Winter Prep Time, Gear & Head Check!

I usually wait until November to share some tips on getting ready for the upcoming snow & avalanche season but since I got my first turns in today over at Wildcat I just can’t help it. I am so stoked for this winter let’s go go go! If you are excited for winter like I am let’s get down to business so we will be ready to climb, shred, huck, slide, and skip our way up and down our amazing mountains all winter long!

Skiing Mount Washington
Photo by Corey Fitzgerald

First order of business…

Gear Check!

Time to find your avalanche beacon in that mess of a gear closet and put some new batteries in it. You remembered to take the batteries out at the end of last season right? Wouldn’t want any funky corrosion in such an important device. If you have one of my favorite beacons, the Ortovox 3+, make sure you check your software version. If it is running version 2.1 you gotta send it in for a quickie update. Ortovox covers the shipping both ways and I sent in my fleet of 8 beacons and got them back in a week! All the details on that process are here!

Ortovox Avalanche Beacons
Ortovox 3+ Avalanche Beacon- photo by Cait Bourgault

Oh you don’t own a beacon yet? Well we probably should get you one if you have plans that include slaying back-country pow or climbing alpine gullies. I can help you pick out the right model with this post from last year.

Maybe you have an old beacon and thinking it’s time to update? Great timing because Ortovox will give you $75 towards a new beacon! Read up on this recycling program here! Oh, and this is when I put fresh lithium batteries in my headlamp, cuz I’m planning on being a more active member of my local Dawn Patrol squad this winter!

Head Check!

Are you thinking about avalanches? You should be! The Mount Washington Avalanche Center has posted its first general advisory of the season. It is important to understand that very small avalanches can have very large consequences this time of year as our run outs are basically big cliffs and large rocks. Size-able avalanches can happen before the center switches to the 5-tier North American Avalanche Danger Scale. You can read about one such local occurrence here if you need some convincing.

AIARE Avalanche Course
Hands on learning about snow stability- photo by Alexandra Roberts

If you want to venture out and play on some 30+ degree snowy terrain (I sure do!) then you should be thinking about stability (or lack thereof). If you’re not sure what to look for then now might be a good time to sign up for an avalanche course. This is my tenth year teaching avalanche courses and this year I’m teaching AIARE 1, Avalanche Rescue, and AIARE 2 for Northeast Mountaineering.

Our schedule:

AIARE 1

 3 days, $370pp, includes two nights lodging!

December 14-16, 2018
December 28-30, 2018
January 4-6, 2019
January 11-13
January 19-21
January 25-27
February 1-3
February 8-10
February 16-18
March 1-3
March 8-10
March 15-17
March 29-31

With this many AIARE 1 courses running you might think you can wait to book. Well might I say… don’t! Historically we are 80% sold out by mid-December. If you want to chose the date you take your course do so early! You can register directly here. Be sure to enter “DavidNEM” in the promo code box for a good chance at winning a free guided day of your choosing (and to let Northeast Mountaineering know you heard about this from me right?).

Avalanche Rescue

$150pp, includes one night lodging!!!

January 18
March 21

AIARE 2

3 days, $485pp, includes two nights lodging!

March 22-24

Only one date… ya I know wish I could run more but the demand for AIARE 1 is still quite high… we might find a way to squeeze another 2 in during the winter but don’t bet on it. If you have taken a recent 1, and the Avalanche Rescue course, jump on this one quick before it sells out (we have an Avalanche Rescue course scheduled the day before so you can meet that requirement the day before this course!)

Ok, moving on…

Head Check Part 2

If you’ve been spending time learning about snow and avalanches for years now something you’ve definitely figured out is there is still more to learn. To sound cliche… the learning never stops! So to that end here’s a few ideas to get those wheels spinning (and skins gliding)…

Eastern Snow and Avalanche Workshop!!!

This is coming up Saturday, November 3rd! It’s in Fryeburg, ME. It’s an amazing full day of knowledge and winning shwag. There’s always good food and beer there. There is no reason you should not go to this if you have bothered reading this far. It’s only $50 for a full day of brain boost and you have a pretty decent chance of walking away with some nice schwag by the end of the day! Register now and come high five me at the AIARE/Ortovox table or creeping-on-the-DPS-table!

Avalanche Podcast you say?

