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ApexEx Avalanche Training–Day 2

Posted Apr 13 2012 11:24pm

And…over a week after posting about Day 1 of avalanche training I’m finally getting into Day 2 of our training. Better late than never, right?! This is one of those posts that I need to sit down and write – without Burn Notice sucking up our Netflix bandwith in the background.

When we got home after Day 1 we had just enough energy to nom down our Little Caesar’s pizza and fall into bed. Turns out snowshoeing and digging 6 foot deep pits in the snow is a lot of work. Day 2 started out early again with a two hour drive north into Rocky  Mountain National Park – more specifically the Hidden Valley Trailhead.

While Day 1 was all about preventing avalanches Day 2 was focusing on how to survive one if you aren’t so lucky. We finally got to put the odd looking beacons to good use. We’ve had them strapped to our bodies since the morning of Day 1 but haven’t much touched them. Day 2 would change that.

An avalanche beacon is a radio transmitter and receiver. Anyone in the backcountry would be smart to wear one – and if you are wearing one be sure it is turned out and transmitting or it is useless. The beacon can be set to either transmit or receive. About 99% of the time you want it transmitting – the only time you want it to receive a signal is when you are searching for another transmitting beacon, usually attached to someone trapped in an avalanche.

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…avalanche beacon…

When transmitting a signal the beacon is silent – just another piece of equipment attached to your body. When a beacon is receiving a signal it will beep and flash a number – the number of meters away the transmitting beacon is. Most beacons can transmit/receive up to 40 meters which is about 130 feet. This makes the search area roughly 160 feet in diameter…that is a lot of space to search – even with a beacon – when your friend is buried in the snow with minutes to live. Without a beacon it really isn’t much of a search and rescue, more of a search and recover. Very eye opening!

Using a beacon to find someone/another beacon is actually quite simple, but extremely taxing at the same time. A transmitting beacon sends out signals in an oval pattern so it is not uncommon for the number on the screen to change rather dramatically as the transmitting signal moves. To get accurate numbers it is required that you search very slowly. Slowly as in baby steps in one direction only to see the number and slowly move in another direction. It is frustrating but Paul {our instructor/guide} repeatedly reminded us that we need to trust our beacon.

Our first bit of training for Day 2 involved breaking into groups and then playing search and rescue with a pack that had a beacon stuffed in it. One person would go hide the pack while the others had to search it out with the beacons. We used my pack with a beacon in it.

It was extremely difficult to move slow enough to get accurate numbers when it was just a pack with my lunch in it. I cannot imagine moving that slowly with the echo of a ticking clock pounding in your head when searching for a human being hanging onto life! I’m glad I took this training so I know what’s up but I am absolutely terrified of the prospect of actually having to search someone out!

We also used an avalanche probe to help find the packs. A probe is basically a fancy tent pole – it compacts down nicely to fit in your pack but with one tug on a string it become a metal stick you can use to probe for a body in the snow.

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…probe…

Once the avalanche beacon is telling you that you are within 3 meter of the transmitting beacon you start micro searching. This means you get down on your knees with the beacon close to the ground. You worked your way down to just 1 meter then created a 1 meter grid or square to search in.

Instinct tells you to start digging frantically but in reality this isn’t the best option. This is where the probe really comes into play. It is used to feel down into the snow. If you hit ground or nothing you kept searching. If you felt nothing soft enough to be a body {or pack…} within the grid you go back to the beacon and checked the numbers, potentially creating another grid.

If your probe hits something that felt like a body {or pack in our case} you started digging, with your shovel. It may sound careless to go stabbing a sharp pole into the ground or digging in with a metal shovel hoping to hit the body of your friend but when it comes down to it I’d rather stab a hole in my friend’s leg or scrap the crap out of their arm to get them out fast rather then find out I was too careful and lost them forever.

We actually had an incident when searching out the pack when our grid was wrong and we had to re-create it. It was just a back pack hanging out in the snow but it was still difficult to resist the urge to just dig. Turns out it’s a good thing we didn’t – we would have been a few feet away from the pack had we dug without making a new grid!

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After a few hours of playing search and rescue and talking about beacons, probes and avalanche rescues we started out trek up the mountain. The rest of the day would be spent snowshoeing up the mountain while taking turns leading the way, finding safe terrain to trek up and avoiding terrain traps. The snow was well compacted and very safe so there was a lot of hypothetical situations we worked our way through.

The ultimate goal was to hike up far enough to do some honest to goodness backcountry riding. In our group of 11 all but 3 people had either skies on or boards strapped to their back. In the end our trek uphill ended up being about 1.5 miles…with an elevation gain of over 1,300 feet! And I thought I was tired after Day 1!

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By the time we reached our destination {a tree clump in the middle of the bowl} I was beat! It was a very warm spring day. Warm as in 60+ degrees. That is basically a hot spring day. I was wearing snowboarding boots, a pair of leggings, boarding pants, a long sleeve running t and a short sleeve t. I was sweating buckets…even my knee pits were sweating.

