avalanche probe and shovel

American Institute for Avalanche Research & Education – Course Review

In December I headed to Chamonix to take the AAIRE Level 1 Course and AAIRE Rescue Course ran by the Chamonix Experience. The Level 1 Course is a is a 3-day introduction to avalanche safety and hazard management, combining classroom and field work, focusing on decision-making skills in avalanche terrain. The Rescue Course is an extra day bolt on at the end of the course that is focused on rescue practice including the transceiver skills, shovelling methodology, single and multiple burials and rescue response drills. My motivation for seeking out the courses was two-fold. Firstly, from an academic point of view I am always keen to find out more about how the geography and weather are going to affect the quality of my annual ski trip. And secondly because my skiing has improved (or certainly my confidence not necessarily my technique!) I find myself looking further afield for more challenging routes, or for a fresh stash of powder. With increased attention on avalanches and the dangers of venturing off piste, especially following recent tragedies even in resort, my ignorance of my decision making is no longer bliss! Day 1. We spent the first morning in the classroom, being introduced to the “Ride Safely” framework for planning and organising trips into the backcountry. The main emphasis was on introduction to different types of avalanches (there are nine different types!), what conditions they form in and what the warning signs are (if there are any!). As well as monitoring weather and snow reports throughout the season to get a feel for what’s going on in the snow before you even arrive on site. In the afternoon we headed up the Chamonix Valley to Le Tour and spent the afternoon learning how to use beacons, probes and shovels to find backpacks buried in the snow. This included the best practices for how to use each piece of equipment but also, what to watch out for in terms of good and “not-so-good” equipment.
people in the snow
Le Tour learning how to use beacons, probes and shovels to find backpacks buried in the snow.
Day 2 was again split 50:50 with the morning in the classroom and the afternoon out on the mountain. During the morning we continued to learn about how different weather conditions influenced the snow pack, but also on how to identify avalanche terrain and warning signs when out in the field. We also looked through some case studies of historic avalanches, as well an example of a situation where one of the instructors had a near miss on a day that was a level 2 on the scale. This really hammered home to me how naive I have been previously with my decision making. It turns out being in the wrong place on a level 2 day can be the same or worse than being somewhere on a level 4 day. This is probably my main taking from the course. How can you have enough information to be safe based on a scale that runs from level 1-5. Different parts of the mountain can be different levels on the same day, the scale only says the highest risk. We spent the afternoon at the top of the cable car at Le Brevent, looking for avalanche terrain and trying to find the safest touring routes through avalanche terrain.
Mont Blanc
Mont Blanc, in the back ground, looking for avalanche terrain.
snow covered mountains View north-west from Le Brevent, which is a popular ski touring route. Can you see the areas to avoid? We finished the day digging snow pits to look at the make up of the snow. Digging snow pits is the part I was probably the most looking forward to, however it’s a bit too advanced for the level 1 course. Having spent a lot of time talking about “weak layers” and “facets” over the previous couple of days, it was really interesting to see these terms first hand.
avalanche probe and shovel
Snow pit!! You can see where we have used our gloves to mark different strength layers in the snow-pack.
The final day of the Level 1 was spent touring. The class split into two groups and we had to plan and execute a safe tour for the day. The avalanche risk was level 4 (high) and the visibility was extremely low so this severely limited what we could do safely. However we managed a full day touring in relative safety by minimising our exposure to avalanche terrain. This was the first time I have ever been touring, and whilst we did not do anything overly challenging, it was an awesome experience. It was also a great opportunity to put everything we had learnt in the classroom to good use. I spent the last day doing the optional Rescue Course. I nearly didn’t stay on for this course, especially having spent a little time on the other course practising some some basics rescue techniques, but I am so pleased I did. We spent the whole day in the field going over different search scenarios and practising. I have to say I was blown away but how quickly you are able to land a “probe strike” on a bag hidden a metre down in snow after learning different techniques. By the end of the day we were getting down to having found buried bags in little over one minute, that’s how good the techniques and equipment were. The last day also allowed us to continue honing our skills from the Level 1 Course. Having checked the weather and avalanche forecasts before heading out on to the mountain, we knew roughly where to look for areas at risk to avalanches. During a one hour period at lunch we witnessed seven or eight small avalanches going off in a steeper section of terrain in between two pistes. Not only that people were still following tracks and skiing off piste in this section whilst it was happening, completely oblivious. I couldn’t help but think how many times that had been me. The terrain in question is in the picture below:
snow covered mountains
Can you see the ski tracks and all the avalanche activity on the terrain? (look above the tree). The lift to access this terrain was just off the picture to the right.
Overall, both courses were incredibly enjoyable and informative. Although quite expensive, the instructors and guides you gain access to were incredible and the whole experience has hammered home how naive I have been on all my previous ski trips. I was definitely the least experienced person on the course but I left the course feeling like I did it at the right time in my skiing journey. To give you a sense of my level, I ski once a year on holiday (twice if I am lucky), on some all mountain skis and spend my time on piste, on the side of the piste or getting a guide for a day if the weather is good. I’ve never been touring until the course. If you are staring to venture off the side of the pistes and are considering venturing in to the off-piste world with a guide, I would definitely recommend doing these courses. www.chamex.com/trip_courses/aiare-level-1-chamonix www.chamex.com/trip_courses/aiare-avalanche-rescue-course Thanks Will Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedinmailby feather