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Avalanche School

January 30, 2010
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Last weekend I attended avalanche school in Silverton, CO, and it was an incredible experience. I’m incredibly lucky to have the opportunity to study avalanches in Silverton. Not only is Silverton the home of the Center For Snow and Avalanche Studies, but it’s also located in heart of the San Juan Mountain range- one of the most avalanche prone areas in the country (they have over 100 named avalanche paths in the surrounding area).  And as an added bonus we were getting absolutely dumped on. At least 3 feet if not more. And combined with the snowpack from earlier this year it created a “perfect storm” for avalanches. 

I took the class mainly so that I can learn the tools required for back country skiing. I also wanted to learn more about weather, snow science, how to read the terrain, to predict avalanche conditions, and safety/rescue procedures. What I didn’t expect to learn was how freaking scary avalanches can really be. 

I’ve always loved snow, but after this weekend I’ve also learned to respect the hell out of it. 

Before I took this class I knew what most people know about avalanches: not much. I thought an avalanche was just a bunch of snow sliding down the mountain, like a white mudslide. Turns out it’s waaaay more complicated than that. Not to go into too much detail, but avalanches are formed from a heavier layer of snow (slab) laying on top of a “weak layer”. The weak layer breaks from too much stress and the slab slides down the mountain. Imagine a few dozen long-neck beer bottles holding up a mattress. Once forces move the mattress to the side the beer bottles fail and the mattress slides. But instead of a mattress imagine over a ton of snow. So much snow that the impact can tear down trees and move houses. The resulting debris is like concrete. So thick that if you were buried you wouldn’t be able to move your fingers or close your eyes were they left open (a reported tale from one victim). And even if you survive getting tossed around getting rescued is no fun. 

Imagine you and your buddy are skiing in the back country and you’re unfortunate enough to start an avalanche. You watch as you buddy gets buried underneath a few feet of snow and taken down the mountain. Hoping the trauma didn’t kill him, you wait to make sure no more avalanches are coming down and prepare to perform your rescue. You first must pull out your beacon, switch to search, and slowly ski down the hill to try to locate him. It’s not a Star Trek type locator pin-pointing his exact location. It’s more like playing marco-polo with tiny numbers on a screen. Once you get near you get out of your skis, unstrap your back-pack, and pull out your probe and put it together (which under pressure can be like an erector-kit from hell). After you probe the snow and figure out exactly where they are you then pull our your shovel and start digging. And depending on how much snow your friend is under you could be moving a few hundred pounds (snow is roughly 7 pounds per square foot). Oh, and did I mention this should all happen within 15 minutes? Statistically your chances of survival drop significantly if you’re not found within the first 15 minutes. 

As you can guess avalanche school scared the hell out of me. Avalanches scare the hell out of me. They occur as suddenly as tornados and can be as destructive as earthquakes. But unlike most natural disasters they usually occur due to human triggers. That’s the crazy thing. As a back-country skier you willingly put yourself into areas where you can trigger these cold killers. I can’t think of too many other sports where you place yourself directly in the danger of natural disasters. Anyways, I plan to use my skills in the near future, but only in an extremely safe and conservative manner. 

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