Slide: The Avalanche Podcast

Can’t make it to ESAW? That’s okay… I understand… sometimes schedules just don’t work out you know? But guess what? You can still start priming that back-country brain by listening to some wicked smart guy talk about avalanches on a Podcast! I just finally finished the first two seasons of “Slide: The Avalanche Podcast” by Doug Krause. Find it on iTunes or where-ever you get your podcasts…

Rescue Practice

EMS Schools Avalanche Course
Real life rescue practice, full story here

It’s time to refresh those beacon skills. Run some drills. Dig! Don’t neglect the importance of “big picture” type scenarios. Sure, you bracketed that beacon buried under 6 inches of freshly fallen maple leaves in only 2 minutes 13 seconds flat but did you see that glove sticking out of the ground over there? That ski pole? Did you remember to fake-call 911 before you started your search? I’ll refer you to the Quick Reference- Avalanche Rescue flow chart at the back of your AIARE Field Book… oh… you don’t have one? Scroll back up to that stuff about signing up for an Avalanche Course… oh and how’s that First Aid training going? Taken that Wilderness First Aid Course yet?

Ok enough preaching… I’m just really really really excited for this winter. I think it’s going to be a good one. I just feel it. Fingers crossed, snow dances complete, sacrifices made… here it comes!

avalanche courses mount washington
A powder day on the Cog- Photo by Corey Fitzgerald

See you in the mountains!

Northeast Alpine Start

Beacon Retirement FB.JPG

Affiliate links support this blog. Shopping through them, even for just a nice new shiny carabiner, helps me keep this dream alive. Thank you!

Gear Review- Avalanche Safety Gear Part 3: Avalanche Shovels

For the third installment of this multi-post series on avalanche safety gear we take a look at the Ortovox line of avalanche shovels.

Ortovox Avalanche Shovel Comparison
Ortovox Avalanche Shovel Comparison- photo by Alexandra Roberts

Part 1: Avalanche Transceivers (Beacons)

Part 2: Avalanche Probes

Part 3: Avalanche Shovels

Part 4: Avalanche Airbags (coming soon)

Like your beacon and probe you should put some thought into what you want out of your avalanche shovel and Ortovox has models that cover the full range of desires! In order to determine which model is right for you I will point out the key differences between models within the Ortovox line and highlight my favorites!


If you plan to carry a shovel and an ice axe consider the ingenuity of the Pro Alu III Shovel + Pocket Spike! Currently you can use “Take20November” at checkout to get 20% off!


I demonstrate this awesome feature in a short YouTube clip I did last year:

 


Ortovox Badger Shovel $49.95

Ortovox Badger Avalanche Shovel
Ortovox Badger Avalanche Shovel (1 lb 6 oz)

The lightest and most affordable option in the Ortovox line this shovel performs well but lacks some of the things I really like in avalanche shovels, i.e. telescoping shaft and optional “trench” mode. None-the-less for the price point this model features high end materials and efficient design and is an excellent choice for those who spend limited time in avalanche terrain or digging snow-shelters, pits, tent platforms, etc.


Ortovox Beast Avalanche Shovel $59.95

Ortovox Beast Avalanche Shovel
Ortovox Beast Avalanche Shovel (1 lb 9 oz)

For $10 more and 3 ounces more weight the Ortovox Beast adds both a telescoping shaft and a rubber coated glove friendly grip that allows better power transfer and control when digging furiously for your partner. A solid mid-range choice but for $10 more the feature list grows considerably!


Ortovox Pro Alu III Avalanche Shovel $69.95

Ortovox Pru Alu III Avalanche Shovel
Ortovox Pru Alu III Avalanche Shovel (1 lb 12 oz)

The added flexibility of this lightweight and pack-able shovel has won me over as to this being my favorite shovel on the market, which led to a long form review here. The telescoping handle and rubberized “power grip” is nice but where this shovel shines is how it has an intuitive and quick to use “trenching mode” as well as pairing with the incredibly innovative Pocket Spike to provide an extra layer of “fall protection” on those ski tours where you didn’t think carrying an ice axe would be needed. I demonstrate this awesome feature in a short YouTube clip I did last year:


Ortovox Kodiak Avalanche Shovel $89.95

Ortovox Kodiak Avalanche Shovel
Ortovox Kodiak Avalanche Shovel (1 lb 12 oz)

A behemoth in the category of avalanche shovels this model boasts a 3.1 liter blade with telescoping capability and a mitten friendly D-shaped handles. If you suffer from cold hands and ski or ride with mittens, or are a member of professional search and rescue, this is the model for you! It’s still my go-to when I am winter camping or doing heavy snow-pack analysis and less focused on counting the ounces in my pack. I posted a long form review of this 4 years ago and still love this model! I highlighted this model quite a few years ago in this YouTube clip:

 


Protip

Like avalanche transceivers (beacons, and probes, avalanche shovels require practice to become proficient with. Store your shovel in a dedicated avalanche tool pocket in a quality avalanche backpack and practice deploying it on a regular basis. Do not take for granted the seconds that can be lost when you are unfamiliar with your equipment!


