Snow, Avalanches, Reflection, and More Snow for MLK Weekend!

Well that was an intense four day weekend of snow, snow, and more snow. It all started for me on Friday when I taught an AIARE Avalanche Rescue Course for Northeast Mountaineering. The timing of our first rescue course was somber as an avalanche accident made national news the evening before when two young men would die from being caught in an avalanche and many others injured in Taos Ski Valley, NM.

New Mexico Avalanche
From ABC News: People search for victims after an avalanche buried multiple people near the highest peak of Taos Ski Valley, one of the biggest resorts in New Mexico, Thursday, Jan. 17, 2019. The avalanche rushed down the mountainside of the New Mexico ski resort on Thursday, injuring at least a few people who were pulled from the snow after a roughly 20-minute rescue effort, a resort spokesman said. (Morgan Timms/Taos News via AP)
new mexico avalanche
People search for victims after an avalanche near the highest peak of Taos Ski Valley, one of the biggest resorts in New Mexico, Jan. 17, 2019. (Morgan Timms/Taos News via AP)

My thoughts and prayers go out to the two young men, their families, and friends who have suffered this tragic loss.

Friday’s rescue course brought 10 students from first year back-country travelers to seasoned vets who teach avalanche awareness classes for the Appalachian Mountain Club. We spent a couple hours in the morning going over rescue gear and methodology before moving to a field location for hands on realistic practice. Towards the end of the day I was partially buried a meter down in the snow while my friend and SOLO Instructor Sue addressed patient considerations, treatment, and evacuation. I thank former USFS Snow Ranger Jeff Lane for showing me the effectiveness of having students try to pull an unconscious 180 pound person out of a burial position.

avalanche rescue
Just my airway cleared and one arm free there is a lot of work to do before proper treatment can begin- photo by Ryan Mcquire

We ended the course just as the edges of an incoming Nor’easter brought some snow fall and by Saturday morning it was coming down steady!

Nor'Easter Avalanche Course
My AM check of the radar showed multiple heavy bands of cold fluffy snow was on tap for all day Saturday

Saturday was the start of a three day AIARE Avalanche 1 Course and with my co-instructor Grant Price we had a full course of 12 students, all ski tourers with various levels of experience, but all eager to learn. After a productive morning of classroom and an afternoon of rescue practice I headed north to the AMC Pinkham Notch Visitor Center to present a Know Before You Go presentation. This one-hour program is designed for a broad audience to introduce the 5 steps of avoiding getting caught in an avalanche.

  • Get the Gear
  • Get the Training
  • Get the Forecast
  • Get the Picture
  • Get out of Harm’s Way

Know Before You Go at Pinkham Notch Visitor Center
Presenting at AMC Pinkham Notch Visitor Center- photo by AMC Parker Peltzer

In attendance were various guests, visitors, AMC trip leaders, and an AMC avalanche awareness class. After the presentation Q&A took us pretty late into the night.

avalanche education
Some Q&A after the presentation- photo by AMC Parker Peltzer

Driving home around 10 pm I got to see some of the heaviest rates of snowfall before waking early Sunday to get Day 2 of the avalanche course going. We spent a little time inside talking about Human Factors and Heuristic Traps, some of which I had quite recently let get the better of my own decision making, before jumping into some sweet online tools and creating a tour plan for the rest of the day.

avalanche course
“PLAN your trip” is one part of the AIARE Framework that helps us make better decisions in the back country

As soon as we hit the trail we started spotting obvious clues of unstable Storm Slab. Just as we were crossing the first Cutler River bridge we saw this… can you spot the two clues to unstable snow?

avalanche course
From the first bridge over the Cutler River minutes from the Visitor Center

There are two natural “baby” slab avalanches in this picture. One is just left of the rock in the center and harder to see. The one on the right is easy to see. This is evidence of this fluffy “fist” density storm snow has gained cohesion and is sitting on a reactive weak layer… in other words it has formed into a “slab”. We found multiple spots along side the trail where “hand shears” would fail during isolation and informal ski cutting would produce noticeable results, on of the best just off the trail while crossing a small creek and captured by this students video:

 

We continued up to Hermit Lake and took a few minutes to poke in the snow near the Volunteer Ski Patrol Cabin. As we were close to our established turn around time we soon found ourselves enjoying some nice if not a bit bumpy turns down the Sherburne ski trail.

