Unless you've lived under a rock the last few years, you've definitely heard plenty of commotion about avalanche safety and the hazards of backcountry recreation. I certainly have, especially since within the last few years I have been spending more and more days out in the backcountry. I went from spending 1 day bootpacking in 2011 to around 15 days in the backcountry this season by the time all is said and done.
I had watched a few instructional videos online, read a few articles and even picked up a couple of books on backcountry safety. I had felt pretty confident about being out there safely and thought to myself that all of these serious accidents every year were simply the result people who shouldn't have been out there in the first place. Gear was getting better which made backcountry more accessible to less and less qualified people in my opinion. I have been snowboarding for 14 years now and get 50+ days on snow a season so that makes me an 'expert' and there was no way that I'd be one of these people to get caught in an avalanche.
Well guess what, nature doesn't care how hard you rip the piste, how many inbounds cliffs you've dropped or how many shotskis you've taken at apres. Taking this course was a big wake up call that thankfully came before it was too late. I found out real quick that I actually didn't know much at all about avalanche safety and that I was simply getting lucky every time. I cannot stress enough how much I advocate taking at least a level 1 AIARE course before you head back out there.
The class I ended up taking was through Colorado Wilderness Rides and Guides(CWRAG) run by Joshua Baruch and based in Boulder, CO simply because it was the only one that fit our schedules. I am very happy we did because it turned out that they are pretty awesome and super knowledgeable. I highly recommend taking a course through them but if not you can find a list of other organizations that offer classes sorted by region at avalanche.org.
Prior to the course even beginning we had some homework and had to read a couple of case studies that set the mood for the course. I will not give away what they were but they definitely reinstated that nature doesn't care how good a snowboarder you are. If you don't respect the terrain and the danger that comes with it then anyone can pay the ultimate price. That was one of the key themes throughout the course. That you always need to mitigate the risk involved because if you make a mistake in the backcountry a lot of the time you don't get a second chance.
Days 1 and 2 of the course were actually nights 1 and 2 and were in a classroom in Boulder for 4 hours per night. These nights were a crash course on reading the forecast, reading the avalanche report, reading the terrain, route planning, group dynamics and gear selection. It's a lot of info to take in so bring some extra caffeine to help keep you alert.
Day 3 was when the action started. We met up at the East Portal Trailhead at the Moffat Tunnel and geared up for the day. We set off and stopped a short way up the trail where our instructors, Josh, Zack and Jill, went over how to perform a beacon check and demonstrated a buddy rescue. After the quick lesson we split up into three groups and headed on up the trail each to a different location. This is where the fun began.
My instructor for the day was Zack and he did not hesitate to get right into it. He asked for a volunteer to perform a buddy rescue and luckily someone else jumped in before I reluctantly raised my hand to be the guinea pig. We sent him about 50 yards up the slope before we buried a beacon in a tupperware while he looked away. Without any instruction he tried his best to perform a buddy rescue. I will admit, he did better than I would have.
Using him as an example we discussed everything he did wrong and went over all of the steps and techniques involved in a buddy rescue. We then took turns one by one trying to rescue our poor tupperware beacon. Standing on the sidelines it was easy to point out where people went wrong. But as soon as I was up there knowing that my inanimate friend was buried and needed my help a little panic set in. Your adrenaline starts to kick in and you want to move a mile a minute and needless to say I made a few mistakes that I had just pointed out to others only a few minutes prior.
This is why these courses are so important. You need to learn how to do this properly from professionals and then practice on your own until it becomes second nature. If I got nervous about saving my tupperware buddy I can only imagine how nerve-racking it must be to have to try to save a friend in a real life situation. This is something I hope to never have to do but if the situation arises I want to be prepared and be sure that everyone else in my group for the day is prepared as well.
After everyone had a chance to go on their own we did a couple of group rescue exercises before leaving the skin track and breaking our own trail up the slope. Along the way we discussed group dynamics, route selection and dug a few snow pits to see all the different layers in the snow. Zack walked us through a few snow tests and a little of the science of the snowpack. We then ripped some turns all the way back to the trailhead where we debriefed before heading home for the day.
Day 4 began at Kind Coffee in Estes Park where we had breakfast and mixed up the groups a bit before planning our day. My instructor for the day was Jill and we went over topo maps and the avalanche forecast as a group. It was a very democratic effort in regards to route planning, making sure everyone was on the same page. Once we were all happy with the plan we loaded up the cars and headed to Rocky Mountain National Park and met up again at Bear Lake Trailhead.
We geared up, went through our beacon check then started on our set plan for the day. We took turns leading the group and did quick snow stability tests along the way until we settled on a spot that we felt was a good test slope to dig a snow pit. I wish I had thrown on some more layers at this point since we spent quite a bit of time working on compression tests, column tests, shovel shear tests and even a Rutschblock test if I remember correctly.
After we had our fill of digging we collapsed the pit and continued on towards our objective which was an open face farther up the trail. At the base of the objective Jill had us dig more pits to do compression tests since they would be more representative of the snowpack we wanted to shred up above. After confirming that we could safely travel up the face while avoiding certain terrain traps we discussed our ascent.
Avoiding anything over 35 degrees as well as any convex rollovers we made our way up the face. The face was very exposed to the wind, making wind slabs a very real potential hazard as there was recent snowfall. We climbed as high as we felt comfortable as a group and ducked into a few isolated trees to get some shelter as we switched from skin mode to shred mode.
We dropped in one by one, enjoying each and every turn. After regrouping at the bottom we made our way back down the skin track to the trailhead where we debriefed. Once the last group made their way down we loaded up the cars again and everyone met up at the Estes Park Brewery to share our stories over some good food and great beer.
Having taken the class I have gone back and looked at topo maps and avalanche forecasts from days in the backcountry before the course and came to realize that I have gotten lucky and perhaps not always chosen the best route considering the avalanche hazards of the day. I am happy to now know that at the very minimum I can be confident in my decision making when heading into out of bounds terrain.
These courses are meant to be a starting point for safe backcountry travel so don't expect to be an expert at the end. You can consider yourself an expert when you can say you've been heading into the backcountry safely for 30+ years. It is up to you to take this knowledge and expand upon it year after year through experience and research. A goof follow up to the course is Staying Alive in Avalanche Terrain by Bruce Temper. The courses definitely aren't cheap but think of it this way... you are investing in yourself.