Backcountry basics | AIARE Course, day 1
Not long before family and friends came calling for the Christmas holiday I spent a weekend trekking through backcountry powder fields and icy erstwhile ski slopes in Rocky Mountain National Park as part of Colorado Mountain School’s Level 1 Avalanche Course, and based on our recent weather it looks like good timing.
Winter has had a slow start in Middle Park this year but over the Christmas weekend an intense snowstorm slammed into Grand County, closing Berthoud Pass, I-70 and multiple other roads throughout Colorado’s north central mountains while sending the avalanche danger skyrocketing.
Tuesday morning the Colorado Avalanche Information Center issued an Avalanche Warning for all of Grand County, the entire Front Range area and most of the I-70 corridor. The Avalanche Warning extended from 6 a.m. Tuesday to 6 a.m. Wednesday.
“Very heavy snowfall on Monday and continued strong westerly winds have combined to create very dangerous avalanche conditions,” reads the Warning from the CAIC. “Human triggered avalanches are very likely. If you trigger an avalanche today, it will be large enough to bury or even kill you.”
It was exactly that message of extreme caution the instructors at Colorado Mountain School stressed throughout the three-day AIARE course, titled “Decision Making in Avalanche Terrain”. Headed up by longtime mountain guide and Colorado Mountain School instructor Joey Thompson the AIARE Level 1 course featured a full day of classroom instruction and two days of fieldwork.
Weather conditions were surprisingly warm and dry for mid-December when I arrived in Estes Park early on a Friday morning. Due to conditions our instructors decided to frontload the academic work for the course on Friday. We spent hours delving into the complexity of avalanche science with Thompson and the three other course instructors: Ben Markhart, Adam Baxter and Mike Bortnowski.
During the first day our instructors quizzed us on the basics of avalanche science, tested our knowledge of avalanche terms – and their meanings – and regularly asked us to give our own assessments of the avalanche danger of a particular slope. We learned how to read an inclinometer – which tells the degree of a slopes angle – and how to read avalanche forecasts provided by the CAIC.
Along the way our guides provided innumerable statistics and facts about avalanches and the types of people who often die in those awesome cascades of snow, but one statistic shockingly stood out from the others. Avalanche deaths are more common after taking a formal avalanche safety course than before hand, due in large part to the confidence such classes can instill.
As day one of our course ended our guides told us to prepare for a cold Saturday hiking up through Hidden Valley, a decommissioned ski resort located in Rocky Mountain National Park that is a popular with back country skiers.
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