If you do any backcountry skiing, ice climbing, snowshoeing, or mountaineering, I recommend that you take an Avalanche Rescue and Forecasting course. I took a great 3-day certification class from the Eastern Mountain Sports Climbing School this past weekend, and found it very worthwhile for planning safer winter routes and learning how to rescue companions in avalanche terrain.
Avalanches occur throughout the White Mountains, not just in Tuckerman and Huntington Ravines, and knowing how to recognize and avoid them is an important skill if you want to lead trips or go into more remote and higher angle terrain, here or out west. For instance, there are known areas that avalanche in Crawford Notch, the Sandwich Range, Franconia Notch, the Pemigewasset Wilderness, and in the Northern Presidentials, to just name a few. They are a threat to skiers, hikers, and climbers, and can cause serious injury or worse.
The EMS Avalanche course I took was held in at the AMC Highland Center in Crawford Notch and at Tuckerman Ravine, at the foot of Mount Washington. On the first day, we learned about different avalanche types and the types of terrain they occur in. We also learned how to use avalanche beacons and how to work together as a team to rescue a buried victim, using probes and shovels to locate and dig them out.
This included running through a series of drills and mock rescues which were critiqued by the instructors. Trust me, it is far better to learn how to avoid avalanche terrain than to rely on a successful rescue if you get buried in avalanche run out. The odds of your survival are four times worse than Russian Roulette.
Avalanche Beacon and Rescue Drills
On day two, we learned about the formation of layers in the snow pack and how to mitigate avalanche risk with careful terrain selection. We also practiced using the AIARE (American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education) Pre-Trip Hazard Forecast Checklist, which is a tool for groups to use when planning trips. Used for communication and analysis, it involves all team members in upfront condition evaluation and risk mitigation planning, documenting all avalanche predictions, weather forecasts, anticipated hazards and emergency plans before a trip commences.
On the third and final day of the course, we planned a trip into Tuckerman Ravine, notorious for its avalanche activity, factoring in everything we’d learned so far about terrain selection and the impact of weather on the snowpack. We then hiked and skied up to the Hermit Lake Ranger Station at the foot of the Ravine, before following our route and performing a variety of field observations in single digit temperatures and 40-60 mph wind. Afterwards, the AT skiers and snowboarders skied back to Pinkam Notch, while the rest of us snowshoed down to the lodge, to debrief. That whole day was an experience, I will not forget.
AIARE Level 1 Curriculum
EMS teaches the AIARE curriculum (American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education) for Decision Making in Avalanche Terrain. We had two instructors, Dave Lottmann, who I know by reputation, and John Kascenska, who I’d taken a Wilderness First Aid Class from a few years ago. Both Dave and John are tremendous teachers and highly certified by AIARE.
There were 12 students in my class, including 10 backcountry skiers and snowboarders, and 2 people, including myself, with more of a mountaineering and winter hiking focus. Surprisingly, 80% of the students came all the way from New York City or Long Island to attend, and there were only 2 of us from the Boston area.
Group Route Planning at Pinkam Notch
I was really impressed with the other students in my class: they were very sharp and I felt lucky to be taking the class with them. Dave and John really push you to think in this course and there is a lot of teamwork and interpersonal communication required between the students. Communication between group members is one of the most important skills needed to avoid avalanches and it is reinforced throughout the class in group decision making, interpretation, and rescue exercises.
Where do Avalanches Occur?
Slopes less that 25 degrees rarely produce avalanches, but above that, the danger of a slide increases continuously on 25-30 degree slopes (intermediate blue slopes, for you skiers), 30-35 degree slopes (black diamond), and 35-45 degree slopes (double black diamond). Avalanches that occur on these slopes are frequently triggered by humans.
Contrary to popular belief, hugging the trees on steep slopes is not a safety zone. In fact, these areas can act as points of instability in the snow surface and become avalanche triggers or propagation sites. The same holds for rocky outcroppings, because avalanches can simply overwhelm them or jump gullies as they slide.
Avalanches also occur on higher angled slopes, from 45-90 degrees, but they tend to be natural avalanches instead of human triggered, where gravity pulls down snow before it can slab up very much. But while high angle avalanches tend to be smaller, they’re just as dangerous, especially to climbers, because they can pull you off ice or a cliff
While slope angle is not the sole factor in determining whether an avalanche will occur, good terrain selection probably the most important skill you can have to avoid avalanche risk. If avalanche conditions are bad or too uncertain the day you’ve planned to take a trip, you can ski low angle slopes or just stay at home and nap on the couch.
