AIARE Level 1: Decision Making in Avalanche Terrain

Ever since shortly after we moved to Colorado Jeb and I have wanted to take the AIARE level 1 class so that we could go into the backcountry more safely. Unlike a lot of people that just take their chances in the backcountry without any training or knowledge and just hope to not be avalanched on, I was completely unwilling to go into the backcountry without first taking this class.

Being able to safely travel in the backcountry in the winter enables us to eventually backcountry ski, snowshoe, hike winter 14ers, and even do hut trips. With the help of some Christmas money, we were finally able to sign up for the super expensive class!

All of the upcoming pictures are from Lake Haiyaha in Rocky Mountain National Park- but along the way I want to explain more about the class and how exactly we ended up where we are in the pictures below.

The class is normally 3 full days on a Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. Thankfully I found a class through the Colorado Mountain School that instead does evening sessions on Tuesday and Thursday and then all day Saturday and Sunday. This was much more compatible with our working schedules. All together it is 24 hours of instruction time.

In the classroom sessions we learned the concepts behind avalanches and avalanche safety that we would need for going out into the field. We learned all about types of avalanches, the conditions that make each kind more likely, and even some information from the field of snow science.

On Saturday we focused on companion rescue and studying the snowpack – primarily with building snow pits. With the companion rescue portion we learned how to use avalanche beacons, probes, and shovels, in order to potentially locate someone that has been buried in an avalanche, and to dig them out. The whole idea of this class is to teach you to make smart decisions so that you NEVER EVER need to perform companion rescue. But just in case it is still a very valuable thing to learn. Jeb and I both realize that we would need to practice a lot more with our beacons in order to get better at this. Since you only have 15 minutes on average (if the person isn’t already dead from trauma) before a person would die from being buried, you have to act fast. Not to mention that even once you find them on average you have to shovel out somewhere between 3,000 to 10,000 pounds of snow. That is insane!

For the snow pit portion of the class we learned how to dig a snow pit and study the different layers of the snow. We learned various tests you can perform on the snow from the snow pit in order to test the strength of the layers in the snow. I wish I had taken pictures of this. I think most people think of snow as just one consistent thing. But it actually often forms very distinct different layers. Some layers are harder and softer than others. When the layers don’t bond very well to each other- this is when avalanches occur. Heavy firm layers on top of weaker softer layers definitely causes problems.

On our second day in the field on Sunday we went on what was supposed to simulate “the perfect backcountry tour”. We learned how to use the avalanche bulletin reports as well as online mapping sites in order to plan out our day and where we wanted to snowshoe to. Our guide asked us what we wanted the focus to be for our day and since no one else really spoke up, Jeb said “we want to be able to hike winter 14ers so we want to learn how to navigate in the backcountry and how to choose safe routes to get to where we want to go”. Therefore the focus of our day was mostly on navigation and how to make decisions in potential avalanche terrain.

So going back to all of these pictures on here- we snowshoed to lake Haiyaha in Rocky Mountain National Park. Jeb and I have had a lot of mediocre experiences with Rocky Mountain dealing with everything from way too much traffic, crowded trails, and non-existent available parking. Therefore we weren’t really expecting too much from this day. We ended up being so wrong. In the winter in the backcountry it really isn’t crowded at all- especially since we intentionally avoided summer trails in order to learn navigating skills. Also, despite intense winds, snow coming down, and dark clouds with low visibility, Lake Haiyaha turned out to be very beautiful!

Jeb was definitely the best navigator in our class. He led first and the guide just gave him the map and the compass and told Jeb to try to figure out which way to go to get to Lake Haiyaha. Jeb picked the correct way to go. Our guide said that 90% of his clients can’t figure out where to go initially. So I was very proud of Jeb! Also, I’m not nearly as good at him at navigating so I’m glad he is good at this.

I love the blue colors in the ice here. Since everything as far as we could see was either blue, black, or white – this view very much reminded me of being in Iceland!

Jeb and I have not done a lot of serious snowshoeing- especially at places with everything from deep snow, to icy slopes, to steep slopes. Since we weren’t used to this, despite it not being a particularly long hike, we ended up being pretty tired at the end of the day. Along the way our guide showed us a few more things to monitor in the snowpack and some additional tests you can perform on the snow. We also measured slope angles and chose to avoid some slopes that were greater than 30 degrees- since human triggered avalanches were possible that day. The rating that day was a 2 in terms of avalanche danger. So human triggered avalanches were possible but natural avalanches were unlikely. If natural avalanches had been more likely we would have had to choose our route even more carefully to avoid being even in the runout zones beneath avalanche terrain.

Jeb is standing up on one of the huge ice chunks. Even our guide wanted his picture taken here that day, so you know it must not always be this neat looking there!

When you take an avalanche class you have to accept that there is nothing they can teach you or that you can ever do to be completely 100% safe (other than to not go out). However some of the biggest takeaways for me from the class was to know that you can’t ever be certain and therefore we will always have to err on the side of caution. Also, really the higher the avalanche danger the more terrain that we will just rule out as stuff we aren’t going to go on that day. That way we are avoiding the most dangerous areas and not chancing it!

After we get back from California Jeb and I are going to go ahead and buy our own beacon, probe, and shovel (especially since we need these things for Mt. Rainier this summer), so that we can go out on our own. We plan to study the avalanche bulletin the week prior to our trip, use online sites to plan out our course, and then go on our own backcountry navigating trek to a different lake in Rocky Mountain. Can’t wait, it is going to be so much fun!

One thought on “AIARE Level 1: Decision Making in Avalanche Terrain

  1. Sherry

    I have not doubt that Jeb was a good navigator! When he was a young boy he helped map out our trips and then was the navigator. Of course this meant he got to sit in the front seat! HaHa. I didn’t care he loved it.

    I’m very proud of you both! So adventurous and scary at the same time.

    Looks like fun!

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