Snowbird Avalanche Clinic

What the POWDER staff learned during an avie 1 course with the Snowbird ski patrol

POWDER Editor John Stifter and Snowbird patroller Sean Zimmerman-Wall cutting columns. PHOTO: MIKE ROGGE

Ed’s Note: A snow safety-specific section of Powder.com will be launching soon, so if you want to learn more, stay tuned.

Last week, the POWDER staff participated in an avie 1 class hosted by the Snowbird ski patrol. Advocating awareness and education has been a POWDER staple, but we could always practice more of what we’ve preached, especially in this case. And in light of slides that took our friends, and the uptick in deaths of experienced skiers in the backcountry, it was time to walk the walk.

The ‘Bird’s Director of Snow Safety Dean Cardinale and patrollers Alex Taran, Spencer Storm, and Sean Zimmerman-Wall taught the class, and snow science heavy hitters, like Utah Avalanche Center founder Bruce Tremper and UDOT’s Highway Avalanche Safety Program Supervisor Liam Fitzgerald, stopped by to give guest lectures on human dynamics, pit analysis, and heuristic traps.

We got our minds expanded and our shoveling muscles worked, which we needed. It can’t be said enough; if you spend or plan to spend time exploring the backcountry, please take an avalanche awareness class or seek avie 1 or 2 certification. Even experienced skiers can use a refresher, as you can never become too comfortable using your beacon in search mode or analyzing a snowpack. You can pick up a lot of things on the Internet, but field skills aren’t one of them. Here are some of the things we learned:

Ask yourself questions

Cardinale says the second you go into the backcountry you become a forecaster. You have to try to predict what could happen. Question every decision, the weather, your route, your group dynamic, how you’re feeling that day. Be obsessed with consequences; always be thinking about what would happen if a slide occurred.

You can’t manage a lot, but you can manage terrain
The three tenants of avalanches are snow, terrain, and weather, with human factors smack in the middle. You can’t control snow or weather, and it’s often hard to manage other people, but you can pick the terrain you ski and travel on.

Talking terrain with the Snowbird patrol. PHOTO: JOHN STIFTER

Adjust your attitude
Cardinale, whose wife is a pilot, says that the FAA’s five hazardous attitudes for flying apply directly to backcountry travel. They are: resignation, anti-authority, impulsivity, invulnerability, and macho. When you have one or a few of those attitudes in your group, it’s easy for your decision-making process to get clouded. At least one of these attitudes is a part of every deadly avalanche, even in the most-experienced groups.

The best sign of avalanches is avalanches
Start looking for signs of instability and factors that create avalanches, like wind and new snow, the second you put your boots on. Look for crowns, cracking, and recent avalanche activity on slopes similar to the one you’ll be skiing. Or on any slope for that matter. Put your phone in airplane mode so you won’t get distracted. Backcountry skiing isn’t about Instagraming.

Don’t stick to the plan
Tremper was adamant about his disdain for making plans before heading out. Plans and timelines get people in trouble. Having an objective makes people push past reasoning, and ignore sketchy snowpack. If weather changes, or the snow isn’t what you expected, be willing to turn back, or ski something different.

Don’t get married on the first date
When you’re out skiing, test the snow every chance you get. Dig hasty pits and poke around with the non-basket end of your pole. Dig a pit and do several column isolation tests. Don’t rely on your first one. As Tremper says, you wouldn’t marry someone after one date; you want to go on vacation with them first, preferably to a sketchy third world country, to see how they do when they’re stressed. Snowpack is the same—you want to stress it out before you commit to it.

Your beacon leads to your probe leads to your shovel leads to your partner
Beacon searches are complicated, probing is an art, and shoveling is hard. Work on your rescue skills a lot. It’s easy to get rusty, and a real scenario is going to be much more frantic than anything you could practice, so you want those movements to be second nature. Put your beacon to the snow and grid out your search in the shape of a cross. Enter your probe into the snow at a 90-degree angle so that it’s perpendicular to the slope, and use a spiral technique of probing out from the center, and…

Practice shoveling
Did I mention that shoveling is hard? It’s really effing hard. Depending on the slope angle, after you make a probe strike, start digging downhill one and a half times the length of the probe strike so that you’re digging into the slope instead of straight down. From there, use a conveyor shoveling method to clear as much snow as fast and efficiently as possible. Do it a bunch, hone your technique, and hope that you only have to use those skills to build jumps.

Listen to cosmic vibrations
That gut feeling you get when things don’t feel quite right? Director of Winter Operations Peter Schory, a 40-year ski patroller at Snowbird, calls those cosmic vibrations, and he says they’re powerful. Trust your feelings, make decisions for yourself, and don’t be afraid to speak up. It could be a one in 100 chance of something bad happening, but, as Tremper says, we all want to ski more than 100 days.

Bruce Tremper’s 10 Commandments
Thou shalt travel one at a time
Thou shalt have an escape route planned
Thou shalt never go first
Thou shalt be obsessed with consequences
Thou shalt never trust a cornice
Thou shalt start small and work your way up
Thou shalt communicate
Thou shalt use a belay rope
Thou shalt use the right equipment
Terrain, terrain, terrain

Add a comment

  • JPVallone

    Good on you for taking avi 1 and sharing your experience. As an educator and guide as well I might warn folks that putting your phone or smart phone, in Airplane mode is not good enough. As hard as it is to do, They need to be off. Try it at home, there is potential for gross interference with modern smart phones and your transceivers, especially iphones. Put your transceiver in search mode and hold it next to your iphone and see for yourself.

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