Alternatively, you take a Level 1 AIARE Avalanche Class and learn about good ways to observe and evaluate risk levels in avalanche terrain. Mind you, you won’t become an expert at this by taking one class, but the course will provide you with an excellent foundation on which to build your knowledge base and obtain higher levels of certification and experience. Just knowing what questions to ask is extremely worthwhile.
Observing Avalanche Debris in Cinema Gully, Crawford Notch
For example, some of the key factors that go into evaluating avalanche terrain, include:
Location Relative to the Weather
- Position and elevation in the mountain range
- Wind facing, or not
- Sun facing, or not
- Incline (Slope Angle)
- Slope Size
- Start zone terrain shape and trigger points
- Mid slope ridges and cliffs
- Terrain traps
There’s too much detail to go into these here, but measuring or observing these factors and plugging them into the AIARE decision making framework taught in the Level 1 course will make you much more systematic in how you evaluate avalanche risk. When coupled with the basic snow science, travel techniques, trip planning and group communication skills taught in the course, you’ll be amazed at the difference in your decision making skills. It was a real eye opener for me.
One of my favorite parts of the Level 1 class was learning about the different types of snow and digging snow pits to perform column tests. I’ve been wanting to learn about this stuff ever since reading Staying Alive in Avalanche Terrain by Bruce Tremper, a few years ago, on a beach, of all places. The stuff is riveting.
A compression test is a simple way to determine what layers exist in the snow and their stability. You do it by digging a snow pit, isolating a 30 cm x 30 cm column of snow with a snow saw, and then pounding on it with increasing force to see if it buckles or not.
John teaches how to do a compression test
Since avalanches tend to occur in the top 8″ to 36″ of the snowpack, this is a very simple test to perform. It’s not that reliable, because other columns located close by may yield variable results, but it can give you good insight into local conditions and help identify a trend.
You don’t normally dig these pits on the slope you want to ski, snowshoe, climb or snowmobile on, but on adjacent slopes nearby. You also need to continuously sample the snow as you traverse to the slope you plan to travel on or ski down. There’s no magic test you can perform to tell whether a slope is safe, especially since the wind, sun, and weather continuously change the snowpack, but you can manage your risk by collecting and synthesizing the results of many different field observations during the day.
If you do find a red flag however, you probably want to avoid the area and leave carefully. Here, EMS instructor Dave Lottmann explains how to interpret a column failure.
Dave explains how to interpret compression test failures
With practice, digging a pit and isolating a column like this, can be done in about 10 minutes. When traveling with a group, each person can dig a pit and you can test multiple columns to build up your picture of the snow layers and the processes occurring below the surface.
I’ve taken 7 days of winter skills instruction with the EMS Climbing School this season ranging from ice climbing and advanced mountaineering to Telemark Skiing and climbing Mt Washington. It’s all been superb, but this Avalanche course has been the highpoint and is one of the best outdoor courses I’ve taken in my life. I’ll never look at snow the same way, again.
Disclosure: EMS has provided Sectionhiker.com with complementary admission to a series of Climbing School classes in exchange for guest blogging coverage. However, EMS has not covered the full expense (lodging, meals, gas) to create this content and Sectionhiker.com is not obligated to give the EMS Climbing School favorable reviews.
Good Write Up!
This was a great class and I'll be writing more about specific skills we learned over the coming weeks. I love learning this stuff. It will be fun to try and explain it.
Bravo, looking forward to your further write-ups on this. A couple of weekends ago, I called off a climb due to avy risk – the conditions just screamed red (heavy snow fall, rising temps, bad terrain). As we sat in the hut at the col below, we got news that there had been two big slides, including a multiple person burial. It was hard to be sympathetic…
Chris – I did wonder how you went about avalanche assessment in Japan. Do they have a forecasting service there, or are you pretty much on your own? Do you do these same kinds of compression tests when you climb?
Yes, we have the Japan Avalanche Network (https://nadare.jp/) which is pretty good. I do the standard compression tests, although I would note that it didn't help me the one time I did get avalanched… I spend a lot of time studying the terrain (both on the topo, in actuality, and searching for avalanche reports that indicate high-risk areas) and watching the weather and temperatures. There are a lot of simple heuristics that mitigate much of the risk – the proviso being that they will also keep you out of the mountains on days when you might have been fine – I'm OK with that.