Steve and I enrolled in an Avalanche Awareness Class with the Colorado Mountain Club. We’re members of the CMC, but this is our first actual participation with it. We spend a bit of time in the backcountry, and want to both spend more time and be safe about it.
We had two classroom lectures on avalanches and will have our field day tomorrow (Saturday). Going into the class, I didn’t think too much about what the class would cover aside from my main priority, not dying in the wilderness. That would be awesome. So to me, not dying in the wilderness with respect to avalanches means either not getting caught in one, or figuring out how to survive one, and I had a preconception that the latter would be the focus of our class. I obviously didn’t put much thought into it. The class spent about 10 minutes covering what to do if you’re stuck in an avalanche (put your elbow in front of your face to create an air bubble, try to swim backwards as you’re falling), and the rest of the time (5 hours or so) discussing how to avoid getting caught in one.
Our teachers from the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, Colorado’s research and data assembly service. They produce daily avalanche safety reports, forecast avalanches, and provide general information on weather/terrain/snowpack conditions so we can stay informed of dangers and where it might be safest to go play outside. They have a first-rate service going, and I would highly recommend that anyone going up to the mountains spend even just a few minutes checking out their destination before departure. Education is key to staying alive: http://avalanche.state.co.us/index.php
The main lesson learned was that we need to become familiar with how to “read” a location in terms of terrain, snowpack, and weather. Avalanches are created when heavy layers of snow are deposited on top of weak layers of snow. The analogy is a fat person sitting on a very small and unstable stool. The stool could break at any point because it cannot support fattie’s weight. SO, being able to recognize the type of snow pack, the affect of weather on the snow and snowpack, and type of terrain and other conditions can prevent most incidents. ALL incidents are human caused. Otherwise, it would just be a cool natural event.
The 7 key items to look for when scoping out potential avalanche terrain to avoid are ALPTRUTH:
Avalanches (in the area in the last 48 hrs.)
Loading (by snow, wind or rain in the last 48 hrs.)
Path (avalanche path)
Terrain trap (slope, gullies, trees, cliffs or other features that increase severity of being caught)
Rating (considerable or higher hazard on the current avalanche bulletin)
Unstable snow (collapsing, cracking, hollow snow or other clear evidence of instability)
Thaw instability (recent warming of the snow surface due to sun, rain, or warm air)
Watch for these if you think you might be in avalanche danger. No joke.
Our field class is at Jones Pass, off of Hwy 40/Berthoud Pass, the route up to Winter Park. Here’s a map of where we’ll be. From what I gather, we’ll spend time doing snowpack tests, digging holes and learning other ways to stay out of avalanche terrain. I’ll talk about our class next week!