*Heads up: this post is not a substitute for actual avalanche skills training; please be safe out there! Sign up for an AST course in your area via Avalanche Canada and Avalanche Quebec. MEC has been a proud partner of Avalanche Canada for over 25 years.
Skiers love to talk a big game about powder. It’s the ultimate trophy – and frankly, a lot easier to come by in the backcountry. As someone who has been resort skiing all my life, my bragging rights only went so far. Meanwhile, friends and colleagues would return from a weekend of fresh lines and waist-deep powder. Serious envy would set in.
Backcountry skiing was always the next logical step, but I knew I needed to be trained for the possibility of an avalanche. From a friend getting caught in one of Kananaskis Country’s notorious slides to MEC Ambassador Bruce Kirkby living to tell the tale to the unprecedented rescue at Cherry Bowl (a size 3.5 avalanche big enough to destroy a small building buried a group of skiers), the necessity of an Avalanche Skills Training (AST) course was clear. So, I corralled a crew of MEC staffers to come with me to Whistler and get certified. My first backcountry ski outing was going to be on this course – find out what I learned along the way.
Our crew was eight strong: Elyse and Brian were avid backcountry skiers and were taking the course as a refresher; the rest of us – Jaime, Matty, Lauren, Matt, Alyson and I – were intermediate to advanced resort skiers, ready to learn the ropes. The weekend consisted of classroom sessions and field time over two days, all led by our expert Extremely Canadian instructor, Mitch.
We started in the classroom the evening we arrived, diving right into lessons in snowpack, crosswinds and travel techniques. We learned the difference between alpine, treeline and below treeline terrain; the importance of direction in avalanche reports (winds SE, slabs in NW, for example); and how avalanches over the last 48 hours are the number one indicator of more avalanches. We left our classroom buzzing with new information, things we would put into practice the next day on the hill.
Avalanches over the last 48 hours are the number one indicator of more avalanches.
Suited up with touring skis, skins, transceivers, layers and snacks (we followed this touring pack list), we met Mitch and took a couple lifts to an on-mountain lodge to plan our day. Topographic maps, the Avalanche Canada app (also for Android), and a couple of phone calls to listen to snow reports gave us our base information for the day: new snowfall, winds, number of avalanches in the past 24 hours, danger ratings, signs of instability, weather changes, and recent loading. Using our Avaluator cards, we went over the conditions and terrain characteristics to determine what was skiable.
Once outside, Mitch had us circle up and test our transceivers to make sure our transmitting and receiving modes were working. Elyse was tasked with finding the rest of us. “I got you, Kim. Got you Matt.”
Mitch was in for a bit of a surprise when he realized he’d be giving a few of us an impromptu lesson on skinning and kick-turns. Most backcountry courses assume that you’ll know how to use touring gear and apply/remove your skins beforehand, so grab some rental gear and ask an experienced backcountry skier to show you the ropes on a small hill near your home or just off the side of a resort run. There’s so much to learn during an AST1 course, and the last thing you want to think about is fussing with your gear or learning kick-turns on the fly. It’s surprisingly fun to head uphill, although you learn very quickly why backcountry ski clothing is a finessed layering system – you’re going to get warm hiking up a mountain.
This is what skiers mean when they say you earn your turns.
Even in a small crop of trees off the side of a popular run, it felt like we were in another world. Things were suddenly more silent and serene; the snow was unimaginably soft and forgiving. The climb added a whole new element to a day on the hill. This is what skiers mean when they say you earn your turns; every time we slid our skis higher, taking turns breaking trail, we thought more about the sweetness of the descent.
We skinned and traversed from slope to slope, seeing real-life examples of top- and cross-loading snow as well as terrain types: simple, challenging and complex. Mitch spoke about the grainy quality of the snow, its elasticity and red-alert warning signs: rain causes the fastest changes in the snowpack; 35- to 45-degrees are the most frequent avalanche angles; when there are rocks at the top of a slope dotted with snow, avoid them; if you can hear water running under the snow in the spring, get off the snow!
On our second day, Mitch gathered us for a test profile, sawing into the snow like a layer cake. After looking and feeling for strong and weak layers, he took a chunk off on his shovel and bumped it with his palm from below. The snow jumped and shifted, and we could instantly see the stresses placed on the pack by gravity.
The window for a successful rescue is just 10 minutes.
After dismantling our test site to keep it safe for other skiers, we practiced a rescue. This drill really underscored how hard it is to successfully retrieve avalanche victims. Finding a signal, probing and digging – even in our V formation – is exhausting. The window for a successful rescue is just 10 minutes. Nearly 80% of buried victims survive if they are out in that time, but at 15 minutes, survival drops to 40%, and after 35 minutes, it’s less than 10%.
Backcountry skiing is as alarming as it is alluring, and there is so much to avalanche training that I haven’t mentioned here. The only way to really be ready is to take courses available through Avalanche Canada, Avalanche Quebec and other accredited organizations, and then get out and practice your skills.
While I have my AST1 certification now, the learning never really stops. I plan to upgrade my avalanche skills with refresher and companion rescue courses as I go. In the meantime, you can find me tagging along with experienced backcountry riders on the weekend, gearing up for a hut trip, or practicing my #humblebrag with stories of sweet, sweet pow.
MEC is committed to supporting avalanche skills training, public awareness and good times outside. Special thanks to Mitch for his careful instruction and good humour on our AST1 course.