AIARE 2 Avalanche Course, Reaching Treeline, and Re-defining Success

As promised I want to briefly recap the American Institute of Avalanche Research and Education Level 2 Course that concluded this past Monday. I really don’t have a lot to say about the course, other than the 6 participants stayed fully engaged during 4 long days of mentally demanding classroom time and physically demanding field sessions. Mother Nature was in attendance as we saw some of the coldest temperatures of the season. During the 2nd day of the course Ryan Knapp, a meteorologist stationed at the top of Mount Washington, pointed out we were the 2nd coldest place on the Earth:


Factor in our windchill, and we smoked Antarctica in terms of COLD. While the statistic is cool, the next day’s harsh weather above tree-line poised issues for our avalanche class since we were seeking a field location above tree-line. After a morning trip planning session we played it conservative and headed out for a ski tour of 4,055 foot Mt. Hale.

Skinning in along Zealand Rd.
Skinning in along Zealand Rd.
Adjusting layers
Adjusting layers
Stopping for fuel with a snow covered Mt. Oscar in the background
Stopping for fuel with a snow covered Mt. Oscar in the background
Heading up Hale Brook Trail
Heading up Hale Brook Trail
Our entrance into the drainage, a nice tight 35 degree chute. Notice all the cool info embedded in the photo? Check out Theodolite in the iPhone App Store
Our entrance into the drainage, a nice tight 35 degree chute. Notice all the cool info embedded in the photo? Check out Theodolite in the iPhone App Store

Our ski descent was a mix of short fun runs with some deep wallowing in powder to the next drop. Once we cut back out to the trail the descent was quick.

ViewRanger App
ViewRanger App

But before we reached Zealand Rd I intersected a steeper open north aspect around 3000 feet that I had eyeballed from across the drainage on our ascent. It looked loaded and open enough to avalanche. I approached it while the class watched from the other side. A very positive hand-shear test on the edge indicated a very thin wind slab was ready to pop. A few cameras came out and I ski cut the slope initiating a very small D1 avalanche. It was about as small and inconsequential as a slab avalanche can be but was cool to see none-the-less.

Photo courtesy of D. Jepson
Photo courtesy of D. Jepson

The rest of the descent was uneventful and we made our way back to the trail-head and debriefed our day.

ViewRanger App
ViewRanger App

While driving back through Crawford Notch I received an automated call from Mountain Rescue Service. A missing hiker was being searched for on nearby Mt. Adams. After reading countless news stories and articles posted the following day I wrote this blog piece about the incident.

The reaction of the post was quite unexpected. It seemed the media was filled with negative reports and stone-casting (mostly from commentators rather than reporters) who seemed to know everything about how “crazy” and “ir-responsible” this victim might be. The truth is not one commentator was with this person to witness her decision making process or level of preparedness (or even lack there of). Monday morning quarterbacking was running rampant online.

“Coulda shoulda woulda” was something I remember a cousin saying to me during my childhood when I complained, in hindsight, about something I did, but shouldn’t have, or hadn’t done and wished I had.

Hindsight is always 20/20. We won’t know definitely what happened, but we should help future aspiring climbers find success.

I don’t wish to harp more on this incident, at least not directly, but instead share what a great day I had today in the mountains, and talk a bit about the definition of success when it comes to climbing.

Today I had two great guys from Rhode Island come up for an attempt on Mt. Washington. For one of them, it was their first time on the mountain. For the other it was his second attempt having been turned back due to weather last year as part of a guided trip. He was eager for a second shot.

Very early in the morning the ground work for a positive trip was laid.

How we talk about objectives like climbing mountains is crucial to our ability to make better decisions while enjoying them. I am going to sum up some ideas I think all climbers need to keep in the forefront of their brains when heading out for an awesome day in the mountains;

1) It really is about the journey. NOT the destination. How many summits you have made is not as important as the friends and places you have traveled because of your love of the mountains. Do not fall for “summit fever”.

2) “Summiting is optional, getting down is mandatory.” – Ed Viesturs- Ed is a high-altitude mountaineer and corporate speaker. He is the only American to have climbed all fourteen of the world’s eight-thousander mountain peaks, and the fifth person to do so without using supplemental oxygen.

3) Be careful how you speak to parties coming down the mountain. All to often I see this exchange, in which, for example, a party has made a judicious decision to descend due to weather, fitness, timing, or whatever seemed prudent at the time. They meet an ascending party;

“Did you make the summit?” asks the ascending party

“No.” is the only reasonable answer to the question.

“Oh.” is the most common retort, and the conversation is over. The descending party is a bit brought down by the exchange, and the ascending party now starts doubting their own abilities. While asking if a party summit’d seems innocent enough, I would suggest this interaction instead;

“How far did you make it?” asks the ascending party. (Not a loaded question!)

“A few hundred yards beyond Lion’s Head, it was brutal up there!”

“Good job! Enjoy the rest of your descent!”

A much more positive exchange for both parties.

The descending party was actually successful. They were having fun, and made a good decision.

Stepping down off my soap box I want to say that this type of personal opinion in an otherwise trip report focused blog is new for me. I typically post brief trip reports or gear reviews, but the overall reaction to my last post was so positive I thought I might, from time to time, mix in some more thoughts rather than just a “we did this” and “I like this jacket” type blog. If that is something readers continue to respond to I will try to keep it up. If not I will continue to maintain this for clients to come and get their photos from our adventures together.

I leave you with some photos of some happy guys from Rhode Island today who reached tree-line in some nasty weather and are now driving home and contemplating taking a day off tomorrow.

See you in the mountains,


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3 thoughts on “AIARE 2 Avalanche Course, Reaching Treeline, and Re-defining Success

  1. Thank for a thoughtful response to this unfortunate event. You are absolutely correct no one knows what went on and how decisions were made by this woman. Remember also that hypothermia clouds your though process and this may have contributed to the situation. Thank you again for your thoughtful posts.
    Jeff Plant


  2. I’m quite positive that this is my favorite post, to date. It’s true, we can all be armchair quarterbacks and second guess the decisions that someone else made. But, unless we were there, we have no way of knowing what their thought process truly was. In this case, whatever the thought process was, it ended in tragedy. A very sad tragedy.


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