Avalanche Level II Certification

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You're standing at the top of a mountain after hiking 5 miles into the backcountry. It's a beautiful bluebird morning with mild temperatures, crisp air, and 8" of fresh snow from the night before. You and your best friend strap into your boards and play Rock Paper Scissors to see who gets to drop in first for the best run of your lives. You win - Must be your lucky day.

You drop in and the snow is incredible; The lightest, driest, most heavenly pow you have ever ridden in your life. You lean to make your third big swooping carve and "BAM!", a large crack rings out. You're swept off your feet at an alarming rate, and the surprise nearly takes your breath away. Before you're engulfed you get a glimpse of the mountain, and watch in horror as the entire face crumbles in all it's glory. You begin sinking and tumbling, but swimming is impossible because your board is strapped to your feet. The avalanche's path of choice is a rock garden, and the force of being slammed into one shatters your right arm. You gasp in pain and inhale a mouth full of snow. The snow fills every open cavity on your head, it doesn't discriminate body parts.  As the avalanche begins to slow, your relief quickly turns to horror as the light fluffy pow you were just riding solidifies to concrete. 

And then... there is silence; A silence so powerful it makes you nauseated. You want to fight, but you can't. You can't decipher up from down, you can't move, you can't breathe, you can't make a sound. Minutes pass by and you hear the cries of your dearest friend, running around frantically screaming your name. 

Tears begin to flow from your eyes and freeze them shut as your morning flashbacks in your mind. Ten feet from your car you realized you forgot your beacon, but you were too excited so you left it behind...

 And that my friends, is the harsh reality of an avalanche.

I have a lot to report on, but this entry is going to be dedicated to my Avalanche Safety II Course that I completed two weeks ago. It was the first year CMC and the CAIC (Colorado Avalanche Information Center) held the course as a college credit, and I feel SO lucky to have been apart of it. The first three days were spent inside and the last three days were outdoor field days. I apologize for the lack of pictures from the outdoor field days. We unfortunately had to spend them outside in near negative temperatures with 40mph negative temp winds and blowing snow... Gotta love blizzards!

*I have to give a shout out to our main instructor Dan Moroz (American Avalanche Association), other instructors Brian Taylor (Wilderness Rescue), Drew Gibson (Copper Ski Patrol), Thomas Creighton (Copper Ski Patrol), John Snook (CAIC) and John Reller (Copper Ski Patrol/ Avy Dog Trainer). I have the utmost gratitude and respect for all of you and greatly appreciate your willingness to educate us.

I wish I could put the whole course in this blog because it was such great info, but unfortunately there's just too much. The first few days we spent some time reviewing stuff from our level I course, as well as going a lot deeper into topics we already learned about, such as snowpack, rescue, etc. We got an awesome weather forecasting presentation by John Snook which I found so interesting. It kind of made me wish there was a meteorology class at CMC, I would definitely take it!

Read The Weather
We learned about different types of climates and how they affect snow pack, such as the Maritime, Continental, and Intercontinental climates. Maritime climates originate near oceans (Oregon, Washington), have the highest frequency of precipitation, and have a very wet and deep snow pack. Continental climates (Colorado) are characterized by a lot of wind, stormy periods followed by sunny weather, and have a very shallow snow pack. Intercontinental climates (Utah) are right in between.
(Not completely accurate. I threw it together as an example.)
We also learned that the amount of snow we could get from each storm depends on where it comes from. Unfortunately because of Colorado's location, we're usually unlucky. A polar climate is dry (because it's continental) and cold (because it's north). A colder climate carries less precipitation than a warmer climate. So when a storm comes from Canada, it's got nothin! When a storm from the Southwest comes, it could have a lot of precipitation... However, there are a lot of mountain ranges it will hit before us. A cloud is like a sponge and a mountain is like a wall. When you push the sponge into the wall, what happens? Precipitation!

Read Your Snowpack

There are three main factors that can cause avalanches.
Snowpack - What climate do you live in? Is it heavy and wet or light and dry? What layers are in your snowpack?
Terrain - What type of terrain are you riding? 95% of avalanches occur on angles between 37-42 degrees. Rocks and trees can make snow weaker in continental climates, but trees can act as anchors in maritime climates.
Weather - Regular big storms can start an avy cycle and flush out facet layers. Wind causes cornices (a build up of snow on the leeward side).

What exactly causes an avalanche? Weak layers in the snow. Sometimes there are many weak layers, sometimes there's only one but it's thick and at the very bottom. There is no way to know what the layers are in your snow unless you DIG A PIT! There are a lot of different tests you can do- A propagation saw test, an extended column test, etc, etc. You don't have to learn them all to be safe in the backcountry though. Dig a pit and just feel for weak layers. If you can easily stick your fist or (worse yet) arm into your pit and it crumbles to pieces, get your butt up and hike out the way you came!

Read The Warnings
No matter what weather intermediary you use, there will always be avalanche warnings - Read them, and listen to them. The recent tragic loss of three ski pioneers outside of Mt.Baker happened during an avalanche danger rating of high. The mountain doesn't care who you are, nor does the snowpack.

The Colorado Avalanche Information Center has very accurate, up-to-date, and specific avalanche forecasting, as well as avalanche observations and accidents, weather forecasting, and other education tools. The CAIC uses the "Danger Rose" for their avalanche warning scale. The center is the peak of the mountain, the middle rim is at tree line, and the outside rim is below treeline. It's also a compass - The East side of the mountain could be more dangerous than the West.

Think this is a lot? I haven't even touched the surface!!

One of our classroom days the instructors went out and made an "avalanche accident scene" in the snowbank in the parking lot. A snowbank is a great spot to train because the hard consistency of plowed snow is much like that of avalanche debris. Our instructors acted very frantic because their friends were buried and everyone's responses really got the adrenaline flowing.

Recco, the avy dog pictured above, joined us for a few of our indoor class days and her buddy Race joined on Friday when we got an awesome presentation from John Reller about avalanche dogs. They're totally not lovable and totally not well behaved... as you can see in the pics below.

Friday was one of our field days. We went up to Hoosier Pass between Breckenridge and Alma. It was absolutely freezing... on top of snowy and windy. We worked on finding multiple burials with beacons (where as in level I we just did a single burial). We also had another avalanche accident scene and had to find dummies with and without beacons using our beacons and probes. Then we went and dug snow pits... I was BLOWN AWAY by how weak the snow pack was. The bottom layer against the ground was a good 6" thick and was the weakest snow in existence (called surface hoar or facets). Our pits were failing at the lowest level possible, which would be a massive slab avalanche if it were one. It was really crazy to see first hand how unsafe the snow is this season.

Saturday we went to Webster Pass and split into three groups. My group leader Dan Moroz brought us to what you could call the worst city planning in history. It was a back-in-the-boonies neighborhood literally built along side a massive avalanche path. He said he talked to some of the home owners during an avalanche and their experience was unreal: All of a sudden all the doors in their house flew open, they heard a loud, roaring, rumble, and then all the doors slammed shut. Talk about a pressure change!!

See the house to the upper right of Dan's head? CRAZY!!!!  
Then we ventured and looked at other avalanche paths... Some of which we had to cross (one at a time I might add).

Unfortunately I had to miss Sunday, which was just a short tour up  St.John's road in Montezuma... But I'm going to stop this blog here anyway, it's getting long!! Moral of the story: If you live in the mountains, get educated on your snow pack... It'll save your life.


  • March 14, 2012 at 2:02 PM
    Kalendi says:

    Thanks for this informative blog! Very important to know and be aware of.


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