearse your response. Practice with your beacon and with your buddies. And finally, cut this list out and keep it safely hidden away in your first aid kit for reference.”


Strategic shoveling

“The statistics tell us that most recreational avalanche victims are buried between 1 and 1.3 meters deep. To the uninitiated, this doesn’t sound that deep, but the reality is surprising. A burial at this depth requires the rescuer to remove up to one-and-a-half tons of snow! The proper digging strategy can mean the difference between life and death.”

 

FURTHER READING

Staying Alive in Avalanche Terrain, by Bruce Tremper

Bruce Tremper’s classic book is now in it’s third printing. Tremper, former director of the Utah Avalanche Center, provides easy to understand avalanche tips and skills for everything from evaluating snowpack to companion rescue. Reading this book at the beginning of every winter is a good practice.

 

Slide: The Avalanche Podcast

Slide: The Avalanche Podcast hasn’t released a new episode in a while and was fairly short-lived, but it’s a gem with a wealth of knowledge detailed over one and a half seasons. Producer Doug Krause tells stories with the tone of a friendly mentor backed up by the knowledge of 20 years working in snow science. The entertainment value and emphasis on communication make it an ideal listen on the way to the mountains with friends.

 

Snow Fall: The Avalanche at Tunnel Creek

The New York Times published this award-winning multimedia feature on the fatal 2012 Tunnel Creek Avalanche. The incident, in the Stevens Pass backcountry, attracted a lot of attention for the skill and experience level of those involved, as well as the history of the area – the deadliest avalanche in U.S. history buried a passenger train nearby in 1910 (The White Cascade, by Gary Krist, is a great book about that incident)

From our archives:

Snowmobile club installing beacon checkers at local trailheads, by Oliver Lazenby
Talk Back: The communication rule to live by, by Molly Baker
Staying Afloat: Avalanche airbags and you, By Jason D. Martin and Richard Riquelme
Inside Arc’teryx’s new avalanche air bag, by Oliver Lazenby