Zerrpppppp, click. Zerrrrpppp click. Zerrrrpppp click. My legs sound robotic as they slide across the skin track on their makeshift skis. The only thing that reminds me that I’m human is my heavy breathing. “Phew this most certainly is killer,” I huff as make my way up, slowly, towards what I hope is the top of the ridge. We had taken a wrong turn somewhere and ended up on a steep skin track through some rather dense trees. “I think I see the main path!” My friend shouts back. Finally the long slog is over, but the downhill has yet to really burn my legs into submission. Regardless of my physical state I’m elated. The mid-day sun stretches out brilliantly in the sky illuminating the stunning landscape as I sit on the top of the ridge taking it all in. Welcome back, girl! You’re home.
Previous Experience Doesn’t Equal an Education
Ever since I moved to Colorado I wanted to get back into backcountry snowboarding. I had done it sporadically back in Tahoe nearly 10 years ago. My big concern over the past several years was should I get a formal education? Let’s be honest – the price tag for a 3-day course is pretty steep, couldn’t I just learn on my own?
Sure, I had the proper safety gear and knew how to use it. I’ve practiced companion rescues where you go and find a beacon buried in the snow. Furthermore, I have previous knowledge of the types of snow, avalanche problems and what aspects of a mountain face avalanches are likely to occur. All of this knowledge I found by researching over the internet and tagging along with my brother a couple of times while he was out in the backcountry filming. But was I about to pretend that I had the right information to make sound judgement calls in one of the most dangerous avalanche environments in the country? Absolutely not.
Here’s the thing with Colorado – we have a very dangerous snowpack. Whereas the Sierra Nevadas of Lake Tahoe, typically don’t. Even with previous experience I’m a liability in a group if I don’t have the correct training to do the job. So I sucked it up and signed up for a course with the Colorado Mountain School or CMS.
Why Take an Avalanche Course?
Aside from the obvious, you-will-learn-about-avalanche-safety, there are a few other reasons why a course like this is worth it. First and foremost, it’s a measure of your knowledge. My good friend has simply told me his group that he tours with won’t allow anyone they don’t know on their tour without this type of education. Why? Simple. You know what they have learned – essentially having taken the course you have an expected level of knowledge. It’s a measuring tool. Your friend can teach you CPR on a Friday night, but if you don’t take the class you lack the certification that is recognized by others that shows you know CPR. Get what I’m saying?
A second important reason to take an AIARE course is that you’re a liability if you think you can rely on your friends to “take care of you” in the backcountry. What if he or she gets buried and there you have no knowledge base to help them. Furthermore, being out in the backcountry requires group decision making. If you’re a part of the group, you better have enough know-how to understand the risks of your choices.
Who Should Take this Course?
The course is designed specifically for backcountry ski and snowboarders. It is possible to complete this course with snowshoes and a pair of skis on your back – Squirrel did it this way, but I won’t sugar coat it – this ups the difficulty factor a bit.
Both Squirrel and I were surprised to find that this course is designed essentially for backcountry skiers and boarders. On the one hand, it makes sense, who in their right mind would just head straight up 30 degree slope on snowshoes? I’ll admit – I’ve done it before, and ya, it sucked. That’s like walking up a hill as steep as your staircase in the snow. Not a good time. However, that person might switchback up that slope and not even know they were in a danger zone. We’ve seen quite a few snowshoers walk right through the carnage of a slide and not even bat an eye. Also crazy.
If you snowshoe in mountainous regions or you plan on getting into winter mountaineering at the very least attend a seminar about the avalanche dangers and snow pack in your local area. Most of these seminars are free and extremely helpful. Lastly, if you snowmobile absolutely find a course that trains you on your sled. Snowmobiles are the number one cause of avalanche related incidents in the country. Just because you’re on a machine doesn’t make you immune.
For information on courses near you check out the AIARE website.
AIARE Level 1 Course Review – Why I chose Colorado Mountain School
The CMS was the only outfit near me that offered a split course. In other words, the classroom portion was split over a couple of evenings instead of being an all day affair so there was no need to miss a day of work. In hindsight, I should have done a 3 day course to make my life a little less stressful, but alas, I’m stubborn with this sort of thing.
One rather awesome plus to the CMS course, which it doesn’t sound like every outfit does, is that the last field day you plan and execute your own tour. Not only does this allow you to flex out your new found skills, but it also provides an opportunity to get out there and have a little fun.
Get Educated and Tour
Backcountry touring is a whole new way to discover the outdoors. I can’t think of a better workout in the winter than to be outside in the backcountry, snowboard under foot. If you are looking for more than in-resort snowboarding, the backcountry presents a new set of challenges. The reward is well worth the thigh burn! There’s no reason to be so scared of avalanches it deters you from getting outside in the winter, just be smart, get educated.