Training

Consider upgrading your rescue skills with the all new 8 hour AIARE Avalanche Rescue Course! This is a fantastic addition in the field of avalanche education and something you should consider if you’ll be spending time in avalanche terrain in the future! If you haven’t taken an AIARE 1 course yet, or maybe it’s been awhile, it’s not to late to get in on a course this season! See what dates we have left here! (Use promo code “DavidNEM” when booking)!


Purchase

All of these models can be purchased directly from Backcountry.com here. A small percentage of your purchase will go to Northeast Alpine Start to support creating content like this. Thank you for your support!

See you in the mountains,

Northeast Alpine Start

Part 1: Avalanche Transceivers (Beacons)

Part 2: Avalanche Probes

Part 3: Avalanche Shovels

Part 4: Avalanche Airbags (coming soon)

Affiliate links above support this blog. Author is an Ortovox Team Athlete and so received any product mentioned at no cost.

Gear Review- Avalanche Safety Gear Part 2: Avalanche Probes

For the second part of a multi-post series on avalanche safety gear we will take a look at avalanche probes and answer some questions to help you pick the right model.

Part 1: Avalanche Transceivers (Beacons)

Part 2: Avalanche Probes

Part 3: Avalanche Shovels

Part 4: Avalanche Airbags (coming soon)

Ortovox Avalanche Probes Review
Avalanche Probe Reviews- photo by Cait Bourgault

An avalanche probe is so much more than just a rescue resource! In fact it is one of my most used tools to make snow-pack observations, both formal and informal.

For example, tracking average snow depth over the terrain helps me better understand the high degree of variability in our terrain. By “gently” probing I can feel for denser layers over weaker layers (possible slabs) and get a sense of how complex the snow-pack I am traveling over is, including the number and prevalence of melt-freeze crusts in our snow-pack, which often are quite relevant to assessing snow stability.

When taking the time to look more closely at the snow-pack via digging a snow-pit the probe helps me identify the depth of any questionable layers. Finally the probe must deploy quickly and reliably in the event of an avalanche accident and provide that critical piece of info, burial depth, once you get a “probe strike”. For all these reasons I would suggest you think critically about what probe you should carry, and below I will help you narrow the field to the model that is right for you.

Aluminum vs Carbon vs Steel

Aluminum probes are likely the most common out there. A solid balance between weight, durability, and affordability. Carbon probes are gaining popularity. Ounce counters will justify the higher cost to save a couple ounces. Steel probes are the choice of organized rescue teams around the world, trading extra weight for long-term durability.

*One experienced reader (@whats_thematterhorn) has pointed out that those who spend a lot of time in glaciated terrain might avoid carbon poles… frequent probing through glacier hard snow/ice to designate “safe areas” and assess snow bridges can lead to pre-mature wear or failure of a carbon probe. In addition a longer probe might be more beneficial in big mountain terrain (Alaska) than in our lower 48 BC terrain.

Length- 240 cm, 280 cm, 320 cm?

Avalanche probe length can vary, with the most common length for recreational users being 240 cm. Considering the average burial depth is 1.4 meters this gives us an extra meter in length over “average” to account for deeper burials. Longer probes do allow one to probe deeper without having to bend over but are best suited for professional rescue where weight/pack-ability isn’t at a premium. The extra length, unfortunately, is more for “recovery” rather than rescue as someone buried over 2 meters deep has a very low chance of survival.

Let’s look at some of the Ortovox models and who they would be best suited for…

Ortovox Alu 240 Avalanche Probe $39.95

Ortovox Alu 240 Avalanche Probe
Ortovox Alu 240 Avalanche Probe- 200 grams (7 ounces)

A “budget” choice but one that really beats any other model at this price on the market. 5 cm depth markers, a high visibility first section combined with a visible 1 meter mark and quick lock system all make this a very fine option at a bargain price point.

