The mountain classroom
If you didn’t notice the Sierras haven’t been graced with snow this year. Regardless, I can’t get it off my mind. This being the case I decided to do something I’ve needed to do for a long time. How long? Four or five years to be exact. I finally enrolled to get my AIARE Level I avalanche certification. We’ll talk more about what is AIARE later, but the certification consists of a three day, twenty four hour course that teaches snow science and safety. Hopefully the knowledge learned will be useful in avoiding avalanches. If you aren’t that lucky, then hopefully it will teach you how to deal with the situation if it occurs.
My journey into backcountry adventure and splitboarding
Let’s back up a little. Backcountry started for me roughly 5 years ago. It had been coming down pretty good in Tahoe that year. Some friends on the North Shore of the lake in Incline Village, NV asked us to come up and go “cross country skiing” with them…at night…being game for adventure there was no hesitation. I answered for me and my wife, “Sure, sounds awesome!” The only problem was we were snowboarders! Without going into further detail, the night was an experience. Fortunately, for me it didn’t scare me away and I actually wanted to explore further. The next few years I got out more and more. It started with borrowing snow shoes and hiking small stuff. Once at the top, it was time to ride down and repeat. Then some friends who tele-mark invited me to try and keep up with them. As they skinned up the mountain effortlessly, I trudged along in my snowshoes falling further and further behind as each step seemed to sink deeper like quicksand into the snow. After a couple years I was convinced I needed another mode of transportation. The desire to keep up and the adventure were the driving force. It was time for a splitboard.
For the last couple years I have been out earning my turns as they say. Not exclusively, but definitely enough to say I ride backcountry. I enjoy turns in a resort just like I enjoy untracked pow that you have to hike to ride. This isn’t about that though. This is about my decision making or lack thereof. Back when I began, the same friends gave me a book to read called “Snow Sense.” It’s a pretty in depth look at snow, avalanches and safety. Not one of my best moments, I read the book and decided I was equipped to take on mother nature. Off I went…I’ve been lucky enough to ride this long without incident. It didn’t seem like a big deal, until now…I sit here writing with my AIARE Level I certification under my belt. Now I really know how lucky I am.
So, AIARE. What’s AIARE?
Short and sweet it stands for American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education. They provide avalanche education to more backcountry users than any other organization in the U.S. An established and proven curriculum allows them to provide the best training all over the country. Over 300 instructors provide area specific instruction while covering all identified course information to ensure students receive detailed and overall avalanche knowledge.
Why is AIAIRE training a good idea and what’s the big deal with avalanches?
When we ski or ride a resort we go there with a sense of security. There’s no worrying about the snow except for how and where we are going to ride. Thanks to ski patrol at these resorts we don’t have to worry about a slide for the most part. Avalanches do happen in bounds at resorts, but they are rare. In the backcountry it’s a whole different story…we are the only ones making sure where we go and what we ride is safe. It is risky and the consequences are high. Education is the key.
Where can I go to learn more about avalanche training?
There are many locations that provide the certification in the Sierras. A number of the larger resorts have backcountry gates and provide AIARE training. Being one to support the local shops I opted to take my training at Tahoe Mountain School (TMS) in Truckee, CA. This is a great place. They offer not only avy training, but also:
- Wilderness First Aid (WFA)
- Wilderness First Responder (WFR) and
- Backcountry guides
Who trains you at Tahoe Mountain School?
The man in charge is Steve Reynaud. Steve’s been teaching avalanche courses since 1999 and has recently been able to open his own school. He is a true mountaineer. Steve works as a ski guide and as a professional field observer for the Sierra Avalanche Center. His job with the SAC takes him out in the field where he collects data and information that goes into the daily avalanche bulletins that serve the greater Tahoe/Truckee region. Steve is a certified Ski Mountaineering Guide through the American Mountain Guides Association and has been guiding throughout North America since 2005. Steve has been an EMT since 1997 and is currently a Wilderness EMT and is also a professional member of the American Avalanche Association. He has extensive training and experience managing groups in mountain environments and providing safe and enjoyable experiences. Steve has been an active part of the Tahoe Nordic Search and Rescue team performing rescues and promoting safe mountain experiences since 1995. He’s definitely qualified to dish out the knowledge. His partner for this course was Max Wittenberg. Max is a longtime backcountry enthusiast, a certified AIARE instructor and a heli-guide with Alaska Snowboarding Guides. The two worked well together and made it interesting and fun.
What does the course entail?
The course was interactive, divided up and was geared toward all experience levels. Each day began with a classroom portion followed by a “hands-on” portion in the field. As it was explained, avalanche courses are becoming more and more popular since the early 90’s. At that time the equipment made a lot of advances allowing users to go further into the backcountry. With more people going out into uncontrolled terrain, unfortunately there have been more avalanche incidents and deaths. For a closer look click on the chart below. It shows the number of avalanche fatalities per year in the U.S. You can see the spike I referred to above.
Here are some shocking statistics most don’t know:
The two major causes of death for avalanche victims are:
According to the American Avalanche Association the split is 75% – 25% respectively. In trauma cases death is caused by hitting a tree or other hard object or going over a cliff. Asphyxiation occurs when snow completely buries the victim. There is air in the snowpack, but once your buried you breathe and release heat in your breathe. That melts the snow around your face. In a short amount of time this melted snow refreezes causing an ice bubble around your face. Oxygen can no longer get in. In burial situations, if recovery occurs within 15 minutes there is a survival rate of 90%. Obviously, the more time that passes the lower the survival rate. If dug up after 30 minutes it drops to 40%. Now you are starting to see why understanding and education is so important.
So, how do you protect yourself in the backcountry?
TMS started off by explaining different types of snow and the avalanches that occur from each. Terrain features were the next topic followed by decision making and group dynamics. This was one of the more import areas of focus during the course. The rationale behind this is as follows. When caught and buried in an avalanche the average burial is 1 meter deep. This equates to roughly being covered by 1.5 tons of snow. Generally, a transceiver search takes 5 minutes and it takes 10 to 15 minutes for a person to move that much snow…based on the numbers earlier, even when the rescue goes perfectly time is of the essence. Therefore avoidance is key! TMS focused on identifying all the different factors that make this possible. There take is to make decisions that allow you to ride every day.
Stay tuned as we give you an inside look on what causes an avalanche, where they will occur, avoidance and survival skills!