AVALANCHE!!!!….. Skills Training

Before coming Whistler I’d always enjoyed exploring places on my snowboard. I’m not a park rat, I like big lines, big powder, and getting out into the wilderness. So to start building up my skills for going further afield I decided to undertake some Avalanche Skill Training (AST1). This is essential for going into the back country, don’t go out there with anyone who doesn’t have it! The aim of the course is to learn essential rescue skills and other avalanche theory so that when you head out you can minimize the risk of getting caught in an avalanche.

The evening before and Day 1 …

Before starting the course I needed to pick up an essential piece of kit for the course, a splitboard!! With skins and poles, I’d use this to do the touring part of the course – e.g. climbing hills! I didn’t have any experience of skinning on a split before this so I decided to skin up from the village to my accommodation in the evening and do some practising at splitting the board and putting it back together again. This is important as you don’t want to hold the group up on the mountain, so after a few attempts I could disassemble and re-assemble the thing in under two minutes, like some sort of cliché military rifle practice. I was also the only boarder of the group so the pressure really was on!

This is my splitboard. There are many like it, but this one is mine...

This is my splitboard. There are many like it, but this one is mine…

On the first day my group and I spent the morning learning the theory behind avalanches, what conditions can create them, triggers, snow pack properties, how to use the forecasts and reports, and what rescue steps to take if someone in your group is caught in one. This involved the use of an avalanche beacon, probe and shovel, and in order to practice we headed up Whistler Mountain, in somewhat white-out conditions, to an open spot and took turns burying our packs for the other members in the group to “rescue”. The procedure itself seems fairly simple, you start with a wide search pattern in the direction of the slide, towards where you last saw the casualty, and once you’ve picked up a signal with your beacon set to search mode, you quickly make your way towards the spot following the beacon. Once you’ve fine tuned your search and found the strongest signal, you can then begin to probe until you make contact the casualty and can then dig down to them. Sounds simple but it needs practise to refine the techniques and make each step as effective as possible. After plenty of practises, and with heavy snow falling (finally!!!) we made our way back down a wind loaded Saddle (ski run) back to the village, with a debrief on the way.

Day 2

Day 2 was entirely practical, we met at the bottom of Blackcomb mountain and after a morning meeting we headed up to the 7th Heaven area and towards the resort boundary! We would be heading in the direction of an area called Disease Ridge, and this required us to “skin up” and test our beacons before starting off over the undulating terrain.

About to go skinning..

About to go skinning..

Skinning is quite cool, the skins are made of a material that is like short animal hair and it makes it very easy to go up hill on any type of snow. We only went about half a mile, and it was fairly easy, and took way less time than if we had be snow shoeing or even worse boot packing!

Climbing the hill with my group.

Climbing the hill with my group.

After we reached a suitable spot our instructor demonstrated how to dig a snow pit to analyse the layers of the snow pack, and do a stress test. This was involved isolating a column of snow and then hitting is at different strengths with a shovel to see when it would slide, and where the fault would occur. Luckily for us the snow from the night before didn’t seem to move! We had a go at our own too. It was really interesting from a Geography point of view for me, I got to see a physical process in detail and have a go at testing it.

Ready for testing....

Ready for testing….

After the snow pits we did another large scale rescue practise involving multiple casualties being buried, and then we made our way back down the mountain for a round up, and our certificates! It was a really worth while course, and as long as I have the correct kit, I’ll feel much more prepared should I venture out into the back country in the future.

In other news, on the second day I was a bit distracted, as I missed out on my first attempt at a new visa that morning. The CIC website/ my internet was very slow and I couldn’t get everything filled out in the 12 minutes the round was open for. It’s not a massive issue as I’m further into the process for the next round, which should make it easy for me next time, but the next few days until the next round opens will be slow and stressful……. Hopefully my next post on here will report success……

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