Avalanche! What to Expect During an AIARE Level I Course

Headed back up to New Hampshire for the third time this season, but this time it was for an avalanche awareness course (AIARE Level I). The course was organized and financially supported by the Potomac Mountain Club, our local climbing club.

The course appealed to me because it was to focus more on awareness for mountaineers (rather than back country skiers) and helped me better understand the complexities of traveling in the alpine environment.

Trip Report Written by Lucas F.

When Lora, Sameer, Ryan, Eric, and I stepped outside the Manchester airport Thursday, March 23, 2012, we knew this would not be the avalanche course we expected. The temperature must have been at least in the high 60s and not a flake of snow in sight.

The drive north to Conway, NH was no better.

The lower mountains were bare and our glimpses of Mt. Washington showed only sparse patches of snow. At this point it seemed much of the gear in our packs would not see use. Late that night we pulled into Merrill Farms Inn, a quaint but not small, lodging establishment on the south end of North Conway.

The loft we reserved was spacious, nice, and a great value. Two double beds up top, and a queen and sofa bed down below. Breakfast was included and fit the friendly atmosphere of the place with your standard hot and cold cereals, toast, English muffins, home-made muffins, and home-made maple butter. We filled up every morning.

The AIARE I Avalanche course started at International Mountain Equipment (IME) where we met our instructor/guide, Silas Rossi. We quickly headed up to Joe Dodge Lodge at Pinkham Notch where we would spend most of the three day course.

While it was a bit cooler in Pinkham Notch, there wasn’t any snow near the lodge. Tuckerman’s Ravine still had snow as the parking lot was stuffed with skiers everyday.

Day one of class covered the basics. We discussed what governs choosing your terrain: planning, making observations, and human factors. This involved several case studies using video from YouTube.

Some of the videos were very eye opening such as a small avalanche in a 15ft deep gully claiming a skier or how a skier on one face triggered a gigantic avalanche across multiple faces of the mountain.

Silas placed much of the emphasis on the human factors and prevention. Often people know they are taking a risk but excitement or opportunity pushes them to ignore their objective assessment.

In many cases avalanches can be avoided by making better decisions about the path to travel across terrain. We finished the day outside practicing rescue with avalanche beacons. It was a shade unrealistic when you could always see the beacon laying in the grass.

Yet it was still very useful for getting used to how the beacons operated and was our first introduction to the procedures for making a rescue: Call for help, survey the scene, identify the last place the victim was seen, initiate the wide search, make the fine search, mark the region where the victim was buried, probe, and dig. Admittedly, our attempts at this were a bit unorganized at first.

The second day covered weather and snow science. We discussed how to take weather observations, and how different types of snow form and under what conditions. The emphasis was understanding how the snow reacts based on the weather.

As a result, good predictions about snow conditions can be made by knowing previous conditions (i.e., prior avalanche reports) and the recent weather. We also covered essential equipment to take into the backcountry. We got a second attempt at slightly more realistic avalanche rescue training at Wildcat ski mountain.

Not on the slopes, but in the large pile of dirty snow that had been plowed off the parking lot over the winter. Here we could at least bury the beacon. Silas played a very panicked and annoying frantic companion whose friend was just buried by an avalanche.

Not only did we learn how to deal with panicking people, but also how to dig properly. And dig we did throughout the afternoon. By the end of the day we had found our organization and were getting much more proficient at rescue.

The final day was supposed to be in the field looking at the terrain and digging snow pits. As there was little to no snow to be found, we focused on route planning and navigation. This included compass and GPS navigation, and then how to look at a topo map and choose the safest route through avalanche terrain.

Practice in the snow would have been welcome, but it just didn’t work out for us this year. I think being indoors so much was getting to Sameer. Something about Ace Ventura starring in the Predator movies…

We plan on hiring Silas for a day next year to do actual field training and a refresher. He was an excellent instructor and he took his skills seriously.

In the end we learned about more than just avalanches, but also just good mountain awareness and practice. About this time he should be heading to Alaska for 3 weeks to climb some 5000 ft first mixed ice ascents.

The course also made it apparent to us that practicing the rescues periodically is essential for ensuring that an actual rescue goes smoothly. We will look at organizing a clinic to practice beacon use and rescue procedures. However, this would be no substitute for taking the course from an experienced instructor.

Rescues are just one part of the skills necessary to safe travel in avalanche terrain and a part you hope to never use. After watching case studies of very small avalanches resulting in a death you realize you must pay close attention.

We also owe thanks to the club for contributing to the course cost, Lora for organizing the course, Ryan for finding lodging, and Sameer for getting the car.


Course: AIARE Level I
Instructor: Silas Rossi via International Mountain Equipment (IME) 
When: March 24-26, 2012 (3 Days)
Where: Pinkham Notch, NH
Cost: $315 per person (before club contribution)

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Author, Writer, and Head Honcho at Desk to Dirtbag
Ryan is an author, adventurer, perpetual wanderer, and self-proclaimed dirtbag (but that might not mean what you think). Originally from Seattle, he headed to Washington D.C. where he spent five years working for Congress before heeding the call of the wild. He set out truck camping to road trip across the American West. Since then he set out traveling to Colombia, drove across all of Central America, and also wrote a best selling book: Big Travel, Small Budget. He just finished driving his old truck across all of South America. Follow the adventures on social media or read more about me.

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