Avalanche skills training helps you identify avalanche terrain and danger so you can live to ski / snowshoe another day.
Getting away from the crowds and having powder to yourself is appealing, but not to be undertaken without training. After completing an Avalanche Skills Training (AST1) course, I quickly realized there was a lot more to avalanche safety than I realized. Every person in your party must be knowledgeable, carrying avy gear, and willing to work with others to stay safe. The “human factor” is usually what gets people into trouble; poor decision making versus bad luck. How do you make good decisions if you’re not informed?
Decision making skills are important too
Choosing a safe route seems straightforward (look for lower angle terrain, avoid open areas and avalanche slopes for a start), but what do you do when people in your group refuse to take the safest way down? As we all know, the best skiing is on terrain with the highest avalanche risk! Class discussions opened with exclamations of “That ridge looks pretty sweet!” then changed to “But, yeah, it would be kinda sketchy.” when everyone realized that was exactly where we shouldn’t be skiing on a high risk day. Your group must be unanimous in its decisions to minimize risk as it only takes one person to endanger the whole group!
Practice, practice, practice
Conducting mock rescues with several people who kept forgetting to turn their transceivers from transmit to receive (necessary so you can get the signals of those trapped beneath the snow) was a bit frightening (every minute counts!), but it was downright terrifying to learn more often than not, rescues involve recovery of bodies or body parts, rather than survivors. The only good news we got, was that most fatalities occurred when avalanche danger was high, so by avoiding those conditions, we greatly reduce the risk of serious injury or death. Because it’s easy to forget what to do in an emergency situation, you should do a beacon practice every time you head out (in the parking lot – before you get into avalanche terrain).
Do you trust the people you’re adventuring with to choose a safe route and not trigger an avalanche above you? Do they know how to use their avalanche safety gear? In our in-class simulations, if a real person had been relying on us, he wouldn’t have made it as we wouldn’t have located and dug him out in time!
At a minimum, if you adventure in the mountains year round, you should take Level 1 Avalanche Skills Training. It’s not just for backcountry users and it’s not ok for just one person in the group to have the training – especially if that person is buried in snow! If cost is an issue, there are several resources online (such as this free online avalanche tutorial at http://www.avalanche.ca/training) and at your local library.
The Biggest Takeaway from my Avalanche Skills Training Course
If I haven’t convinced you of the value of avalanche safety training yet, please watch this video. I saw “A Dozen More Turns” in my AST1 class; the true story of five guys who went on a backcountry ski trip and were caught in an avalanche. It was the most memorable part of the course besides the hands-on transceiver exercises.
How to Reduce the Risk
Avalanche danger is quite high right now in the Canadian Rockies (“Considerable” at and above treeline and moderate below treeline as of today). Staying out of the alpine and high angle terrain (steeper than 30 degrees) are a start to staying safe, but educating yourself is the best thing you can do to minimize the risk of being caught in an avalanche. Contrary to popular belief, avalanches can and do travel beyond treeline, so you need to plan your route accordingly and know conditions before you head out.
If you do not have training, I encourage you to stick to official winter trails as posted on Alberta Parks and Parks Canada. They are pretty good about indicating if the trail is in avalanche terrain, but you should read the trail descriptions carefully to ensure the trail does not go through avalanche paths (some Class 1 travels through infrequent avalanche paths). If it does, you should avoid that trail when the avalanche report is high or extreme. We have a list of Winter Trails and Trail Reports for Banff and Kananaskis on the blog in PDF format.
Stay safe, friends!