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Tales From an Avy 1 Course

Our college intern thought he was done learning when he left campus, but he was wrong—especially when regarding the backcountry.
posted: 03/31/2014

I’ve been growing tired of ski resort employees plastered with fake smiles, hoity-toity people with gear that could pay a chunk of my college tuition, and signs that tell me where I can and can’t ski. So in an effort to get a different experience, maximize my time on the mountain, avoid the masses, and get some fresh turns, I signed up for an Avy 1 course.

I found Apex Ex—a company devoted to outdoor education and guiding newbies like me—which offered the entry-level avalanche awareness and prevention class.  The course included two days in the backcountry, and a day’s worth of online homework I had to complete before arriving.

After a few days of studying and scavenging for the needed equipment, which Apex also rents, I was ready. With probe, beacon, shovel, saw, skins, and more stuffed into my pack, I met a small group of strangers on the outskirts of Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado. Our guide was 30-year-old Spencer Hennigan, a Tetons-based backcountry guide who is AIARE Level II certified, and has a resume full of outdoor education and guiding jobs.

Contrary to my rookie thought process, the course wouldn’t consist of picking our favorite lines and figuring out if they were safe to ski, instead we would spend our two days in the backcountry skinning, conducting various tests, and learning how to properly use our avy rescue gear. While I have to admit I was a bit disappointed the course itself wouldn’t allow for much skiing, I was comforted by the fact that I would walk away from the experience with a ton of knowledge on snow science and rescue practices.

We started our journey with a two-hour skin to Bear Lake. From the moment we started toward the lake, everything I expected went out the window.

At Bear Lake, we dug a few pits and conducted other tests including compression, shovel shear, and extended column tests that aid in analyzing the snowpack. Executing these tests not only allowed us to examine the structure of the snowpack, and its ability to propagate, but also illustrated exactly how various ingredients come together to cause an avalanche.

On the second day, we learned how to properly use a beacon: By hiding our beacons in the snow, we had a safe opportunity to go through the stages of beacon searching, probing, and shoveling that was designed to mimick a real-life rescue situation.

Like any newcomer, I found myself constantly looking for concrete concepts to latch onto and put to use. However, the more Hennigan talked and showed us, the more I realized that, like the snowpack itself, the science behind avalanche prevention can be pretty unstable.

Despite Hennigan’s experience in the field, he showed us how subjective everything in the backcountry is. No matter what we saw, felt, heard, or did, every natural feature had to be viewed individually. This meant there wasn’t a single rule that could be applied generally to anything. When skiing in the backcountry, there aren’t smiling resort employees to tell you what’s safe. It’s you and the mountains.

Am I intimidated? Yes. Humbled? Very. But deterred? Hopefully not.

I learned how to identify common types of avalanches, the various red flags to watch for, the proper way to conduct various pit and on-the-go tests, how to analyze the mountains to avoid terrain traps, and the proper way to conduct a rescue if something goes wrong. With all of the information and methods I was taught, I felt prepared to begin taking baby steps that could lead me to the untouched descents I had always dreamt of.

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