Ortovox Alu 240 PFA Avalanche Probe $59.95

Ortovox Alu 240 PFA Avalanche Probe

A significant upgrade in the Ortovox Aluminum line the 240 PFA model adds a faster assembly system, a strong and light steel tensioning system (instead of the thin rope used in the Alu 240), and a better top hand grip for precise control during a systematic probe search. This would be my best recommendation for the majority of recreationalists!

Ortovox Carbon 240 Superlight Avalanche Probe $89.95

Ortovox Carbon 240 Superlight Probe
Ortovox Carbon 240 Superlight Avalanche Probe- 185 grams (6.5 ounces)

The lightest probe in the Ortovox line this is the model of choice for those who like to shave ounces from their kit, yet it still has great durability and the quick lock assembly system as well as the “visual guide system” that is a feature of all Ortovox probes. If you like to streamline your kit this is the one to look at!

Ortovox Carbon 280+ PFA Avalanche Probe $99.95

Ortovox Carbon 280+ PFA Avalanche Probe
Ortovox Carbon 280+ PFA Avalanche Probe 355 grams / 12.5 oz

Longer than the 240 cm models and extendable (can be extended with another probe) this model is the choice of mountain guides and rescue groups around the world. Light weight carbon with a high strength steel tension system and the rubberized top grip make this a solid choice for, ski patrol, rescue, and mountain professionals everywhere.

Ortovox Steel 320+ PFA Probe $109.95

Ortovox Steel 320+ PFA Avalanche Probe
Ortovox Steel 320+ PFA Avalanche Probe- 670 grams (1 lb 7.6 oz)

The biggest and most robust of the line-up, the high weight of this work-horse really lends itself to professional rescue and the back-country snowmobile crowd where an extra pound of weight will not be noticed.

Practice

No matter what probe you have it is imperative that you practice with it regularly. From my experience of teaching avalanche courses for over 10 years I can say that most people, even those who have owned a probe for a few seasons, have not practiced with them enough. How should you practice? Consider running “deployment” drills where you must remove your backpack, access your pack, and deploy your probe correctly, all under a stopwatch. Race your friends and touring partners. Make it a game. You will be surprised how much people can fumble and struggle with the locking mechanism on their probe. The bottom line is in an avalanche rescue every second counts and a lot of time can be lost if you are not efficient at deploying your probe. Take the time to get proficient!

Pro-tip

Don’t take your avalanche probe storage sack into the back-county. Leave it at home and use it for home-storage and travel. Taking it into the field slows your ability to deploy your probe quickly and they often get blown away and lost in the lightest of winds.

Summary

I hope you’ve found this post informative and educational. At the end of the day there are a ton of great probes on the market these days from quite a few different companies. I obviously love the Ortovox line and I think when you objectively compare features and get some hands-on time with any of these models you’ll feel the same way.

Training

Consider upgrading your rescue skills with the all new 8 hour AIARE Avalanche Rescue Course! This is a fantastic addition in the field of avalanche education and something you should consider if you’ll be spending time in avalanche terrain in the future! If you haven’t taken an AIARE 1 course yet, or maybe it’s been awhile, it’s not to late to get in on a course this season! See what dates we have left here! (Use promo code “DavidNEM” when booking)!

Purchase

All of these models can be purchased directly from Backcountry.com here. A small percentage of your purchase will go to Northeast Alpine Start to support creating content like this. Thank you for your support!

See you in the mountains,

Northeast Alpine Start

Part 1: Avalanche Transceivers (Beacons)

Part 2: Avalanche Probes

Part 3: Avalanche Shovels

Part 4: Avalanche Airbags (coming soon)

Affiliate links above support this blog. Author is an Ortovox Team Athlete and so received any product mentioned at no cost.

