Know Before You Go | Avalanche training for back-country travels

Tim Dobbins performs a columnar compression test on snowpack in Silver Peak’s north bowl

Do you know what zastrugi is? How familiar are you with firnspiegel? Can you describe the process of faceting? What would you do if you heard some distant whumping?

READ more about avalanche education options in Tahoe. Click on Back Country under the Out & About tab.

If you haven’t the faintest idea what any of those words mean, you should consider taking a course with the American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education (AIARE) before traveling into the snowy wilderness.

Back-country decision-making encompasses much more than whether or not to ski or ride a slope. The process is a continuous cascade of questions and thought that start before the trip begins and constantly affect one’s actions until the trip ends.

My personal off-piste skiing experience started in Canton, Conn., when I was 12 years old. Ratlum Mountain, which soars 1,182 feet above the Farmington River Valley, was our Berkshire back country.

With beat-up ski-swap boots and hologram K2s strapped to our backs, we trekked through legendary 3-foot dumps to ski powder off the north side of the mossy cliffs that rose from the mountain laurel behind our house. Needless to say, it was epic at the time and the tales only grew bigger back home by the fireplace, hot chocolate and marshmallows in hand.

Alpenglow Expeditions guide Tim Dobbins performs snowpack measurements.

Despite being a regular back-country traveler for many years, I never took a proper avalanche safety course until recently. When I arrived at the Alpenglow Expeditions office in Olympic Village, the conditions for learning seemed marginal at best. Due to the historically low snowpack at the start of the 2017-18 winter, the plan was to use Squaw Valley Ski Resort lifts to access National Geographic Bowl on the backside of Granite Chief.

“There’s some blower pow hidden up there in the trees,” said guide Tim Dobbins that first morning.

The plan was to cover as much classroom material as possible on Saturday with the hopes of getting into the field the next day. Our main goal for the weekend was to learn how to accumulate information through research and safely plan several options for a back-country tour and choose the safest route based on teamwork and observation.

As the AIARE manual states: “Back-country decision-making encompasses much more than whether or not to ski or ride a slope. The process is a continuous cascade of questions and thought that start before the trip begins and constantly affect one’s actions until the trip ends.”

We spent the morning discussing the difference between wet and dry slides and comparing wind, storm and deep, persistent slabs. We talked about how location, elevation, slope angle and exposure to sun, wind and rain affect avalanche danger.

On Sunday, the Sierra’s first storm in a month blew in with 100 mph-plus winds on the ridgeline closing lift access throughout the resort and creating some real-life conditions to assess. Rather than ski, the class split into two groups that made travel plans using real-time information provided by avalanche forecasters and satellite maps.

We walked through the basic progression of companion rescue should the need arise and tested our beacon skills in the parking lot. By the time we wound down for the day, the storm had already coated the valley with 6 inches of cold smoke.

Tim Dobbins teaches a class on snowpack observation.

When we trickled excitedly into the classroom from the powder-frenzied traffic the next morning, our plans had once again changed. The summit of Granite Chief was wind-scoured and unsuitable for the management of a large group. Instead, we were going skinning at Silver Peak for an observational tour and possibly a few powder turns. Even after the storm, the snow on Silver was barely deep enough to make our way up the long-forested approach. When we finally reached the wind stash in the north bowl after clambering through vast swaths of fallen logs, we found a 120-cm base of snowpack with several distinct layers.

Dobbins took us through a series of experiments including pole penetrometer, hand shear, compression column and Rutschblock Test. We found a thick ice crust 70 cm below the surface with a significantly faceted weak layer hidden beneath.

“If we get a lot of snow this spring all at once, this could prove to be a problem,” Dobbins said. “Much like an old man, the snowpack doesn’t like rapid changes.”

After recording our snow-pit observations in the chilly wind, we took a lovely powder lap down to the saddle before carefully making our way back to the trailhead.

Much like real avalanche assessment, this course contained a series of adjustments based on current conditions. In the world of back-country travel, it’s nothing ventured, nothing gained. There’s plenty to find out there for those willing to respect and adapt to our ever-changing environment. |