February 5, 2020
Heads up: this post isnot**a substitute for actual avalanche skills training; please be safe out there. Sign up for an avalanche safety course in your area via Avalanche Canada or Avalanche Quebec. MEC has been a proud partner of Avalanche Canada for more than 25 years.
I’ve been skiing my entire life, from competing in moguls at a young age to representing Canada twice at the Olympics in slopestyle. Now I’m ready for a new challenge: becoming a backcountry-focused skier.
I know that I need to learn new skills and gain more knowledge about the backcountry – not just for my own benefit, but also to keep my ski partners safe. When the opportunity to join a four-day Avalanche Canada AST 2 (avalanche skills training) course at Whitecap Alpine came up, I jumped on board. I came away from the course learning everything that I’d hoped for and more.
Wondering what happens in an AST 2 course? This photo essay gives you an inside look:
First up: a classroom session – an AST 2 class involves at least 9.5 hours of classroom instruction. We got into snowpack layering, avalanche problems, avalanche types, avalanche terrain, pre-trip planning, reducing risk and rescue skills. After the first four hours in front of a projector, I remember thinking, “How am I ever going to remember all of this?”
On our first day in the field, we grouped together in a flat snowfield to do a refresher on a companion rescue skills. As we headed up the run, we went over our route plan, which included discussing ATES (avalanche terrain exposure scale), key decision points, safe route options, terrain cautions and travel techniques. I became more comfortable identifying, practicing and giving input on these things as the course went on.
Filling out my decision-making in avalanche terrain field book was one of the ways we started each morning. Going through the parts of the field book helped us learn to use the avalanche forecast to carry out the necessary research for the day. I found it a great tool to ensure I didn’t miss out on any critical information from the forecast. It only took about 10–15 minutes and helped me make better decisions in the field.
Our instructor Peter showed us how to build a snow profile and take a better look at the current snowpack. We were able to locate the persistent weak layer and test the snow’s reactivity and propagation propensity, which can help you predict the avalanche probability in that area. We found that not every CT/ECT (compression test/extended column test) had the same results, and learned it was important to do a few tests in your pit and other locations as the snow varies place to place.
The multi-burial search exercise was key. Working through this group exercise really helped me understand how stressful a search situation can become, and how important it is to work efficiently as a team.
Along with the big picture, we got up close and analyzed snow crystals in more detail.
We did manage to get some skiing in, along with lots of conversations about safe route finding. At one point, we split into two groups and all took turns leading our crew up through the terrain above the cabin, and then found a safe line to ski back down.
I was definitely nervous on the leading portion, but our instructor was patient and answered any questions I had. One thing I’ve found is that the backcountry can be a place where people get intimidated by asking questions or addressing concerns – but this shouldn’t be the case. Instead, it should be a place where people can speak up, especially if they feel uncomfortable with a situation.
About 40cm of snow fell during our course, so the avalanche danger was “high” in the alpine, tree line and below tree line. My group set off two remote avalanches, one while ski touring up a slope (size 1) and the other while skiing along a ridgeline (size 2.5, shown in the photo above). This really put into perspective how unpredictable avalanches can be and how you can set them off from a considerable distance (i.e. a remote trigger). We were safe from the avalanches, as we’d selected terrain that was appropriate for the dangerous conditions, but it was a reminder of how important it is to have the knowledge to make those good choices.
It was one thing to sit in the classroom and discuss avalanche risk and danger, but to see the power of masses of moving snow in person was a real eye-opener and definitely made me take a step back to think about every decision twice.
And all that classroom info I was worried about forgetting? Once we got into the field, we constantly revisited the topics we learned in class and saw how they related to real life circumstances. The good news: after four days of applying all this new knowledge in the mountain environment, everything I learned in the classroom seemed to stick.
With backcountry skiing and riding becoming more popular, I highly recommend that anyone looking to further their backcountry knowledge and skills should take courses through Avalanche Canada or other accredited organizations. The learning for me doesn’t stop here – now it’s time to put these skills to use and find someone I feel confident and comfortable with to mentor me.
If you’ve taken an Avalanche Canada AST 1, have a decent amount of experience in the backcountry, and want to spend more days in the wild, then an Avalanche Canada AST 2 is the next step.Find an AST 2 course on the Avalanche Canada site.