Take a class, carry rescue gear in the backcountry, your life may depend on it
By Emily Palm
Last month, two snowboarders set out to ride the backcountry at Berthoud Pass, but only one came home.
Since his partner lacked a probe, beacon, and shovel, the man who died in a January 17 slide along the “High Trail Cliffs” northeast of Berthoud Pass left his avalanche protection and rescue gear in the car.
One never knows, but I can’t help but wonder: If the pair had attended one of the annual free avalanche-awareness clinics put on by the Friends of Berthoud Pass, could this death have been prevented?
Last weekend, FOBP held its seventh annual on-snow portion of their grassroots avalanche awareness outreach program. Ideally, someone who recreates in the backcountry during the winter takes an avalanche I course, and attends a yearly refresher. Such full-blown courses can cost upwards of $300 (worth every penny, but pricy), so the FOBP class is a great start to garnering life-saving avalanche savvy.
Though I took an avy I class five years ago, I can definitely say I’ve learned more in the field digging avalanche pits with my backcountry buddies and attending the FOBP classes. Over the years, my knowledge base has taken me from passive student simply absorbing information, to being the one talking our instructors’ ears off with questions, theories and “what would you do” scenarios.
Our instructors, Gary Apostolou and Mike Bean, shared invaluable tips and down-and-dirty snow tests while skinning up the west side of Berthoud Pass.
As we headed up, we used our ski poles to punch through layers in the snow. Quick tests can show the layers and the energy in the snowpack. Apostolou compares the stored energy to a rubber band wound tights waiting for a knife to hit it.
“And your skis are the knife,” he said.
Another good test when skinning up is to do a kick-turn and take a look at the stability of the snow isolated by your tracks. A mini-Rutschblock test, if you will.
We hiked up to a spot to dig a pit and check out the layers in the snow. While spatial variability can yield inconsistent snow pit results, it’s still good practice to add the information gleaned from pits to the quiver.
All of the clues in the snowpack-stability puzzle help inform the backcountry skier. It begins when you check out the avalanche forecast in the morning. It continues with the down-and-dirty tests and observations on the skin up. (Shooting cracks out from under you, a whoomphing sound, rapid temperature change, and snowfall accumulation of more than an inch an hour are all red flags in my book.)
Observed weak layers found in a pit, and other stability test results, can then guide whether your group skis the steeps you’d hoped to, or head down the lower angle route that’s less avalanche prone.
An important thing to remember is that you are looking for reasons not to ski, not the opposite. In other words, the work of understanding the avalanche dragon never stops.
More at www.EmilyPalm.com.
Filed under: avalanches