I’d later find out my friend and fellow avalanche educator Ben Allen was out in Bill Hill Glades in Gorham kicking off small slabs there. I could just picture his smile and giggle as he poked around in the snow triggering small inconsequential avalanches. If you didn’t know that is one of the favorite things for an avalanche educator to do! Well, that and shred super stable POW of course…

avalanche course
Skier triggered storm slabs in Gorham, NH- photo by Ben Allen

On Monday, the final day of our avalanche course, our students started trip planning at the NEM Bunkhouse at 8 AM. The Mount Washington Avalanche Center was forecasting HIGH danger for the day. In addition the Mount Washington Observatory’s Higher Summits Forecast was predicting ambient air temperatures to plummet to the negative teens with wind chills in the -50 to -70 range. A conservative tour was needed, and the group selected a tour up the Cog Railway with a high point of Jacob’s Ladder and  possibly a side trip over to the top of a new slide path.

avalanche course
Using the incredible CalTopo website we created a tour map that highlighted areas that might harbor more risk. Yellow were aspects fully exposed to the hurricane force NW winds coming later that day. Red terrain fit the criteria of areas of HIGH danger, and orange represented some areas of CONSIDERABLE danger.

We hit the trail close to 10 AM with a parking lot temperature of -9 Fahrenheit but surprisingly very low winds. The skin up to Waumbek tank took us just over an hour.

avalanche course
Skiing up the Cog

During a break the group decided they would like to visit the top of the new slide path so we made our way up a few more hundred feet before contouring and bushwhacking over to the slide path.

avalanche course
Top of “Phillipe Path”

Here I could feel the Human Factors tugging hard. The snow looked great. No tracks in it! We hadn’t really seen any signs of unstable snow like we had the day before. No cracking or whumping. It wasn’t as windy as we thought it would be. We had time to ski it. It was cold but climbing back up it would really warm us up.

I thought back to last weeks course when I had let Human Factors have a serious negative effect on my decision making. It was bluebird… no wind… perfect day to gain the ridge and complete a full “tour” on the last day of an avalanche class. The snow down here looked good… it must be good over there? Right? A student was apprehensive of her ability. Basically first time in the back country… My impaired objectivity reared its ugly head. “You can do it” I reassure without any evidence that she could. “We can side slip down until you feel comfortable making turns” I wrongly assumed. “It’s not that steep”… sure, for me, but what about her?

Listen to Every Voice, Respect Every Veto. These are tenants in good back-country partners.

Blue Sky Syndrome, Powder Fever, Over Confidence, and even some Kodak Courage had all crept into my consciousness. I failed to practice what I preach. I was not being objective. We made it down to the trail head just before dark. It took a few days and a formal debrief to really look back on that day for what it was. While I could call it a complete failure I’m looking at it as an ice cold head dunk of a wake-up call. 10 years of teaching these skills and I can still mess up. We all can. It’s how we move forward after making a mistake that counts.

Back to the top of Phillip, we turn our backs on what might be a killer powder run and head back to the Cog. We enjoy great low angle riding in calf deep powder back to the parking lot. We’ve returned way ahead of our turn around time as we listened to each other when we admitted we were pretty cold. No one got frostbite. The ski down had warmed us up enough for a quick round of Compression Tests and an Extended Column Test on a nearby slope.

 

We headed into the warmth of the AMC Thayer Hall for a tour debrief and to close the course. I handed out feedback forms that had been missing since the new curriculum rolled out.

What did you get out of this course?

How could the course be improved?

Where did you feel most at risk or in danger?

How can the instructors improve?

At the end of the day I read through all 12 forms. Small changes can be made based on these suggestions. Small changes lead to better learning environments for students and growth for the instructors.

I’m grateful for every comment and nudge from every student, fellow instructor, or guide I’ve ever gotten. Keep them coming.

See you in the mountains,

Northeast Alpine Start

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maplevilla

AIARE 1 Avalanche Course 12/14/18 – 12/16/18

The first avalanche course of the season with Northeast Mountaineering wrapped up yesterday late afternoon after 3 solid days of mixed classroom and field sessions. We have an awesome new classroom venue just minutes from The Bunkhouse and we were stoked to have so much snow on the ground for the first course of our season.

AIARE Avalanche Course
Great new classroom space only minutes from the Bunkhouse

After a morning of classroom on Friday we spent the afternoon outside learning and practicing avalanche rescue skills. On Saturday we spent a little time learning how to PLAN a tour in avalanche terrain before heading up to Hermit Lake on Mount Washington for some practice monitoring conditions along our tour.

AIARE Avalanche Course
Learning about layered snow packs in one of the most beautiful places in the White Mountains

On Sunday we started with a student led trip planning session at Pinkham Notch Visitor Center.

AIARE Avalanche Course
Teamwork makes the dream work!

We then skinned up the Gulf of Slides Ski Trail.

