Monday, December 21, 2009

Release the avalanche poodle

Following a storm towards the end of last season, the Utah Avalanche Center forecasted high hazard conditions, and I stayed home as a result. Those who ventured out were rewarded with epic powder that was by and large very stable. A little bummed that the forecast was too conservative, I lamented the missed opportunity on the Teton Gravity forum. I got totally and completely flamed as a result, and rightly so.

The UAC does a good job and is spot on 98 times out of 100. But the two times they miss, they miss by overestimating the danger rather than underestimating it. As well they should. The flaming comments told me to get off my lazy butt and get some avalanche education so that the forecast could be one piece in the puzzle, but I could make my own decisions.

I read a number of books about avalanche safety, but this last weekend, along with Aaron and Adam, I finally took a level one class. It was worthwhile in every respect. A lot of people come away with a “blood on the highway” fear that they’ll be swallowed up at any moment. For me it was just the opposite. I learned about the science behind forecasting, what to look for, how to read snow profiles and interpret tests, how to stay in safe terrain, and what to do if an accident happens. I feel more confident venturing into the backcountry as a result.

We took the class offered by Utah Mountain Adventures, and our instructors were outstanding. Tyson, the lead instructor, wrote the book on backcountry skiing in Utah. Literally. Rick Wyatt was the first person to ski the Grand Teton on tele gear. That was back in the days of three pin bindings and leather boots. Winslow has summitted Denali nine times. Brian is a full-time mountain guide besides being one of the coolest guys I’ve ever spent a day touring with.

Tyson also has a great sense of humor. Even he thinks he’s funny and would often spontaneously start laughing as he was lecturing. I suspect that the subject matter reminded him of some story that wasn’t appropriate to share, but maybe he’s just that happy. When discussing what to do if your evaluation indicates that a slope is unstable, he asked “do you just center punch it and see if it slides? Release the avalanche poodle!?”

Hopefully I learned enough to avoid being the avalanche poodle myself. Here are a few photos of the weekend.

Aaron and Jeff doing beacon practice:

Adam seeking what I’ve hidden:

Looking up from the site of our fake “rescue.” We found and extracted three “victims,” one without a beacon, in fourteen minutes. We were told lots of groups have to do that exercise over because everyone “dies.”

Adam doing a compression test:

Aaron doing an extended column test. We learned that these aren’t widely adopted (and not technically part of Level 1 curriculum) but are used in Utah and Montana to give an indication of the slab’s tendency to propagate.

Here I am stepping onto the Rutschblock:

Winslow dropping off of Twin Lakes Pass:

Adam follows suit:

I never tire of looking at Mt. Superior:

One last steep shot before exiting Grizzly Gulch:

Aaron rides it like he stole it: