Avalanches are an integral part of the mountain environment. Just like sharks in the ocean, we accept the risks they pose when we enter their domain. Snow might seem innocent when its light and fluffy, in dainty little flakes. However when 100’s, or even 1000’s, of tonnes careen down the mountain in tumultuous clouds and waves, the destructive force is unimaginable. It can rip out trees, knock over power poles or bury buildings while running for hundreds of meters. Although large scale destruction is what might come to mind when you think of avalanches, in reality, it only takes a small slide and the wrong terrain for an avalanche to be fatal to a human. Whether the small slide buries you in a gully or whether it pushes you off a cliff or into a tree, the results can be rather unpleasant. As such, anyone who spends time in the back country, needs to develop a respect and understanding of how to avoid and manage the risks posed by these snowy waves of death. Your life, or your buddies’, might depend on it.
When I was first taken back country ski touring back in 2014, by my boss Mike, I was walked through how to use the basic safety equipment including shovel, probe and transceiver. He also went through the steps of how to perform a companion rescue. As I continued to go on ski tours with buddies and mentors I have picked up more and more knowledge about reading snow packs, terrain and other techniques to travel safely in avalanche terrain. Despite this ongoing mentoring by people I look up to, it is fair to say that the amount I don’t know far outweighs what I do. People can dedicate their whole careers, both professionally and academically, to snow study and avalanche forecasting. Snow is an extremely unpredictable and infinitely complex study.
With all this in mind, and the fact that it is a prerequisite for any mountain guiding, I was always going to need to pursue some more formal avalanche education. The AST1 stands for ‘Avalanche Safety Training level 1’. It doesn’t get much more formal than the Canadian Avalanche Association’s training curriculum. This is followed by AST2 and then Avalanche Operations 1 and so on. Although my experience and knowledge has now covered most of the AST1 course content, I have no formal training. Unfortunately peer instruction is inadmissible as a course prerequisite for AST2. So on a snowy day, just before Christmas I found myself kitting up and heading out to get some boxes ticked off. Fortunately, I had an opportunity through work to get on board a discounted course, run through Rising Sun Guides here in Niseko, Japan.
AST1 courses are typically 2 day long courses comprising of one classroom day and one field day. We started off in the Niseko Community Center for a five hour lecture. The lecture covered the formation of avalanches, types of avalanches, avalanche terrain, decision making, trip planning, gear and companion rescues. Our guides for the course were both fantastic, great teachers and very knowledgeable. This is an extremely complicated topic and they did a great job of teaching us what we needed to know while not overloading us or jumping from topic to topic.
The next day was spent in the field. We did a short tour, stopping frequently to do transceiver demonstrations, terrain reading, and practice companion rescues. I found this day quite interesting, while I knew exactly how to perform a companion rescue, It was great to actually practice it. I found it interesting and shocking to learn how confused the almighty transceiver can get and how quickly you can lose time in a search and rescue.
I went into the course unsure of how my knowledge and experience would stack up, to even the entry level training. Ultimately I found the course a little bit superfluous, as it turned out I knew 95% of what was covered. But it was still valuable, perhaps something new I learned in the 5% will save a buddies life one day. Its also never a bad idea to refresh and now I have learned the same information from books, peers and a formal course. I therefore have three different ways to remember the basics which is not bad at all. Finally, clarifying a few finer points, updating some techniques I had been using that are now outdated, made for a very productive course. I also made time to quiz our guides, gaining some insight as to how they got to where they are on their career path. As an added bonus we also got some deep, albeit short, turns on the way back.
This was just the first course on a long pathway, there are many many more to go. I hope to get my AST2 ticked off this season, as well as constantly learning from written resources and the more experienced people who cross my path. An avalanche is something I hope to never experience, but the reality is, that in this sport some sort of encounter is probably inevitable. I just hope that my training and decision making mean that if it does happen, it will end happily. As they say here in Japan, “Ganbatte”. Meaning “try your best”.