AIARE Avalanche Course
Main Gully
AIARE Avalanche Course
Approaching the Lower Snowfields in Gulf of Slides
AIARE Avalanche Course
Working our way up through the Lower Snowfields before traversing back into the Main Gully
AIARE Avalanche Course
Great weather for our full tour day!
AIARE Avalanche Course
Combining modern tech with old school navigation
AIARE Avalanche Course
Found some thin and stubborn pencil hard wind slab on this 37 degree slope at 4,500 feet to lookers left of the Main Gully. You can also see the December 3rd Melt-Freeze crust about 50 cm down here.
AIARE Avalanche Course
Pit location details, courtesy of Theodolite App
AIARE Avalanche Course
Edge-able, ski-able, but we are glad to see more snow in the forecast!

Summary

All in all it was a fantastic start to the avalanche course season with Northeast Mountaineering. The new curriculum rolled out pretty smoothly and I am digging the new “AIARE Framework” that creates a slightly smoother “flow” of decision making then the classic “Decision Making Framework” some of you may be familiar with. The new organization of the Avalanche and Observation Reference Tool is pretty sweet, and I really like the new 2-3 hour pre-course online learning component! If you have been waiting to take an avalanche course I’d say you should wait no longer! Most providers in the area are seeing courses sell out quite regularly! You can see what dates we have left here!

See you in the mountains,

Northeast Alpine Start



Weekend Report- AIARE 1 Avalanche Course, Bates Outing Club, Backcountry Ski Festival, 2 Avalanche Accidents

Holy smokes what an amazing last four days and another Nor’Easter, the third one in 10 days, hits tomorrow!


Thursday

I spent Thursday at Wildcat wrapping up a Northeast Mountaineering Guides AIARE 1 Avalanche Course. It was a true powder day and we got in 3 solid laps including Thompson Brook while making snow-pack and weather observations and getting in some Companion Rescue practice.

AIARE 1 Avalanche Course
Checking layers in a wind loaded aspect near the summit of Wildcat
AIARE 1 Avalanche Course
Making some turns in Thompson Brook- photo by @cfphotography

Friday

On Friday I met 7 students from the Bates College Outing Club at our classroom space at the Great Glen Trails Outdoor Center. Due to epic field conditions we focused on covering the majority of classroom on our first day so we could get two full field days in over the weekend.


Saturday

Saturday morning we met at the Northeast Mountaineering Bunkhouse to learn a little about Companion Rescue before working up a trip plan to Hermit Lake and potentially into Hillman’s Highway. The mountain was quite busy with traffic as this weekend was also the 2nd Annual Mt. Washington Backcountry Ski Festival, a killer event hosted by Synnott Mountain Guides and Ragged Mountain Equipment.

AIARE 1 Avalanche Course
Busy day at Pinkham Notch!

As our class arrived at Hermit Lake a member of Mount Washington Volunteer Ski Patrol informed us of two avalanche incidents that had just occurred. A skier in Gulf of Slides had triggered a slab avalanche and been carried in the “middle finger”. No injuries reported but he lost a ski and had a long trip back to Pinkham Notch. The 2nd incident was two skiers getting hit by a natural avalanche in Hillman’s Highway while they were ascending. They reported being carried about a 100 or so feet but were also not injured.

AIARE 1 Avalanche Course
Chatting with Mt. Washington Volunteer Ski Patrol and Andrew Drummond of Ski The Whites

We decided to head up that way and see if we could spot the avalanche debris. Just past the dogleg near the bottom of Hillman’s we could see a small debris pile about 100 feet above the dogleg. We climbed up a bit further before transitioning to our descent. We enjoyed some pretty epic powder on the Sherburne Ski Trail, especially when we ducked into the woods on the right side at a few spots!

AIARE 1 Avalanche Course
Hillman’s Highway Tour

After we debriefed our tour at Pinkham Notch Visitor Center I headed to the vendor gathering at Ragged Mountain Equipment and enjoyed a cold one courtesy of event sponsor Moat Mountain Smokehouse and Brewery. I bumped into a few former avalanche course students who were attending the festival and it was great to catch up and see them out there getting after it!

I then made my way over to the Apres party at Beak Peak Base Lodge where Tyler Ray of Granite Backcountry Alliance kicked off the evening where keynote inspirational speaker, The North Face athlete, and professional ski mountaineer Kit DesLauriers, would be presenting. I saw a lot of former students in the crowd here as well! Speaking of GBA I’m excited to announce I’ve joined their “Granbassadors” team! Such an awesome organization to be a part of. If you are reading this you likely ski in the back-country so you should check the mission out and subscribe here!


