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Invaluable Lessons in Avalanche Education

After a rel­a­tive­ly warm and dry late Jan­u­ary and ear­ly Feb­ru­ary, vig­or­ous win­ter snow storms and cold temps hit the Pacif­ic North­west these past few weeks bring­ing great learn­ing oppor­tu­ni­ties to our back-coun­try trav­el­ers and young out­door enthu­si­asts! This week’s fore­cast is promis­ing more great ski­ing and snow­board­ing con­di­tions and mak­ing it hard to stay indoors! Our week­end avalanche cours­es have been a great suc­cess, with our stu­dents walk­ing away with invalu­able knowl­edge, greater con­fi­dence, and sound deci­sion mak­ing tools to aid their trav­els in avalanche terrain.

Obvi­ous Clues in the field: Avalanches

Our Feb­ru­ary 18 – 20 Lev­el 1 Avalanche Course was held in Ash­ford, Wash­ing­ton; with field ses­sions tak­ing place above Par­adise on Mt Rainier’s south side. On day two, MM Guides Ian Nichol­son and Dan Otter arrived at the Par­adise park­ing lot (5,540 feet) where they observed strong east­er­ly winds load­ing west fac­ing ter­rain and cross load­ing many oth­er steep slopes. The avalanche dan­ger for the day (accord­ing to the North­west Weath­er and Avalanche Cen­ter) was rat­ed con­sid­er­able” above 6,000 feet on east­er­ly aspects — mean­ing nat­ur­al avalanch­es are pos­si­ble and human trig­gered avalanch­es likely.”

Snow pro­file. Ian Nichol­son photo

The group trav­eled above Par­adise a short dis­tance and demon­strat­ed a snow pro­file and var­i­ous insta­bil­i­ty tests on a small, shel­tered slope. They found very easy” results in bond­ing tests, and a gen­er­al­ly sen­si­tive snow­pack struc­ture — weak in strength and with ener­gy to prop­a­gate a frac­ture and pro­duce avalanch­es. En route to their pro­file site, they talked to a ski­er who had just trig­gered an avalanche next to the Panora­ma Point Win­ter Route. One client reflect­ed that even though there were tons of peo­ple com­mit­ting them­selves to that slope, the con­di­tions that they were observ­ing told them that trav­el on that par­tic­u­lar ter­rain fea­ture was not rec­om­mend­ed. The guides agreed and began dis­cussing oth­er options. Five min­utes lat­er, as the guides were mak­ing their snow­pack obser­va­tions, mul­ti­ple stu­dents began yelling avalanche!” and point­ing towards Panora­ma Point, which was in sight of the team. They report­ed see­ing two peo­ple on the slope as an avalanche released. Using the train­ing they had already received, they were able to describe the sit­u­a­tion to Ian and Dan (whose backs were to the scene and did not imme­di­ate­ly see the inci­dent). Ian and Dan imme­di­ate­ly shoul­dered their packs and ascend­ed the 600 – 700 feet to the debris pile in the slopes run­nout. As they neared the debris, they saw two peo­ple ski out to a ridge near­by. They called to them and asked if they had trig­gered the avalanche. The skiers con­firmed they had — they also con­firmed they were the only ones on the face when it slid. The crown (what is left once a slab avalanche frac­tures and fails) was 300 feet across, rang­ing from 15cm to 100cm deep. The debris ran into a ter­rain trap at the slopes base and was esti­mat­ed at over 5 feet deep.

Ski­er trig­gered avalanche on Panora­ma Point.
Ian Nichol­son photo

See­ing avalanch­es in the field is an invalu­able expe­ri­ence for any stu­dent or instruc­tor. In many respects, avalanch­es are natures most obvi­ous clue” to a dan­ger­ous snow­pack. When avalanch­es are occur­ing, it is very like­ly oth­ers will be as well.. Most of the time, how­ev­er, (well over 90%) it is impos­si­ble to have avalanch­ing in the win­ter snowpack.

Of course, weath­er and hid­den moun­tain haz­ards are com­plex and vari­able. This said, most experts agree to leave vari­abil­i­ty to nature. Two things we do have a high degree of con­trol over are the ter­rain we choose and how we trav­el in that ter­rain. We can also choose our part­ners and teams wise­ly. Last Sat­ur­day was sun­ny and gor­geous on Rainier — a clas­sic blue­bird day — with dozens of peo­ple around Panora­ma Point and in the Par­adise area. Lots of peo­ple. Lots of clues. And some very real haz­ard. Among many things, this inci­dent was great exam­ple of the effect of social facil­i­ta­tion” and a huge vari­ety of oth­er human fac­tors” that increase our risk taking.

Stayed tuned for a re-cap of our fan­tas­ti­cal­ly suc­cess­ful Lev­el 2 Avalanche Course taught by Scott Schell and Eri­ca Engle. As expect­ed the con­di­tions became even more con­du­sive to learning.…

Nev­er too young to start learning…

Moun­tain Mad­ness’ Jere­my Allyn pre­sent­ed an avalanche aware­ness talk to teens with the Seat­tle Park’s Out­door Oppor­tu­ni­ties Pro­gram last week. The two hour work­shop got the kids involved in an infor­ma­tive and visu­al lec­ture that helped pre­pare them for a week­end snow camp­ing trip in the midst of this win­ter storm. The stu­dents were involved and full of great ques­tions and an excite­ment for their adven­ture that followed.

More good snow to come!

We’ve got some more great snow con­di­tions on the way and sev­er­al more ski trips before the sea­son ends. Hope you can join us on the slopes! Check out our guid­ed and cus­tom ski trips for oppor­tu­ni­ties in April and May.