Learning from the geeks… an avalanche level 1 course

I’m sure there are many like me out there. Reasonably competent skiers who want to escape the crowds in resort and yearn to explore the amazing winter mountain environment and push our skiing envelope with wild and challenging terrain. However we are held back by our all too real fear of the serious dangers lurking out there in off-piste terrain, in particular avalanches. We may have read a few books, perhaps watched some videos and possibly even been guided in the mountains, but we still don’t really understand how to get a measure of the hazards on a particular day and how to navigate through the terrain to minimise our exposure to risk, while still accessing the best skiing terrain. Plus although we probably own an avalanche transceiver, shovel and probe, we aren’t confident that if an avalanche did occur we would be able to use this equipment efficiently in a very stressed and time critical environment.

Avalanche Geeks

So, in order to tackle my off-piste shortcomings I recently joined the Avalanche Geeks (Mike Austin & Bruce Goodlad) and attended their 2 day Level 1 Avalanche Fundamentals course in Tigne… and it was a revelation. No longer are snow pits, slope angles, shear tests, multiple burials and avalanche forecasts things of mystery. With a combination of classroom time, case studies from real avalanche incidents and time out on the hill, we gained a real insight into the workings of a ski guide’s mind. We learned how to interpret and combine the many sources of information available and use these to make decisions as we travel through the back country. Best of all we did this for real, while out in the mountains where we could voice our opinions and get immediate feedback from some of the most experienced guides in the business.

On avalanche search and rescue we discussed strategies, were coached through transceiver searches and finally tackled a mock multiple burial incident working as a team. This taught us about the importance of leadership and clear communication in a way that no amount of study could replicate and allowed us to learn from our mistakes before we experience a real situation.

The course was fantastic and a great opportunity to spend time in the mountains with two very experienced and knowledgeable guides, who are actively seeking to share their expertise. Already I am planning on attending a level 2 course next winter, but first I need to take what I have learnt and apply it in tackling some off-piste adventures of my own this winter.

snow pit
transceiver search
Tony Lowe