Peaks of Life Avalanche Awareness Course
The trouble with living in the Pacific Northwest is that I'm always picking up new outdoor hobbies and skills to add to the arsenal. And as I add to my skillset, I keep realizing how very little about everything I know. I mean, it starts out pretty simple. A little bit of hiking, a snowshoe here or there in the winter, maybe some inbounds skiing and hitting up the indoor rock gym. Then before you know what hit you, hiking turns into mountaineering, indoor rock climbing turns into outdoor climbs, and in my case this year, inbounds skiing turns into backcountry skiing. (I got tired of hiking down mountains and I swore I wouldn't be doing that again if I could help it).
Which means, I'm back to square zero and I know nothing once again.
Enter my very knowledgable friends.
As some may know, I'm part of a nonprofit called Peaks of Life - more on that to come in another post. But basically we raise money via mountaineering for Seattle Children's Uncompensated Care Fund. So we decided it would be a good idea to host an avalanche awareness course and we put that in motion.
On Saturday morning, we met up at the Ashford Fire Station, just outside Mount Rainier, to begin the classroom portion. Having experienced friends is super awesome, but it also requires me to make sure I turn off my ego and put on my learning cap. Forrest began talking avalanches. A good chunk of what he was saying was reflected in the book he'd had us read prior to the class Staying Alive in Avalanche Terrain and he's a natural at teaching so it was easy to stay engaged to absorb all the new info.
But then we went out into the field up to Mazama Ridge. Putting things into practice suddenly put things in a different perspective for me rather than just reading about it.
First there was the matter of skinning. I'd only done it once before a couple days prior and certainly not in deep, fresh, untracked powder. Let's just say it uses different muscles from just hiking up.
Then there was the building the snow caves - I didn't understand how creating them worked and felt like I was digging aimlessly for awhile until I actually saw Forrest shape his.
And then the next morning, the search practice began. We were essentially given 15 minutes (timed) to search for the "body" (a beacon attached to a piece of cardboard), and oh my gosh was that the most stressful thing ever. In the first search I felt like i was fumbling around and couldn't really figure out how to do the coarse search and ski while reading the beacon...and then I didn't remember to keep the beacon low to the ground and facing the same direction during the fine search until Garrett reminded me. During the second and third searches, I couldn't decide when to ditch my skis and pack and ended up having to tromp back uphill to grab the shovel. But I finally started getting the hang of the whole process by the fourth search.
Being timed was stressful, and that was to find a piece of cardboard. It's a sobering thought imagining that that could potentially be a friend one day. But I guess that's why practicing constantly is super important!
Finally there was the matter of getting back to the car. I swear I know how to ski. But apparently I underestimated the backcountry skiing learning curve. I literally do not understand how to ski with a heavy pack on. Or how to turn and stop in 8 inches of fresh, untracked powder. I snowplowed for the first time in years because tiny slopes felt like giant drops to me, 6 foot gaps between trees felt like I'd barely fit through, and I probably fell like 10 times. So now I definitely understand why inbounds days are practice for backcountry days.
I learned a lot over the course of the weekend about avalanche safety and the skills I need to practice and improve on. It reinforced for me that it is okay to be new to something - everyone is new at some point. I'll work at it, and one day, I won't be so new to it anymore.
Here's to learning to turn in deep powder, and to more backcountry days this season!