Sunday

Sunday morning had us planning a Gulf of Slides tour in the pack room at Pinkham Notch (along with quite a few other avalanche courses!). We skinned up into the Gulf by 11 AM and made our way over to the yet-to-be-filled-in South Snowfields. I then navigated us up to a bit of a bench and traversed us back over to the main gully stopping at about 4620 feet. Here we had a great small test slope that allowed us to see some really reactive new wind slab. After practicing some stability tests we used travel techniques to cross the main gully and then descend a smaller finger of amazing powder down to the lower half of the gully. It was by far the best run of my season so far!

AIARE 1 Avalanche Course
Gulf of Slides GPS Track

Fun turns all the way down the Gulf of Slides ski trail saw us back to Pinkham by 2 PM where we squeezed in a little more Companion Rescue practice before reviewing our tour and debriefing the course.


Relive ‘Gulf of Slides’

 

A huge thank you to the Bates Outing Club students who were super motivated to learn through-out the course and brought some endurance and solid skill that allowed us to access quite a bit of terrain over the course of the weekend! And to my former students that came up to me at both Ragged, Bear Peak, and on the mountain thank you for saying hi! So rewarding to see people out there applying skills they acquired in one of my courses years ago! You all rock!


Video Highlights From the Weekend

 

Ok… I’m still feeling the high from the last few days and can not believe we have another foot of snow coming tomorrow!!!


Useful Info

If you are heading up there don’t for get to check both the Avalanche Advisory and the Higher Summits Forecast!

Still need to take your level 1 avalanche class?

We have seats available for this upcoming weekend and the conditions on PRIME!


See you in the mountains,

Northeast Alpine Start

The 2015/16 Avalanche Course Season has ended!

Yesterday we finished our last avalanche course of the season with an AIARE 2 on Mount Washington. With back to back AIARE 1’s and two AIARE 2’s I fell behind on a bit of blogging so below you’ll find photos from these courses:

AIARE 1 March 4-6

AIARE 2 March 9-10/16-17 (Split Guides Course)

AIARE 2 March 11-14

Despite it being a rough winter snow wise every avalanche course had interesting conditions and productive field sessions. I’m heading back up the hill on Sunday with some clients and with the incoming weather I might get out of the skis a couple more times but I’m definitely thinking about warm sunny rock as well…

A big thank you to all of our avalanche course participants for contributing to another great season.

See you in the mountains!

-NEAlpineStart

AIARE 1 Avalanche Course 2/26/16-2/28/16

Despite it not being the best conditions for skiing this season Mother Nature has provided a complex snow pack to aid with our learning outcomes in each avalanche course. This past weekend was no exception as we wrapped up our 5th AIARE 1 avalanche course of the season.

EMS Schools AIARE Avalanche Course
Super top secret field location for Snowpack Observations on Day 2
EMS Schools AIARE Avalanche Course
Companion Rescue drill on Day 2
EMS Schools AIARE Avalanche Course
Discussing route option on Day 3
EMS Schools AIARE Avalanche Course
Some hand shears on our way up to Right Gully
EMS Schools AIARE Avalanche Course
Just right of Right Gully
EMS Schools AIARE Avalanche Course
Mike’s group investigating the layering in the “Open Book”
EMS Schools AIARE Avalanche Course
End of tour review followed by course debrief

Another course down. Just one more L1 left, this weekend, then 2 more L2’s and we can say goodbye to the 2015/16 avalanche course season. Here’s hoping we get a few more systems so our Spring ski season can survive through April!

See you in the mountains,

NEAlpineStart

 

AIARE 2 Avalanche Course

Yesterday concluded our first AIARE 2 Avalanche Course of the season. Despite less than optimal field conditions the course was super productive in large part to the considerable amount of experience brought to the classroom discussions by the varied participants. We were fortunate to have 8000m veteran expeditionary leader Phil Crampton, owner and operator of Altitude Junkies, in attendance.

Phil’s resume of high altitude peaks is amazing and his personal experiences with massive Himalayan avalanches and vibrant story telling ability led to more than one topic derailment. These vivid first hand accounts were more than welcome however for both their educational real-life value and entertainment.

We also had Jerry Isaak, Chair Associate Professor of Expeditionary Studies at the University of Plattsburgh. He has worked as an expedition leader and guide in Canada, the USA, Morocco, Scotland, Austria and the Arctic. Personal climbing and skiing expeditions include journeys in Kenya, Nepal and throughout North America. He was here to observe the course as part of the requirements of becoming an AIARE Course Leader, but he did much more than observe. Throughout both classroom and field session Jerry took advantage of opportunities to share his extensive knowledge and experience and all of his contributions were greatly valued.

