In the Swedish movie, Force Majeure, a family goes on a ski holiday, an avalanche occurs, and the entire plot centers on how the husband and wife respond to it.
It’s a comedy, a dark comedy.
If you saw the American remake, Downhill, starring Will Ferrell and Julia Louis-Dreyfus, it, too, was wickedly, sometimes viciously funny, and it was released on Valentine's Day. Hysterical!
No, avalanches are not funny. They can be scary, dangerous and sometimes deadly. However, like many things beyond our conception or control, i.e., extreme weather, sports, wildlife, war, traffic, etc., we can only wrap our heads around the perceived risks and their potential consequences with over-rationalization or a bit of dark humor, or we’d never get out of bed.
So, when I announced to Hubby last winter that, in lieu of a heart-shaped card and chocolates for Valentine’s Day, I signed us up for a weekend avalanche course, he said, “What a thoughtful and romantic gift.” (This is the semi-sarcastic response we each chirp when, among other things, the Amazon driver delivers toiletries.) “I know, it’s going to be fun!” I excitedly replied.
The Backcountry 101: Introduction to Avalanches (aka ‘Avy 1 Course’), a two-day on-mountain course with additional online coursework, is hosted and taught by the Utah Avalanche Center (UAC), one of the world’s preeminent organizations in avalanche forecasting and education. It is not a joke, but it is — surprisingly — a lot of fun. UAC offers this as well as lectures and full and multi-day courses designed to ensure people have the skills to travel responsibly in the backcountry.
Yes, the backcountry. This is not skiing in-bounds at one of Utah’s 15 resorts. Although avalanches can occur anywhere, they are extremely rare in bounds. Those loud booms you commonly hear at Utah ski resorts are enormous artillery shells (I use an expended one as a tall flower vase; yes, another “thoughtful and romantic gift”) launched by ski patrollers to intentionally trigger avalanches so visitors don’t do so or get caught in them unintentionally.
For those skiers, snowboarders and snowshoers who want to explore beyond the resorts — including some of Utah’s most popular trails and open terrain areas — the backcountry offers residents and visitors extraordinary views and experiences.
The first time I skied the backcountry, it wasn’t the chest-deep powder that made the biggest impression. It was the silence. It was like being in a giant snow globe. No cars, birds, people, phones, lifts…nothing, and it lasted for hours. The backcountry, once experienced, silently but powerfully beckons you each winter.
So, we go, but this is not a theme park, and ski patrol is back at the resort. So, we enter not just at our own risk but respectfully and responsibly.
You’ll rarely hear about ‘safety’ in ANY outdoor pursuit. Safety means free from risk, which doesn’t exist in ANY pursuit. Instead, in the backcountry (and, honestly, elsewhere), you’re expected to manage the risks that do exist, and that is precisely what UAC does in each of its courses.
Its Avy 1 Course teaches students about the conditions that create and trigger avalanches, how to identify and avoid them, and, despite best efforts, what to do if the worst happens.
There are a lot of smiles skinning (adhesive skins attach to skis or split boards with specialized bindings allowing you to hike uphill; remove skins to ski down) to untouched terrain. There is laughter creating a snow pit (“Sweetie, it’s a 1B/0B with ski-in/ski-out and views to die for!”) used to evaluate snow density and quality. There is even howling trying to quickly locate a buried snow-filled duffle bag, roughly the same size as a companion, with beacons, probes and shovels, all essential equipment for any backcountry travel.
And then there is the duffle that gets heavier as you desperately dig it out with your shovel and, then, your gloved hands. The weight of the situation falls upon you. You know you are here, sitting in the snow with sweat and then tears pouring from you. This is what drove the plots in Force Majeure and Downhill. You never, EVER want to risk, lose, or abandon the ones you love.
An avy course is for EVERYONE that wishes to travel the backcountry, where EVERYONE RELIES ON EVERYONE ELSE’S skills, observations and opinions. You not only hone each of those, but you learn about decision-making and group dynamics. You discover that no one is the leader; everyone is expected to participate and contribute. It’s not about going farther; it’s about taking each step, each turn responsibly. It’s not about staying safe (stay in bed for that); it’s about understanding and managing the risks. Over the weekend, we put all of these concepts into practice.
Hubby and I were the oldest in our group. Honestly, I was worried after a second day of high-altitude skinning (over 1,200’) that I wouldn’t be able to “keep up.” However, our UAC instructor not only suggested at one point that I “break trail” or lead but matched my cadence by reciting various pneumonic checklists — revealing that slow and steady is not a detriment in the backcountry. It’s not wise to race to the top, because you’ll likely miss the potential hazards as well as the gorgeous and untouched alpine scenes.
Coming down at the end of the second day, everyone looked to me — admittedly, an intermediate and least-experienced skier — to determine which run we’d take down. It’s not about taking the biggest, baddest run; it’s about taking the best for everyone. With an abundance of powder beneath my feet and confidence and gratitude swelling around me — in myself and my group, who I literally trusted with my life — I pointed to the best and, arguably, the baddest line down (steep, deep but, after careful examination, lower avalanche risk!) followed by the hoots and high-fives from the rest.
There are few greater things you do for those you love than care for and protect them. Friends, family members, spouses…we don’t often tell them what they mean to us, much less show them. An avy course shows them and others we venture into the backcountry with, not only that we appreciate and respect the environment and risk but those we travel with. All of our lives may depend upon it. That’s pretty thoughtful and, with your partner, couldn’t be more romantic.
To learn more about the Utah Avalance Center and their various on-snow courses, please visit: https://utahavalanchecenter.org/education/on-snow-classes.
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