Mid Winter Season Check-in

I hope you have all been having a great winter so far. For me the early season ice climbing was great with a couple Black Dike ascents getting it off to a good start.

ice climbing black dike cannon cliff
Early season ascent of The Black Dike, Cannon Cliff, New Hampshire- photo by Peter Brandon

Then we got 82 inches of snow in December followed by another foot the first week of January and it appeared we were about to enjoy an epic snow year. Then between January 11th-13th we received 3 inches of rain and lost over two feet of our snow-pack.

avalanche courses new hampshire
January 10th. Green is over 2 feet of snow
avalanche courses new hampshire
January 14th after 3 inches of rain

A highlight of this event was a massive wet slab avalanche that was larger than one recently retired Snow Ranger saw in his 10+ years of service there! Standing out on the debris with students two days after the slide one could not help but be impressed by the power of Mother Nature. It made regional news headlines and I saw quite a few people trek up to the floor of the ravine just to get a first hand look at it!

avalanche course tuckerman ravine mount washington
Students of an AIARE 1 course checkout the scale of the massive wet slab avalanche that occurred around 1/14/18- photo by Cait Bourgault

January failed to recover our snow-pack finishing the month with a total of only 29 inches (12 of which were washed away during that rain event). That is less snow in January in more than 10 years!

While it seemed a bit devastating the bright side was we started seeing ice form in strange places and ephemeral routes like Gandolf the Great and Hard Rane came in FAT!

Ice climbing Frankenstein Cliffs
Benny Allen follows me on a rarely fat Gandolf The Great- Photo by Ben Lieberman

All this ice was great for the 25th annual Ice Fest and despite a burly cold first day of the event folks seemed to have a great three days at the event.

Avalanche Courses

We’ve been having another great year for our avalanche courses with 6 AIARE 1 courses behind us, an Avalanche Rescue course, and an AIARE 2 course that just ended yesterday (with ski conditions that signaled ski season is definitely back!)

avalanche course tuckerman ravine mount washington
Making snow-pack observations during an AIARE 1 Course- photo by Alexandra Roberts

We only have one more AIARE 1 Course that isn’t sold out

NEW: March 3-5

One more Avalanche Rescue Course:

March 16

One more AIARE 2 Course:

March 17-19

Here’s some footage showing our last day of our AIARE 2 course which should get you stoked for the rest of the ski season!

 

If you do book any of these courses be sure to use “DavidNEM” in the promo/notes box to be entered into a drawing for a free guided adventure.

Gear Reviews

I have been testing a ton of great new gear this season from companies like Petzl, Sterling, Black Diamond, Kailas, Arcteryx, DPS, Dynafit, and many more. Expect to see a lot of new gear reviews posting in March and April as I find time to give these products honest and detailed reviews.

ice climbing Cathedral Ledge
Testing the Kailas Entheos II Ice Tools and clothing- photo by Peter Brandon

Looks like another nice dumping of snow (totals up to 14″) is coming Wednesday so I’m really looking forward to this weekends avalanche course! Hope you get out and enjoy the snow and thanks for reading!

See you in the mountains,

Northeast Alpine Start

First Avalanche Course of the Season!

This weekend we conducted our first AIARE Avalanche Course of the season and it was so lit! Seriously we couldn’t have hoped for better weather and conditions! Combine that with our NEW classroom space at Great Glen Trails Outdoor Center and we had a fantastic 3 days! Here’s a quick recap!

Friday

After a morning of classroom we headed outside where a perfect terrain feature provided a realistic avalanche rescue demo for our 13 students.

Saturday

After another morning of engaging classroom discussions we were out the door just after lunch to conduct our “Observational Outing” in a shallow yet dynamic snow early season snow pack. After wrapping up class we got to drive back through the notch in quite the snow squall! Here’s some short clips from my Instagram story that afternoon!

Sunday

For our final day we met at Pinkham Notch Visitor Center and the students, armed with recently acquired knowledge, dove into trip planning sessions to plan our tour. By 8:45 am we were skinning up the Tuckerman Ravine Trail to put to use everything we had talked about the previous two days. The following photos are all courtesy of Alexandra Roberts.

AIARE Avalanche Course
AM Student Led Trip Planning Session
AIARE Avalanche Course
Writing down the plan helps avoid some heuristic traps
AIARE Avalanche Course
Heading right into winter on Mount Washington’s Tuckerman Ravine Trail
AIARE Avalanche Course
Quick break and observations at Hermit Lake
AIARE Avalanche Course
Discussing route options
AIARE Avalanche Course
Hands on learning about snow stability
AIARE Avalanche Course
Upper Sherburne ski trail was in pretty good shape!

Back at Pinkham Notch Visitor Center we reviewed our ski tour and debriefed the course before parting ways. By all accounts the first avalanche course of the season was a huge success. A big thanks to the 13 students who made it a great course by asking great questions and staying motivated through-out! Hope to see you all out there practicing your new skills!


