A few weeks ago, I had the good fortune to get into an Avalanche I course offered through the nearby Colorado Mountain College in Edwards (after being waitlisted for an earlier course in January). I wanted to take the course for general awareness purposes…and to have some info to back up my decisions about where it’s safe to climb and ski in the mountains. I’ve definitely felt freaked-out by avalanche danger in the French Alps, having watched avalanches and ice cliffs tumble down steep couloirs, listened to them crack and boom as they let loose during the night (photo, above: a fresh avalanche path in Chamonix that Andy and I walked over to climb a nice icefall just above). But I also know that this danger is very close to my home here in Vail, Colorado, where avalanches regularly occur in the backcountry. The course consisted of two classroom sessions and two field days at the Shrine Pass area, near the summit of Vail Pass.
The first day of field sessions was devoted to pit-digging and snowpack evaluation. We skinned up to a good slope and started shoveling:
We dug all the way down to the ground and then started chopping out a nice wall of snow so that we could see what kind of layers had accumulated:
In order to see where weak layers were buried in the snowpack, we did a series of tests…including the compression test, so nicely demonstrated here:
While all of the digging kept me warm, I preferred the search and rescue component of the course. Instructors buried avalanche beacons and clothing under the snow and concocted these great scenarios to keep us on our toes:
We also practiced the probe line, which is basically a last-resort technique that’s probably only going to be effective if you have this many people all out searching for a missing party:
I’d recommend a course like this for anyone out there adventuring in the mountains. The field days were great practice, and hopefully the practice of digging pits and evaluating terrain will be ongoing. But I hope I never have to practice a live search.