Since moving to Seattle we’ve become avid skiers. I loved it before moving here, of course, and skied fairly often while growing up in Minnesota (I logged 38 days & nights at Welch Village in my senior year of high school). The mole hills in the Midwest teach a skier to be adept at icy conditions and tolerant of low temperatures, but don’t really prepare you for skiing in the mountains.
Occasional road tips to the Rockies – Colorado, mostly – opened my eyes and helped improve my skiing, but it wasn’t until moving to Washington that both Anya and I started to become decent skiers. We now ski frequently, and we spend a lot of time in potentially dangerous, “avalanche prone” terrain.
Above, an avalanche-prone area at Crystal Mountain
Avalanches always seemed like a far-removed, almost mythical threat to a young Minnesota hardpack rider, but the sad reality is that a few dozen people die from them every year in the US. Almost all those deaths are in mountains in the West, and the majority of them are skiers or snowboarders. Because of the sheer amount of snow we get, Washington has more than its fair share – like the one in these spectacular photos. Many of these stories don’t make it beyond the local news, but a few have recently gotten widespread attention (if you haven’t seen it yet, check out this feature).
While we don’t have the equipment or knowledge to do true backcountry skiing by ourselves, we frequently go to areas that are considered “side-country”; lift-accessed places that retain a backcountry feel because of a lack of named runs, grooming, signage, and marked hazards. Ski patrol does their best to mitigate the avalanche danger in these areas, including bombing, but snow can be unpredictable and patrollers still recommend caution. The small slide in this video (at about 4:25) from less than a month ago happened in an area that we ski frequently.
All of these factors made it seem like the right time for us to learn about avalanches. We enrolled in a class from a local company called Ridge Explorations that started with an evening’s lecture about avalanche science and an overview of the 4 factors of avalanche danger: snowpack, terrain, weather, and humans. They covered basic information on avalanche avoidance and forecasting, but those are topics I’d still like to learn more about.
Saturday we did the field trip portion of our class at snowy Henskin Lake a short distance outside the boundaries of Crystal Mountain, our home ski area. The focus of the on-snow class was using our equipment to perform simulated avalanche rescues.
Aside from skiing with a partner (which is a no-brainer), the three pieces of equipment that form the backbone of avalance safety are a beacon, shovel, and probe. The idea is that all skiers & riders in avalanche-prone terrain have a beacon, which is a small electronic device that you wear on your body and leave in Transmit mode while you’re skiing. Should someone get buried, the would-be rescuers switch their beacons to Search mode and follow the signals to locate the buried person.
Above, the field that we used as a simulated avalanche path
There are some tricks and nuances to beacon searches, but it’s not terribly difficult and simply requires some practice. Once you’ve found the most likely spot, you use your probe – a long, foldable stick very similar to a modern tent pole – to try to locate the buried person in the snow. Once you’ve found them you assemble your shovel and start digging, hopefully extricating your friend before they suffocate. The chances of a person surviving an avalanche burial decrease sharply beyond about 20 minutes, so practicing these skills before needing them is crucial.
We were encouraged to take the rescue simulations very seriously, and everyone in our group did (which I was thankful for). Beyond that, the class was fun, the weather was beautiful, and it was an interesting and worthwhile day in the mountains. I’m glad that we got avy safety gear and learned how to use it, but at the same time I really really hope we’ll never need to.