Thinking of signing up for an avalanche course this winter?

Some of our courses have already sold out and many are close!

course dates

Course price includes two nights of lodging at The Bunkhouse!

You can book here, and use promo code “DavidNEM” to be entered to win a free guided trip of your choosing!

Thanks for reading!

See you in the mountains,

Northeast Alpine Start

AIARE 1 Avalanche Course and hello Spring!

The last weekend of winter provided one of the most spectacular 3 days of higher summits weather I have ever seen in March! Blue skis and almost non-existent wind led to some really enjoyable ski touring on Mount Washington during our second-to-last American Institute of Avalanche Research and Education (AIARE) course.

Day One

We kicked off the course on Friday with some lively classroom sessions and small group exercises.

AIARE Avalanche Course
Benny discusses identifying avalanche terrain on day 1.
AIARE Avalanche Course
Small groups learn vicariously while discussing a local case study

Day Two

We met early to learn some advanced trip planning skills using CalTopo.com and the Avenza App. The Higher Summits Forecast called for southeast winds around 10-15 mph so we planned a tour on the west side of Mount Washington.

AIARE Avalanche Course
Powerful trip planning software that is 100% free!
AIARE Avalanche Course
Adjusting layers while skinning up the Cog
AIARE Avalanche Course
Small pockets of 2-3 mm Surface Hoar were found on sheltered north aspects above Waumbek Tank but below tree line
AIARE Avalanche Course
Benny demonstrates some snow pit observations near Jacob’s Ladder
AIARE Avalanche Course
Some cool wind effect and cornices nearby
AIARE Avalanche Course
We contoured around the rim of Ammonoosuc Ravine until we could drop the main gully or “Center Ammo”.

We concluded our tour with a debrief at the trail-head before calling it a day.

Day Three

AIARE Avalanche Course
Student led trip-planning session at Pinkham Notch Visitor Center
AIARE Avalanche Course
Skinning up the Tuckerman Ravine Trail
AIARE Avalanche Course
Hermit Lake Snow Study Plot
AIARE Avalanche Course
Skinning up between Lobster Claw Gully and Right Gully
AIARE Avalanche Course
Snow-pack Observations

Avalanche danger was LOW and we had plenty of time to spare so we booted up Lobster Claw and traversed over to the top of Right Gully.

AIARE Avalanche Course
Ready to boot up Lobster Claw
AIARE Avalanche Course
Bluebird!
AIARE Avalanche Course
Sherika after descending from pit location
AIARE Avalanche Course
300 pound block of ice came from somewhere

Some video of our descent:

AIARE Avalanche Course
All smiles after a good run!

We wrapped up the course back in the pack room with discussions about continuing to learn about traveling in the back-country. It was a real pleasure having each of you in this course. Thank you all for staying engaged and contributing through out our three days!

Tomorrow, and beyond!

Only one more avalanche course next weekend after a Mountain Skills Course tomorrow and Washington Climb on Thursday. It might seem like the winter season is winding down a little but we are set up for a fantastic Spring ski season! The warm rock climbing can wait this year… I still have a lot of skiing goals to accomplish including reviewing some new ski mountaineering gear from CAMP/Cassin, Ortovox, Petzl, and DPS. Expect a lot of gear reviews to be landing April/May after I get back from Iceland.

Yup, Iceland!  Been awhile since I’ve been out of country so I am SUPER amp’d about this upcoming trip.

Want to try backcountry skiing?

Maybe you just bought a setup or still need to rent a touring package (a few places in town rent touring gear). Maybe you’d like to avoid the maddening crowds in Tuckerman Ravine and check out some new to you terrain ? Consider learning about the joys of back-country skiing with me. The snow-pack we have in the alpine right now combined with more stable Spring weather is a GREAT time to book a back-country ski day!

You can read a bit about the program here but reach out to me directly at nealpinestart@gmail.com to check on available dates before trying to book!

Did you get out this weekend? Whatcha do? Let me know in the comments below!

Well thanks for reading, and welcome Spring!

See you in the mountains!

Eastern Snow Avalanche Workshop

A couple weeks ago I attended the sixth annual Eastern Snow & Avalanche Workshop and wrote a brief summary of the event with a few photos. Here, with permission, is a special sneak preview of the more detailed report my friend and colleague Jonathan Shefftz has written for The Avalanche Review before it goes to print! Enjoy!