A graduate of Jerry’s program, a local professional sailboat racer turned back-country skier/mountaineer, and an EMS Climbing Guide/Electrician/EMT rounded out our class by staying fully engaged and generating thoughtful questions throughout.

EMS Schools AIARE Avalanche Course
Pretty shallow snow pack at the top of the Kancamagus Highway but it served its purpose for Full Profile Demo/Practice
EMS Schools AIARE Avalanche Course
Backside of Wildcat provided over 2 meters of snow for a round of Test Profiles and small & large column tests. We practiced Tilt Tests, Compression Tests, Extended Column Tests, Propagation Saw Tests, and a Rutschblock
EMS Schools AIARE Avalanche Course
The results of our investigation
EMS Schools AIARE Avalanche Course
Skinning up below Lunch Rocks
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Boot-packing up towards Sluice
EMS Schools AIARE Avalanche Course
Jeremy charging with some fractures/crowns that filled in a bit in the Lip area
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Our high point to the left of the mouth of Right Gully. From here we traversed into The Sluice for some decent turns.

There is a lot of information to cover in an AIARE 2 Course. Anyone that thinks an AIARE 1 is information overload will be amazed when they attend an AIARE 2. We managed it fairly well and for the most part stayed out of the weeds. Feedback at the end of the day yesterday seemed consistent that everyone had acquired the skills needed to become an quality avalanche, snow, and weather observer. All that was needed now was practice.

See you in the mountains.

-NEAlpineStart

 

 

Avalanche Awareness/Mountain Skillz Day (2/7/16)

A couple weeks ago I had Suzanne in my most memorable AIARE 1 Avalanche Course to date. She had just entered the floor of the ravine with my co-instructor Mike when we witnessed a climber triggered avalanche that caught 5 people and injured two. As a doctor she was quick to volunteer to help US Forest Service Snow Rangers evacuate one of the victims.

This incident prevented her, and most of the class, from being able to make snow-pack observations and she was keen to return to the ravine for some more experiential learning. Yesterday she returned and this time she brought her energetic 20 year old son Jabus and friend and long time NH climber David to join her in the experience.

Since ski conditions were quite abysmal we opted for mountaineering boots & crampons and brought a little technical gear along to deal with the hard & fast sliding surfaces that make up most of Tuckerman Ravine right now. After a trip planning session we made our way up into the bowl and headed up into Left Gully to investigate some of the wind slab that was mentioned in the morning’s avalanche bulletin.

EMS Climbing School
Making our way up into Left Gully

The climbing conditions were quite firm, and with caution & focus we reached the base of Left of Left (ice climb). After a short break we traversed right into the gully proper and I moved out onto a moderate sized slab that had formed from cross-loading over the last two days while everyone else spotted me. Hand shear tests along the way broke with moderate force and were not very planar so I moved to where the slab felt a little deeper and dug a quick pit.

Finding about 15cms of Pencil hard slab over 15cms of 1-Finger snow, sitting on top of Knife hard concrete we carried out 3 quick sets of tests.

Two Shovel Tilt Tests, one which was “positive” and one that was “inconclusive” at the 15cm interface. For a quick description of the Shovel Tilt Test check out this video from the Utah Avalanche Center:

Two Compression Tests:

CT11, Q2 RP @ 30cm down (interface of 1F & K concrete)

CT11, Q3 BRK @ 30cm down (interface of 1F & K concrete)

Wanna watch some more YouTube on snow pack tests? Here’s one on the Compression Test:


While these failures were on the eye brow raising end of loading steps, the “shear quality” or “fracture character” was not very alarming. None-the-less we decided to carry out an Extended Column Test to increase our confidence in our findings.

Results: ECTX (No fractures are initiated in the 30 standard loading steps)

Before you ask here’s a pretty good video of the Extended Column Test:


Before descending I grabbed a quick shot looking up the gully…

EMS Climbing School
Theodolite iPhone App

And down the gully…

EMS Climbing School
I love this app

We descended to Hermit Lake and removed our crampons for a faster hike down to Pinkham Notch.

DCIM100GOPRO
Clearing skies as we get ready to leave

Back at the pack room we debriefed our trip into the alpine and parted ways. It was a pleasure to spend this time in the mountains with Suzanne, Jabus, and David and I’m looking forward to our next trip together.

A quick disclaimer regarding these YouTube videos I’ve posted. These should serve one of two purposes:

  1. Inspire you to take a course to really learn how to perform and interpret these tests.
  2. Refresh what you’ve learned from a formal course

Using YouTube videos to build your base knowledge could lead to… less than ideal results. But they are great for refreshing those skills!

Thanks for reading,

See you in the mountains,

NEAlpineStart