2012/2013 Avalanche Course Season Recap

While winter is not quite done with Mount Washington we finished our last avalanche course of the season this past weekend. Looking back on the season I can say with no embellishment that this has been a banner year for me along with the EMS Schools Avalanche Course Program.

We ran 11 AIARE 1 courses and 1 AIARE 2 course this winter. That’s 114 AIARE students! From our first course at the end of December to our last course that ended April 1st Mother Nature has provided excellent snow conditions for learning about safer travel in the back-country. In mid-January we had 4 EMS School guides travel out west to take an Instructor Training Course in Steven’s Pass, Washington. We are now the largest avalanche course provider in the East with 3 certified AIARE 1 Instructors and 1 AIARE 2 Course Leader on staff. That is exciting as we strive to meet the growing demand of back-country travelers seeking avalanche education!

Human involved avalanches on Mount Washington appear to be on an increase. Early this year a 12 person group triggered an avalanche in Central Gully that caused significant injuries and has stirred up quite a bit of debate.

Central Gully Avalanche

An accident report from the USFS can be found here.

Then on March 1st a tragic event unfolded on Pinnacle Gully when a solo climber triggered an avalanche that caused him to fall and sustain fatal injuries.

Crown line is visible in this photo just below the rock constriction.
Crown line is visible in this photo just below the rock constriction.

The accident report for this can be found here. That same afternoon an experienced mountain guide was ski descending Lobster Claw Gully in Tuckerman Ravine when one of his clients triggered a size-able slab that carried the guide who was able to self-arrest successfully and did not result in injury.

Just yesterday a skier triggered a rather large hard slab in the Lower Snowfields that could have easily taken a life.

Photo by USFS Snow Ranger Joe Klementovich,  http://www.joeklementovich.com/
Photo by USFS Snow Ranger Joe Klementovich, http://www.joeklementovich.com/

The Avalanche Danger rating for the day for all three of these incidents was “Moderate”. Nationally most human involved accidents happen during “Considerable” danger, but Mount Washington is quite different from our western back-country areas in both terrain and user group make-up.

The Mount Washington Avalanche Center forecasts on a “micro” scale, gully by gully, which may lead some climbers with limited avalanche education into a simple “Moderate means I can do it, Considerable means I can’t” kind of mind frame. The bottom line is “Moderate” means that while natural avalanches are unlikely, human triggered slides are possible. This means the traveler needs to be able to recognize signs of unstable snow, trigger points, terrain traps, etc. in order to move through that terrain.

Our user group is a bit of a factor as well. We have a disproportionate amount of highly skilled technical climbers with limited knowledge related to traveling in avalanche terrain. We’re an area known for breeding world class alpinists. New climbers can learn to competently climb Grade 4+ ice in just a season. They may master rope-systems and technical ice climbing but not understand the differences in wind slab or storm slab.

EDIT: 4/9/2013 USFS Ranger Chris Joosen just posted about “Moderate” and it’s implications in our area. It is very relevant and the post can be found here.

I took my first avalanche course 11 years ago after watching two climbers die in an avalanche in Tuckerman Ravine. I left that course, and subsequent courses, with a healthy dose of irrational fear and an inability to really “put it all together”. After years of practice and learning from experienced avalanche educators around the country some light-bulbs started to go off. I could go on about this for awhile, but I want to sum it up in one sentence.

Avalanche courses today are not like avalanche courses 10 years ago!

The good news is we, as a culture, are learning that. Word of mouth is spreading from partner to partner that a modern formal avalanche course is a wise investment for anyone who wants to spend time in the winter mountains. It goes without saying that what you do with the skills after you leave the course will determine whether or not you are any “safer”. Quality experience is as important as theoretical knowledge! However all the feedback forms this season indicated that time in the course was well spent and provided a great foundation for a life-time of learning!

While I still plan on getting quite a few more days up high skiing this season, I look forward to next winters avalanche course season. I’ll be heading back out west again to get updated in an AIARE 2 Instructor Refresher Course at some point and we’re tweaking some logistics and gear issues at the school to make our courses even more efficient and effective.

To all participants from this season, thank you. Your engagement in the learning process has helped me become a more effective course leader, and I hope to see you all out on the mountain!

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