6th Annual Eastern Snow and Avalanche Workshop
6th Annual Eastern Snow and Avalanche Workshop

Sixth Annual Eastern Snow & Avalanche Workshop (“ESAW”)

by Jonathan S. Shefftz

The sixth annual Eastern Snow & Avalanche Workshop (“ESAW”) on November 5 attracted approximately 150 attendees at Fryeburg Academy, just across the state border from New Hampshire’s Mount Washington in the White Mountains’ Presidential Range.

This year’s ESAW was as always a collaborative effort.  The organizing partners included the Snow Rangers of the USFS Mount Washington Avalanche Center (“MWAC”) and the Mount Washington Volunteer Ski Patrol (“MWVSP”).  ESAW once again relied on a grant from our lead sponsor the American Avalanche Association (“AAA”), to be led here soon by Eastern Representative-elect Mark Renson, with your faithful correspondent as AAA Member Representative.  Additional support came from our headline industry sponsor Outdoor Research.  Registration fee proceeds over and above hosting costs benefitted the White Mountain Avalanche Education Fund, which provides avalanche education to youth of the Northeast.

ESAW kicked off the prior Friday evening with a social event hosted by the Friends of MWAC and fueled by Moat Mountain Smokehouse & Brewing at the International Mountain Equipment shop and guide service.  Then Saturday morning the avalanche presentations started up at Fryeburg Academy.

Chris Joosen, MWAC former Lead Snow Ranger (only the third since its 1951 formation) and outgoing AAA Eastern Representative, flew back East from his new Oregon home to serve yet again as our MC.  Also flying out East was our first presenter, Simon Trautman of the National Avalanche Center (“NAC”), who introduced us to “Avalanche Danger Scales and How Forecasters Use Them” including data to compare/contrast ratings distributions across the forecast centers of different nations.

We then retreated well below treeline as Tyler Ray of the newly formed Granite Backcountry Alliance (i.e., for the “Granite State” of New Hampshire) joined MWAC Snow Ranger Helon Hoffer for “Backcountry Skiing on Public Lands: The Creation of Legitimate and Sustainable Glades.”  Although New England backcountry skiing guidebooks reference only official ski trails (many cut by the famed Civilian Conservation Corps during the Great Depression) plus the avalanche terrain at and above treeline, much of the backcountry skiing here actually takes place on the “down low”:  glades illicitly cut on public lands for “forest fire prevention” and other in-the-know euphemisms.  This was brought into the open in 2007 when two would-be Vermont backcountry skiers were criminally charged with felony-level violations for chainsawing a prominent line (aka “Jailhouse Chute”).  But recent collaboration in Vermont with the USFS between non-profit groups has created glades that are both nicely skiable and legitimately accessible.  The increasing availability of such terrain can offer a safe alternative to skiing at and above treeline when avalanche danger is elevated.  And fortuitously for the Granite Backcountry Alliance, the off-season position for Snow Ranger Hoffer is the USFS Trails Manager for much of the Presidentials Range.

Next, AAA’s Executive Director Jaime Musnicki returned to her native New England to make good on her plan to attend as many regional SAWs as possible, and also to present on “Personal Reflections:  Making Sense of Our Own Close Calls in Avalanche Terrain.” As if the incident she described in detail weren’t already harrowing enough, her partner had been her new boyfriend at the time, out on their first ski tour together.  And not only did Jaime come out on top of the debris, four years later the two of them are still together.

On a similar note, Jon Miller, of Dogy Down Films, although unable to attend in person, presented to us on “Risk, Rewards, and the Balancing of Mountain Experiences and Goals” via a tailored video introduction and debriefing for us to sandwich his film “Season on the Brink.”  His life-threatening fall this past spring in a Mount Washington couloir was extensively written up at the time, but the video footage he showed us — from both a partner and his own helmet cam — was especially terrifying.  Just as memorable were the assessments from the party members of “What really sticks with me is that we just shouldn’t have been there” and “A series of little details and little errors that added up.”  After a helicopter airlift, Jon spent a month in hospital care before regaining the ability to talk and walk normally.

