Early season is always a challenge no matter where you venture. It’s typically a ribbon of death or there are monsters lurking underneath that can cut your season short. Instead of either, we decided to use this time of year to work on our next set of backcountry courses AND get some tasty turns in. To make this happen, we booked our avalanche rescue course with Outdoor Adventure Club. Since this class is only a day long, it would give us a chance to get some backcountry skiing in at Lassen National Park. Win! Win!
New Avalanche Training Courses
For those that have done the AIARE 1 (American Institute for Avalanche Research & Education) course, part of the curriculum is to teach you companion rescue. The 3-day course is packed with information but just scratches the surface of rescue, making it more of an introduction. Lots of great teachings, but it almost feels like they give you the keys to the car without enough driver’s education and say “Have at it!” At least for me, it made me feel like I was lacking a lot. Fortunately last year, AIARE upgraded their recreational training to have a separate avalanche rescue course and a NEW AIARE 2 course to further dive into more details.
What We Learned In Avalanche Rescue Course
Since we already had the basic grasp of how to use the tools of the trade: an avalanche beacon, shovel & probe, it was now time to hone those skills. So, what did we learn? Here’s just a small sampling:
Use the AIARE Checklist
If you have a friend buried underneath the snow, time is important but following the AIARE quick reference guide is key. For example, what if a pilot who is flying you from SF to LA gets onto the PA system and says “Howdy from the flight deck! You’re in for a treat today because this is my 10,000th flight. To celebrate this achievement, I’m going to go through the pre-flight checklist off of memory.” Would you be happy about it? I wouldn’t!
Time is essential but having a moment to gather your thoughts and be calm is critical. If you follow the checklist and go through it slowly, you’ll actually be faster. Crazy thought, huh?!?
Be the Golden State of Avalanche Rescue
What makes the Golden State Warriors so good? It’s because they practice together. Having a plan on practicing with your normal backcountry crew, perhaps every third day out, makes sure that everyone’s skills stay sharp. It only takes ten minutes or less to run through a rescue scenario. Are you REALLY in that much of a hurry?
Do you REALLY know how far 40 meters is?
Understanding your tools is critical and for the avalanche beacon, truly understanding your ability to pick up a buried victim’s signal is key. One of the many things we learned is that a modern avalanche beacon can hear a transceiver from AT LEAST 40 meters away. As our instructor demonstrated, the actual distance of 40 meters it’s A LOT further than you’d think out in the snow.
Backcountry Skiing Lassen National Park – Infinite Possibilities
After a full day of learning, we were all eager to get some “research” in for backcountry skiing Lassen National Park. Before we even stepped onto the snow, the night before we drooled over the topographical map. The amount of choices even for a day trip were infinite! Based on our discussions, we knew that the three key things to watch out for were:
- Early season obstacles
- Storm Slab
- Wind Slab
Our decision was to avoid avalanche terrain and keep on terrain less than 30 degrees. Picking our route, we checked the Caltopo map to make sure we were right.
Blue Bird and Cold
Thrusting the curtains open, we looked at the surrounding peaks from the sleepy town of Mineral. The day dawned clear, crisp and cold! No wind or evidence of blowing snow from the peaks. Woo hoo! While the day before had a lot of wind and snow to transport, at least it wasn’t going to be too windy today. Scarfing down our breakfast, we threw on our warmest clothes and hopped into our trucks.
Fallen Trees, Boulders and Stumps Oh My!
Making a left into the park, we scan the horizon. Our focus is on looking at the snow to give us clues of what might be happening. Based on yesterday’s class, we knew the snow was about three feet deep. Jaime voices out her concerns, “Boy, there’s a lot of fallen trees, rocks and stumps.” I nervously nod and vividly remember what happened on our last trip here. While in a resort, you could send off of these types of obstacles. But in the backcountry, we’ll do our best to avoid these types of issues.
Houston, We’re Go For Launch
Zipping up our jackets and gathering our gear, we form a circle and go through our AIARE communication checklist. Our plan seems valid, beacons are on & working, and we know we’re going to travel together. We all then agree to take our first steps into the unknown. The snow is dry but still has a bit of body to it. The warm rays of the sun feel good but A LOT warmer than we thought. Peeling off our heavy layers, we slowly travel up the slope.
Test Slope Looks Good
Overhead, the sky is a deep cobalt. Turning our attention to Mt. Lassen, the clouds loom in the distance like a silver-gray woolen coat. Mark notices a small roll-over next to the skin track and suggests a quick test. The slope angle and aspect is the miniature twin-brother of what we want to shred. It was a good sample to see if the snow will hold. Skinning across it, he proceeds to jump up and down trying his best to make it slide. Alas, to no avail. We do this a few more times as we ascend just to confirm our thinking. It looks good to shred!
The Skinning Is Tough But Fun
Step-by-step, inch-by-inch we shuffle our way up the ridgeline towards our goal. My lungs feel good, but my legs are another story. The lactic acid build-up is a bit more than normal, making the hike up a little arduous. A sense of overwhelming happiness comes over me. After six months of summer activities, it’s great to be back on snow.
Sun Is Replaced By Flurries
Around three quarters of the way up, those clouds that were hugging Mt. Lassen are now on top of us. A few flakes fall down from the sky. The warmth is now replaced with a cold chill. Quickly, we zip our shells up and continue to trudge skyward. Making it over the final hill, we reach the summit and stop for a moment. Scanning the rugged landscape, all we see is slope after glorious slope to slash. A vast playground with enough space for everyone to get first tracks.
Cold Smoke Pow!
After a quick bite to refuel, we transform our two planks into snowboards and ratchet ourselves into them. Looking down the blank canvas in front of us, we don’t see any obstacles to avoid. Richard yells out “Let ‘er rip tater chip!” With no more coaxing, I drop in and lean back. I yell out a big howl like a wolf to a full moon. I then transfer my weight the other direction and flow into the cloud of snow I just created, flying right through it.
Rinse, Lather, Repeat…
Pulling up to our next regroup spot, I watch from below as each person devours the perfect pitch of goodness. Plumes of cold smoke pow jettison after each turn. We navigate our way through a few glades filled with obstacles and end up on another perfect blank canvas of untouched snow.
Pointing it down the fall-line, I lean slightly back and make a toe-side turn. Pushing all my weight into it, I explode to the other side. For a moment, a sense of weightlessness came over me. Bouncing from side to side slowly, I make my way to the bottom and turn around quickly. I can see each of us has begun to regain their “mojo”. The turns become more pronounced and silky like a knife spreading the butter onto a bun. Perfection.
Gazing up, we take in our dandy work. Slapping high fives all around, it was well worth it. As we made our way back to Tahoe, our thoughts drift to all the terrain Lassen still has to shred. Like Arnold Schwarzenegger said in Terminator… “I’ll be back!”