It was a long hike…but it was so worth it! On the way up we crossed over the Trail Ridge Road – the main road going through Rocky Mountain National Park that is closed down during the winter. We could see the asphalt. Apparently this is not common – Colorado was really lacking on snow and an early spring/summer didn’t help with the snow cover!

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…the poles/tall sticks in the background mark the Trail Ridge Road…

Eventually we made it up to the top. Well, not the tippy top, but close enough. We considered making the trek up to the summit but the snow up there looked like crap – not exactly worth the hike. Once we made it to the tree clump we had eyed up the entire hike we flopped onto the ground and started tugging off our snowshoes…and posing for a photo to show off just are far up we had hiked!

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The boards got pulled off our handy new back packs and the snowshoes got strapped on in their place. Jackets were pulled out of the packs, beanies were slipped on and boards were strapped to our feet. It was a hot hike up but once we sat down we cooled off quickly. That combined with the rush of snow – and potential whip out – made the extra layers necessary!

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Before we took off down the slushy mountain side we discussed the safe way down. Technically the entire slope was a safe way down on that particular day but we stuck with the hypothetical. In reality the safest way down is one person at a time – not at all like what I am used to in resorts! The group will pick out a safe zone and the first person while ski/board down to that spot then wait for the next person.

This helps to prevent avalanches by putting less pressure on the snow at one time and it also ensures that at least one person will be out of harms way to help search for anyone stuck in a potential avalanche. I’m not going to lie – going down a ways, stopping, waiting then starting out again isn’t the most fun, but after the conversations we had and documentaries I’ve seen I’ll take the safe way down, tyvm!

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Before long we were off. The snow wasn’t great, but what can you expect on a sunny day in the 60’s where you are more concerned about sunburn than frostbite? The sketchy snow combined with the odd feeling of having a heavy pack and snowshoes strapped to my back made me a little less steady than I had hoped for. I mean, I had impressions to make upon these strangers! Of course, after my glorious face plant down a hill in snowshoes I don’t think there was much to recover…

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Honestly, the hardest part of boarding above the tree line was stopping – and it wasn’t just me being an idiot on a board, Chris was having issues too. You’d go to cut your board in to stop and you’d just slide further down the mountain pushing along all the snow you’d hoped to use as an anchor. More fun in the slushy spring snow I guess!

Of course our difficulties with stopping disappeared as soon as we worked our way into the tree line. The further down the mountain we got the harder it was to actually keep moving forward. Sticky snow kept slowing you down. You’d carve to avoid hitting a tree only to realize you’d slowed yourself down a bit too much to make it around said tree without a little push off.

By the time we got near the bottom I figured out how to board in snow like this – basically go all out, swerve around trees and hope for the best – chances are you’ll hit a patch of glue-like snow that will pull you to a stop. Or you’ll just run out of snow all together…

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My board really wasn’t all that excited when I tried to follow the snow as far as possible. Turns out just because you see white doesn’t mean it isn’t hiding a freaking rock garden. Actually, that is probably common sense, but we aren’t going there!

We did make it to the bottom. There were two spots where we had to unstrap and walk across open rocks and grass but it was a lot of fun. I wasn’t about to hike back up for another run but I was glad I suffered through hauling my board up the mountain! It was an experience to say the least!

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{three people + Paul are missing – the other three were on snowshoes and beat us down, Paul was the photographer!}
…at the bottom, we survived!

In the end Paul even mentioned that we were all pretty skilled on the mountain. He said something along the lines of having groups that that take upwards of an hour longer to get down the mountain. Wow. Let’s just say I’m glad we got the group we did! It was a lot of fun…and I think it is safe to say that we learned a lot.

Overall, I’m really glad we took avalanche training. I’ve always had a deep respect for the mountains – made obvious by this “zomg, he almost died” break down – and the two days I spent learning about avalanches gave me a little more respect, a respect I hope to never lose. I literally spent two days learning about life and death – especially on Day 2. The entire weekend was a very eye-opening experience and I would seriously recommend this course to someone wanting to get more familiar with the risks and realities of the back country.

While writing this post I realized just how much time we spent talking about having the responsibility of being smart enough to avoid risky avalanches area and saving someone that had gotten trapped under a heaping pile of concrete-like snow! Terrifying.

What I appreciated the most is the fact that the topic of death was never skirted. It’s a fact of life – if you want to do anything in the snow backcountry you run the risk of death. The best you can do is be educated, smart and trust your gut – the rest if up to Mother Nature, God, Lady Luck or whoever you want to give the credit to. Scary facts, but so true.

None of this has turned me off from back country boarding. The not-so-great conditions on our ride down didn’t even make me think twice about the hike up – just talked me out of a second hike. It was fun, it was worth it and I earned that run, darn it! We are still buying season passes for one resort or another but I think it is safe to say we’ll be jumping at chances to head out into the back country once we get snow back!

{Once again I’d like to point out that I am no expert when it comes to back country, avalanches or even staying upright on a snowboard. This is just a recap of what I learned out on the mountain with someone who is very experienced. Everything I say should be taken as exactly what it is – what I managed to remember. If you happen to be an expert and see a glaring error please let me know, I’ll look into it and correct it if needed!}


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