Mt Baker is my primary aspiration for backcountry skiing. When I worked here, I desperately wanted to venture out the gates into the endless mountains, but held back due to lack of gear and knowledge. But the Chicago career afforded me the alpine touring gear I needed, and now its time to get the knowledge in place. So it seemed fitting that this would be the place of my first formal avalanche safety training.
At first, I wasn’t sure it would work out because the class I needed to take was booked up. But I got on the waiting list and the instructor advised me to just show up anyway in case someone didn’t make it. As so often happens, it worked out because I went for it. Our instructor, Jeff, was a totally rad dude who makes avalanche safety seem cool. It is cool, because backcountry skiing is cool, and avalanche safety is inextricable from it. The science is fascinating, and during the classroom sessions I would probe all kinds of questions sending Jeff way off the deep end at times. But it was extremely valuable for me to have that kind of interaction with an experienced avalanche veteran.
Jeff shared his personal stories about avalanches he was involved in. Crazy. He was buried once in a completely preventable situation in a shallow slide that you’d never expect could bury you. One of the biggest dangers is familiarity and inaccurate assessment of the potential power beneath your feet.
It was great to practice the rescue scenarios in the field. We had a great group of ranging abilities. But somehow we all clicked, and when it came time for testing our skills, we rose to the occasion with enthusiasm. The instructors would bury several backpacks with transceivers in them in hidden locations. Then we would ski to the scene, and they would report the avalanche to us, often saying there were people buried and the weren’t sure how many. One person from our group would take the lead, advising the others what to do and where to go, splitting the search party across the slope and discovering multiple buried backpacks. We had 15 minutes to establish an airway, after that any survivors are likely to suffocate. In all three of our test scenarios we found and dug up all the backpacks within the 15 minutes. One scenario even included a body with no transceiver to locate, simply a glove on the surface that gave you a clue. The instructors were all impressed, I guess we were the first group to find the hidden body within 15 minutes in “a long time”.
The biggest mistake I saw our group making was the tendency to rush. But rushing the locating and probing process wastes time in the long run. The best approach was described to me as a run, walk, crawl scenario. At first you are scrambling to get everyone searching and find a signal as fast as possible. Then when you get within 15 meters or so you need to slow way down, and pop off your ski gear to walk. When you get within a few meters, you literally get on hands and knees right at snow level and find the strongest signal. Its best to take a deep breath and repeat this process to make sure you’ve got it right, paying attention to the location as well as the depth. Then you probe carefully and methodically. Hasty probing can waste lots of time. Then dig from the downhill side into the slope, paying close attention at the depth you need to dig by evidence of the probe strike.
Although avalanches are super scary and I still have lots to learn about avoiding them, I take some comfort in knowing and practicing what to do in case I ever encounter one. If that ever happens, you have to be automatic.
We spent a lot of time reading terrain and looking at recent avalanches as well. This part was super useful. The best indicator of avalanche activity is avalanches, so many lessons can be learned from simply observing your terrain. While doing this, we also observed a unicyclist riding down the mountain (photo below). I love this place 🙂