Avalanche skills training helps you identify avalanche terrain and avalanche danger so you can live to ski / snowshoe / sled 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 avalanche safety 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?
Avalanche Skills Training
If you’re interested in winter hiking, snowmobiling, and backcountry skiing, start with the FREE Intro to Avalanche Safety from Avalanche Canada, then take their FREE Avy Savvy online avalanche tutorial.
If Avy Savvy doesn’t scare you off exploring/playing in avalanche terrain, you should take the Level 1 Avalanche Skills Training (AST1 Course). 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! This two-day course provides classroom and field experience so you can better understand higher risk conditions and terrain. AST1 training is offered by Yamnuska Mountain Adventures and the University of Calgary Outdoor Centre.
If you intend on backcountry skiing, snowshoeing, or sledding (snowmobile), I encourage you to take AST1 and AST2, and carry all the safety gear.
Avalanche Safety Gear
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Avalanche Safety Gear you should carry when venturing into avalanche terrain includes the following: a transceiver, probe, and shovel. Each person needs to have his/her/their own gear and know how to use it!
An Avalanche Airbag Backpack, while costly, could help prevent you from being buried in an avalanche if deployed in time. It is designed to inflate rapidly to keep you near the surface of the snow.
Decision-making skills are as important as knowledge
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 (as demonstrated in the film below)!
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 kind of scary, 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, or in a safe, snowy spot before you reach 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 avalanche skills training practice runs, if a real person had been relying on us, he wouldn’t have made it as we wouldn’t have located and gotten him out in time! Fortunately by our third attempt, we were much quicker!
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 the video below. “A Dozen More Turns” was played in my AST1 class. It’s the true story of five experienced and knowledgeable backcountry skiers who were caught in an avalanche, and a sobering reminder why you need to avoid avalanche terrain when the avalanche danger is high/extreme, and how a single bad decision have life-altering/ending consequences. It was the most memorable part of the course besides the hands-on transceiver exercises.
How to Reduce the Risk of Being Caught in an Avalanche
Check the avalanche report! As mentioned previously, most fatalities occurred when the avalanche danger was high. If there is a MIN Report for where you’re going, that will also be helpful to understand current conditions.
- Avalanche Canada Avalanche Report shows you avalanche danger for the region.
- Mountain Information Network (MIN) Report has “real time, location specific” information.
Research your route and take training to better assess the risks. Staying out of the alpine and avoiding 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. Did you know that some trails in Class 1 Avalanche Terrain cross avalanche paths? Before attempting this trail, you need to check the Avalanche Report and learn how to cross an avalanche slope. You should avoid crossing the avalanche slope when the avalanche danger is High/Extreme/Above your comfort level. For example, I wouldn’t take my kids anywhere if the avalanche danger was above Low.). Also, contrary to popular belief, avalanches can and do travel beyond treeline in the right conditions, so you need to plan your route accordingly and know the risks AND conditions before you head out.
Carry avalanche safety gear, learn how to use it, and practice using it. It’s also important to keep your transceiver charged, so it will work if you need it. Not all search and rescue helicopters have RECCO detectors, so it’s very important to carry a transceiver (but having RECCO technology in your ski wear may help you be located by helicopter if it has a RECCO detector).
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 cross avalanche paths. For winter trails in Kananaskis and Banff, check out our story: Snowshoe Trails Near Calgary.
Stay safe, friends!
For More Information
- For up to date avalanche conditions, see Canadian Avalanche Association.
- Avalanche Skills Training Information may be found here: http://www.avalanche.ca/training.