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AIARE Level 2: Snow Geeks Anonymous

Check­ing the ver­ti­cal stability…i.e. ski­ing. Andy finds his rhythm. Dal­las Glass photo

It’s a com­mon ques­tion, So what’s the next step in avalanche edu­ca­tion?” Well, for some it’s con­tin­u­ing to refresh and sharp­en the skills taught in a Lev­el 1. For oth­ers it’s step­ping out and tak­ing an AIARE Lev­el 2 course. AIARE’s Lev­el 2 is titled Eval­u­at­ing Snow Sta­bil­i­ty and Avalanche Haz­ard” and we lov­ing­ly call it Snow Geeks Anony­mous.” Why? Well, a Lev­el 1 focus­es on how we make deci­sions and iden­ti­fy avalanche ter­rain. So, a Lev­el 2 real­ly delves into the snow­pack and how avalanch­es hap­pen. The goal is to become a skilled observ­er who can for­mu­late his/​her own opin­ion, local­iz­ing the avalanche con­cerns with­in the ter­rain, and there­by trav­el safer while explor­ing the moun­tains dur­ing the win­ter. The oth­er key objec­tive is to devel­op as a leader in the back­coun­try envi­ron­ment, facil­i­tat­ing open group com­mu­ni­ca­tion and ter­rain selection. 

What’s the best way to learn about snow? Get your hands in it. Ryan using his tools to find the dif­fer­ent lay­ers with­in the snow. Dal­las Glass photo

We gath­ered the first morn­ing in the qui­et ham­let of Ash­ford, WA to begin our jour­ney with our time test­ed intro­duc­tions. Hi, my name is Dal­las and I love ski­ing pow­der.” Don’t get me wrong, I’m a sci­en­tist at heart, and love under­stand­ing the physics of how snow and avalanch­es behave. But let’s be hon­est, we are all hear for one big rea­son: we are a lit­tle addict­ed to moun­tains cov­ered in nature’s pure white blan­ket of snow. With a storm rag­ing out­side and up on Rainier, we spent the day upping our knowl­edge of the lat­est in snow­pack meta­mor­phism, avalanche frac­ture mechan­ics, weath­er data inter­pre­ta­tion, and why we care. 

If this isn’t geek­ing out, I don’t know what is. Josh, takes an up close look at the snow grains. Dal­las Glass photo

With a fresh 8” of snow we head­ed up to Rainier to begin our edu­ca­tion of how snow actu­al­ly works. If you aren’t one for stand­ing around in snow­pits, Lev­el 2 may not be for you. How bet­ter to under­stand how snow behaves and changes than by get­ting our hands in it? We spent the bulk of the day dig­ging in the snow, look­ing at it under a mag­ni­fy­ing glass, tak­ing tem­per­a­tures, and hit­ting it till it breaks. All in the name of sci­ence, right? Snow pits are a great way to under­stand the snow in one par­tic­u­lar point, but I typ­i­cal­ly like to move around a bit while I ski. So, the next day we took our new­found knowl­edge to the skin track and focused on mov­ing obser­va­tions. This is the bread and but­ter of any skilled snow observ­er; trav­el­ing across the ter­rain and obtain­ing rel­e­vant infor­ma­tion that helps us make informed deci­sions about our safe­ty and where to find the best snow. 

Grab­bing some infor­ma­tion on the move, Kyle keeps an eye on some of the sur­face snow insta­bil­i­ties late in the day. Dal­las Glass photo

For our fourth and final day at Rainier, it dawned sun­ny and clear. The moun­tain was in full view today! With one of the most dra­mat­ic moun­tain land­scape back­drops, we again hit the skin track. This time, ter­rain selec­tion, group man­age­ment, and lead­er­ship were at the top of the list. Oh, ya, I for­got, we also want­ed to get some high qual­i­ty ski­ing in. With the strong March sun quick­ly alter­ing the recent snow, the group had their work cut out for them. For­tu­nate­ly, they were up to the task, quick­ly gath­er­ing infor­ma­tion, for­mu­lat­ing an opin­ion, local­iz­ing the avalanche con­cern in the ter­rain, care­ful­ly avoid­ing it, and ski­ing the best snow on the moun­tain. Nice work guys!

He must have liked what he saw, cause Kyle is rip­ping up the descent on a near by slope. Dal­las Glass photo

MM Guide Tod Blox­ham putting a lit­tle spring in his step, and show­ing the stu­dents how it’s done on the last run of a great day of ski­ing. Dal­las Glass photo