Utah Avalanche Center’s Advanced Avalanche Skills Workshop

In (relatively blinding) light of the recent close calls, accidents, and the interesting “Colorado” or “continental” snowpack that backcountry travelers in the Wastach Mountains are currently entertaining, the Utah Avalanche Center hosted an Advanced Avalanche Skills Workshop in early February.   It was designed for advanced snow enthusiasts who sought to realign their avalanche skills with those of their skiing or snowboarding.

To kick things off, the Black Diamond Retail Store hosted a free evening workshop on February 9th, featuring the highly-regarded expertise of (UAC forecaster) Brett Kobernik, (Alta patrolman) Dave Richards, and (skier) Andrew McClean.  I arrived 15 minutes early to an empty room, and took my choice of the 50 fold-out chairs.  However, with the last-minute arrival of several (hundred) backcountry travelers , the options diminished rapidly.

The evening’s presentations coherently addressed both the underlying, fundamental, and relatively rare issues affecting safe backcountry travel in the Wasatch this season.  With a packed house, the discussions centered around high-level skiers and the way in which they should go about riding in the backcountry, given the recent conditions, in order to avoid accidents similar to those that were interpreted.  Between the quality presentations and 5 minutes of avalanche footage provided by Dave, everyone left wanting more.

Luckily, the Utah Avalanche Center had planned for just that.

Escaping the day before succumbing to the confines of Valentine’s Day, about 15 shredders played hooky on Monday the 13th in order to listen to UAC forecasters Brett Kobernik, Craig Gordon, and avalanche educator Trent Meisenheimer delve further into the previous Thursday’s conversation.

As a “special topics” class, the course was designed around a simple concept: how to make the most of the winter, given what the Wasatch has–or, more accurately, doesn’t have–this season.  Avalanche classes don’t come any more focused on current conditions and events than this.  It is an important topic to address in the Wasatch because users here, unlike many other ranges, are not accustom to the current thin, weak, and dangerous snowpack.

Some notable takeaways from the morning classroom session include:

  • expert skiers, when venturing into the backcountry, should have expert avalanche knowledge.
  • terrain familiarity can’t overshadow a lack of snow familiarity.
  • certain terrain choices leave no margin for error.
  • currently, only proper terrain choice and patience can keep a user safe in the backcountry.
  • terrain choice is the best avalanche mitigation tool.
  • “The thing that sucks most about dying doing what you love to do is that you can’t do what you love to do anymore.” – Craig Gordon
  • dangerous, persistent, and unpredictable are 3 of the red flag keywords in an avalanche report.
  • standing in the starting zone is not the only time to collect information.  take advantage of the climb.
  • “In Utah, we’re used to swimming with dolphins.  Now, we’re swimming with sharks.” –Craig Gordon
  • thin snowpack=weak snowpack=dangerous snowpack.
Craig Gordan discussed robot engineer Ian McCammon’s 2003 research on important human factors in accidents, and succinctly related them to this season’s avalanche deaths.
  1. Familiarity (with terrain)
  2. Acceptance (of other, alternative options)
  3. Commitment (to objective)
  4. Expert Halo (of recommendations and opinions)
  5. Scarcity (of resources (snow))

Looking out the meeting room windows, participants were ready to get outside.  10″ of Utah fresh had fallen the previous day, and after dividing participants into 3 groups, each with its own UAC instructor, everyone headed out on one of Monday’s first trams to see what the day’s host, Snowbird, had to offer.

Each group was joined by a Snowbird ski patroller who had a rescue scenario prepared somewhere on the mountain.  With fresh snow on the ground, strangers in the group, and various debris in the simulated avalanche path, team members quickly and effectively dug out the victims in the multiple-burial situations with which they were presented.

Following the rescue scenarios, groups ventured into far-reaching corners of the Snowbird periphery in order to really get into the nitty-gritty of the current snowpack.  Shovel sheer tests, compression tests, extended column tests, saw propagation tests, and even the elusive “Chugach stomp” (not to be confused with the Thursday evening line dance party at Alaska’s Northern Cowboy Bar) seemed to be the stability and propagation tests of choice. The afternoon went quickly, with participants and instructors regularly pulling the carpet out from underneath 2 meters of heavy snow by simply waking up the deep-lying facets that never seem to sleep.  Even the near-surface facets, covered by Sunday’s 10″ of snow, were creating some 1st-quality sheers for the enjoyment (and berating) of those who wish to actually ski something steeper than 25 degrees.

The event would have been impossible without Surface Skis and all of their donated poles, hats, and t-shirts; Paul Diegel of the Friends of the Utah Avalanche Center and all of his hard work to keep the UAC on top; Snowbird Ski Patrol and their big, yellow, buried, “victim” bags; Snowbird and the free mints, water, pens, and notepaper; Black Diamond and the fire-code-obeying basement; the Utah Avalanche Center and each one of its generous sponsors.

And, like that, the Advanced Avalanche Skills Workshop showed up and disappeared, which is exactly what we wish the 8″ layer of sugar that is sitting on the ground would have done…in October.


About @brodyleven

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One Response to Utah Avalanche Center’s Advanced Avalanche Skills Workshop

  1. mom says:

    Really a good post Brody. I’m making sure your sister reads it. She observed two huge avalanches in Bamyan today….very scary. Please be safe…

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