File this one under: Incredibly glad I learned it but hope I never have to use it.
In our classroom section, we spent our time learning a little bit about avalanches. A few days before this class last week, an avalanche killed 5 people at Loveland Pass so this class was incredibly sobering. The room was rapt with attention – the seriousness of this information hit extremely close to home. Spencer Logan, an avalanche forecaster for the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, spoke to us about what causes avalanches, how to avoid avalanches and equipment to always bring (avalanche shovel, beacon and probe).
While there is a LOT more Alex and I plan to learn about avalanches next winter before playing around in the backcountry, one thing we did take away from the presentation was to always look at the ‘Obvious Clues’ before deciding to head into avalanche terrain:
Avalanches (has there been an avalanche within the last 48 hrs?)
Loading (has there been moisture loaded onto the slope by snow, rain, wind, in the last 48 hrs)
Path (is the slope an obvious slide path?)
Terrain Trap (are their terrain features that increase risk: gullies, cliff bands, tight trees, etc?)
Rating (is there a rating of ‘considerable’ or higher rating by avalanche forecasters?)
Unstable snow (can you see or did you experience symptoms such as collapsing, cracking, whomphing, etc?)
THaw Instability (has there been recent warming of the snow due to sun, rain, warm temps?)
A handy acronym is ‘ALP TRUTh’ to make sure you’ve covered your bases. These are questions to ask before and during a backcountry trip – we should be continually evaluating the potential for snow to avalanche. After that, you need to be sure you travel safely in avalanche terrain – just because all the clues point to no avalanches doesn’t mean the snow CAN’T avalanche.
And since 9 out of 10 avalanches are started/caused by the victim or someone in the victim’s party – everyone who travels in the backcountry in winter needs to be aware of how to avoid being caught in an avalanche. There are many places to take Avalanche Level 1 Course (a 24-hour class taught over 3 days to learn the basics, in-depth) and for anyone playing in the backcountry (ie – not at a ski resort), it’s imperative to take this class. To see what an AV1 course entails, check out Heidi and Heather‘s posts.
After our classroom session, we prepped for our snow field day on Saturday. THIS was the fun stuff!
We headed up to St. Mary’s Glacier (yet again – I think I’ve been there 4 or 5 times in the last year!) to practice walking on a glacier, learning to self-arrest (stop) if we ever fell on a slope and learning to glacade down (more safely than when Alex and I tried it before!). New (for us) equipment that we used was an ice ax and helmet.
I wore snow pants that were far too small. Not very fashionable but extremely functional! I didn’t want to ruin my ‘real’ snow pants that I love so I brought out the backups for this weekend.
So ridiculous looking. I can hear my mom now…. ‘Where’s the flood, Grannen?!’
Our day was perfect at the glacier – Blue skies, no snow or rain. It was really windy as per usual at St. Mary’s but the wind died down in the afternoon for us.
Our first lesson was in ‘Self Belay’ while traveling on snow/glaciers. This means that when you’re walking, you always need 3 points of contact – 2 feet and an ice ax dug into the snow. The ice ax is either secured to your wrist with a leash or, ideally, secured to your harness. We used only a leash for this day.
It took a LONG time and a lot of effort to traverse the glacier. With each step, we had to kick in the snow to create a divet for the person behind us to step in to. We took turns being the first person in line (the person who does the most work) but it was still tiring!
Once we got to the top, the fun began. We practiced self-arrest positions on a relatively flat part of the glacier before moving up to the steep slope.
We learned and practiced the 4 different ways a person could fall down a slope, from easiest to hardest:
- Feet first on our stomach
- Feet first on our back
- Head first on our stomach
- Head first on our back
The goal is always to get to the ‘feet first on your stomach’ position to self-arrest. Like this:
And Alex sliding head first on his stomach:
And Alex sliding head first on back:
For each position, we practiced at least 2 runs – one using the ax on our right and once on our left.
Snow day and self-arresting was REALLY fun…when I knew I was in no danger. The reality is that self-arresting is only successful 50% of the time. As the sun warmed the snow, we quickly discovered that soft snow did not stop us as quickly as the harder snow – so, if you’re gonna fall on a glacier, do it before the snow gets warm!
But in all seriousness, the best way to keep yourself safe on a glacier is to self-belay and to NOT FALL. If you don’t fall, you have a 100% chance of not needing to self-arrest.
After a few hours of practice, we ended our day glacading down a steep part of the glacier back to the trail to hike out. Glacading is basically a longer, slower self-arrest – and LOTS of fun!
Unfortunately, Alex and I don’t own ice axes or helmets yet but I think this will be our next investment – I know a few hours of practice is not enough for me to feel comfortable putting self-arrest into immediate practice if I needed. The good news is that means more play time in the snow! And that I’ll be able and ready to save myself if I ever find myself sliding down a glacier.
Side note: it’s Monday and my arms, shoulders and core are STILL sore from snow day. Who knew gripping an ice ax, thrusting it in the snow and clinging on to stop 160-lbs from sliding would require so much muscle? Side side note: of COURSE it requires muscle. And this is why everyone in Colorado is fit.