Dallas Glass, our fourth Western presenter of the morning, here to lead the avalanche instructor training the following day for the American Avalanche Institute for Research and Education (“AIARE”), presented on “Blue Skies, Powder Days, and Las Vegas: Minimizing the Role of Luck in Avalanche Terrain.”  For ESAW regulars over the years, Dallas’s presentation was the perfect follow-up to the 2012 presentation to us by Blase Reardon (then of the Sawtooth Avalanche Center, and now of the Colorado Avalanche Information Center).  Back then, Blase had emphasized that the backcountry snowpack does not provide a consistent environment with regular feedback, but rather its feedback is inconsistent and often fatal.  (Remember Bruce Tremper’s analogy of playing soccer in a mine field.)  “Experts” are often just those who have gotten lucky over time, like many stock pickers who have beaten the market over a selected time period.  This year, Dallas explained how debriefing your day is the feedback loop that completes the risk management process.  Professional guides always hold a debriefing as part of their standard operating procedures.  To help recreationalists aspire toward this goal, Dallas quoted an incentivizing line from his fellow Pacific Northwest guide Larry Goldie:  “Why having a beer at the end of the day could save your life.”  It (the debriefing, not necessarily the alcoholic content!) allows us to identify when we got lucky and thereby recalibrate, so that on future trips we aren’t relying on “luck” to stay safe.  We have all gotten lucky in the mountains, but we need to recognize when that occurs so that we don’t need an incident to provide us feedback, and instead we can use “no event” days to learn from and grow as backcounty travelers.

After lunch, Jaime Musnicki explained the upcoming split between recreational versus professional tracks in U.S. avalanche training.  Fortunately the details need not be reiterated here, since you the dear reader have of course already carefully read every single prior TAR article on this subject.  (Right?)  This fed into a panel discussion on avalanche education with Jaime Musnicki, Jeff Lane (previously a MWAC Snow Ranger for ten years), Simon Trautman, and Dallas Glass, moderated by MWAC Snow Ranger Frank Carus.

Thus far we had been getting off lightly on the technical side.  To ratchet everything up several notches, as always we could rely on Dr. Sam Colbeck, retired from the U.S. Army’s Cold Region Research and Engineering Laboratory (in Hanover, NH) after three decades of groundbreaking cold lab and field research in snow crystal bonding and wet grain relationships.  In his fifth year of ESAW presentations, this time Sam explained “Why Skis Slide on Snow.”  The answer is not simply “because it’s fun” since that’s why we use skis to slide on snow, as opposed to why they are actually able to slide so well.

And those skis slide especially well on very steep terrain with lots of blown-in snow, which was the focus of the presentation by Frank Carus on “Forecasting Avalanche Danger in Inherently Dangerous Terrain” regarding the couloirs in the at-treeline glacial cirques on our Mount Washingon.  Next, Simon Trautman presented on “What are we doing now?” at the NAC, following up on the presentation at the 2014 ESAW by the NAC’s Director Karl Birkeland.

And finally, Chris Joosen wrapped up with “Reflecting on a Life with Avalanches” incorporating his 26 years working on Mount Washington.  His conclusion was followed by a standing ovation from all attendees.  And from all us who have depended for so many years on Chris’s work and his direction of the MWAC Snow Rangers, thank you!

We concluded with our annual expo, including rep displays for AAA, AIARE, Backcountry Access, Black Diamond / Pieps, Catamount Trail Association, Bryce & Ronnie Athlete Safety & Security (“BRASS”) Foundation, DPS Skis, Friends of MWAC, Granite Backcountry Alliance, La Sportiva, Maine Adaptive Sports & Recreation, Mammut / Barryvox, MWVSP, Mount Washington Weather Observatory, Petzl & Adventure Medical, Salomon, Northeast Mountaineering guides, Ortovox / Deuter, and Outdoor Research.  Throughout the day we had raffled off and auctioned donations from these sponsors plus ARVA, Dynafit, Hagan, MSR, Pomoca, Ski the East, and Toko.  

Jonathan Shefftz patrols at Northfield Mountain and Mount Greylock in Western Massachusetts, where he lives with his wife and daughter (who notched her first-ever October ski outing this season). He is an AIARE-qualified instructor, NSP avalanche instructor, and AAA governing board member. When he is not searching out elusive freshies in Southern New England or “coaching” his daughter’s skiing (i.e., picking her up off the snow), he works as a financial economics consultant and has been qualified as an expert witness in state and federal courts. He can be reached at JShefftz@post.harvard.edu or just look for the lycra-clad skinner training for his NE Rando Race Series.