Avalanche Awareness Introductory Course

By Ride Utah Feb 24, 2012
Brighton's Backcountry 101 class provides the basic essentials from instruction on decision making, using the UAC (Utah Avalanche Forecast Center) forecasts, route selection and safe travel practices, partner rescue techniques and more.

As I got home to report this blog about avalanche safety I heard about another fatality in the backcountry and my thoughts are for that family. I have been riding for twenty years now and know I have put myself and those around me at risk hundreds of times before and hope to never be in that situation again.

While returning from the North Face Masters last week, I had a new appreciation of the complexities of riding big lines and being actively aware of my surroundings and riding ability. I received an e-mail from Brandon Dodge, a patroller at Brighton Ski Resort about an avalanche 101 class that was taking place the following week. In all the years of riding, I have taken one beacon class and borrowed gear from friends when split boarding or traveling into the backcountry. I’ve ridden resorts, side-country, backcountry on cats and hikes and have never dug a pit, studied snow patterns or even traveled with a buddy. However, I have been receiving the Utah Avalanche daily e-mails about conditions and understand the general knowledge they put out every morning. I’ve avoided my fair share of potential accidents, but I’ve also had friends caught in slides, hurt and even killed. I decided that I needed to minimize my risks by starting to take classes, reading and buying my own gear. I now have my own Ortovox 3+, Black Diamond collapsible shovel and probe in the same bag for side country days and backcountry excursions.

By signing up for the Brighton Backcountry 101 class, I was getting instruction on decision making, using UAC (Utah Avalanche Forecast Center) forecasts, route selection and safe travel practices, red flags of avalanche danger and partner rescue techniques. The first night was a 3-hour instruction from Brandon Dodge and Keith, from Brighton’s Ski Patrol that covered all the above topics plus slope angles, ski cuts, the most common mistakes and snow science. Always be aware.

Safe Travel Practices:

  • Start conversations before and during group outings.
  • Always one at a time while riding downhill.
  • Approach lines always from the top.
  • Avoid convexities and thin areas.
  • Ski the trees.
  • Utilize ski cuts.
  • Ski out of slide paths and flat areas.

Most Common Mistakes:

  • Small slopes with terrain traps.
  • No known history of area your riding in.
  • Extreme weakness on low angle slopes.
  • Large convex slopes above riders.
  • Early season snowpack.
  • Deep instabilities.
  • Hard slab releases.
  • Rapid Warming weather or rain.

What if you had followed all the above rules and are still in a slide?

Shout alert, get ahold of something, get off slab, and stay on your feet.

If you are carried?  Ditch your poles, skies, or board.

If you are overcomed? Try to form an air pocket, extend a hand to the surface.

Your partner is caught? Watch victim closely, note last spot and location, keep yourself safe, do a head count.

If you are in the rescue party? Do not go for help, determine if it’s safe to attempt a rescue, organize and develop a rescue plan, mark last seen point, search debris for clues, begin beacon search of debris, when you locate a hit leave in probe, dig from the downside of the probe, push snow downhill, assess breathing and injury.

There was a lot of information we received, but the real study came in the morning when we put that lecture in the field study. The class had roughly 12-15 participants and we broke up into three groups with one instructor, which in my case ended up being Tony Pavlantos, a pro rider for Never Summer and backcountry rider. Our group of seven consisted of Brighton employees, locals and friends all trying to learn a little more about their sport. We dug one small snow pit that turned into a 12’ wide case study of facets, deep hoar and grapple layers that makes up our dangerous backcountry right now. After practicing our completion tests and stopping for a bite to eat, we moved on to a rescue situation that was set up in bounds on Millicent to simulate a burial. With little knowledge collectively as a group, I wasn’t surprised that the first test run took 12 min. and with several fatal mistakes occurring both before and during the search. So we re-gathered our wits, elected a leader, called in the avalanche, split up the search party, spotted debris, probed and found multiple burials in 4 min. It still seemed like a very long time and we weren’t involved in an avalanche so we stayed composed and confident during the search. I hope that we can keep a cool if the need ever arises.

After we met up and shared stories and observations about the days trial run and learned that speaking up in a situation can and has saved peoples lives. And although this is just scratching the surface for me, I hope to complete my level 1 class and continue to grow my knowledge about the backcountry and practice safe routes in the future with fellow riders.

What I gathered as the most important information though, is preparing the community to learn basic avalanche information, use tools at your disposal from UAC and “report any avalanches you witness or trigger to the nearest authority or patrol.”

For extensive information about avalanches please visit: http://utahavalanchecenter.org/

Free introductory classes and lectures are taking place Feb. 29.

To report avalanches contact Alta Central at: 801-742-2033

Finally, get a copy of Staying Alive in Avalanche Terrain by Bruce Tremper