In November I started a course with the Foothills Mountaineers, called Ski and Snowboard Mountaineering with an AIARE Level 1 avalanche certification module included. There are lots of informative classroom sessions, but the heart of the course is a series of field trips.
Paradise Shakedown Tour
The first field trip was a quick jaunt up into the Alta Vista section of Mount Rainier National Park, not far from the Paradise visitor’s center. It was great to get a chance to test out all the equipment with some knowledgeable instructors there to assist, and we even got some views.
Snow conditions were largely stable, with a well-consolidated snowpack, although we did see some avalanche crowns from a cycle earlier in the week.
We were supposed to build snow shelters but the low snow conditions made that fairly challenging. I learned that the dense snow sets up as hard as concrete so we tried to cut slabs of it with some success. My sad attempt at a shelter might have kept me marginally warmer than being out in the open but I’m looking forward to trying again during the overnight field trip in March.
The ski down was not much fun – foot-wide runnels where water had run off the snow during a rain storm earlier that week made it difficult to make turns. There were also lots of exposed creek beds and rocks.
AIARE Level 1 Class
The American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education (AIARE) sanctions local avalanche training courses at multiple levels of depth. The Level 1 class is designed for backcountry enthusiasts new to the backcountry, and it taught a very important set of skills that will serve me in multiple activities through the snowier months.
There were four classroom sessions covering avalanche risk factors, how to read avalanche forecasts, human factors, safe travel techniques, and other pieces of knowledge. The heart of the course was a weekend with two field trips in the Snoqualmie “backcountry” where we got to put our book skills to use.
Day 1 consisted largely of avalanche beacon practice. We tested the function of our transceivers, got a sense for the working range, and ran two “realistic” victim rescue scenarios as a team. Those were definitely the most useful portion of the course. It rained pretty much all day, and the low snow conditions made things challenging (navigation around exposed bushes and rocks).
Day 2 was a group tour in and out of bounds near Summit Central – we practiced making decisions as a team and discussed potential avalanche problems. Even though it was a low-risk day according to the NWAC forecast, temps reached over 50F so we were able to observe the precursors to wet loose avalanches (as if there was enough loose snow to even have a problem!)
This picture pretty much sums up the conditions: