An uneasy ripple of energy hung low in the air as seven Avalanche Skills Training students considered the grim statistic: Travel in avalanche terrain long enough—no matter how prepared you think you are—and you will eventually experience a traumatic or serious avalanche event.
I looked around the room and met the eyes of several of my AST2 peers. Next to me was Darcy, a guy who could tell you the weight in grams of the three most recent models of LaSportiva’s alpine touring boots; beside him was Declan, an unassuming former ski racer who you would never guess was a physician until he showed you a gnarly emerg-photo on his phone. Across the way, eating a second breakfast burrito, was Jack, the 18-year-old B-Comm student who grew up skiing backcountry lines with his dad; and next to Jack was Ben, another early-adopter whose freestyle upbringing is balanced by the sweaty miles he’s logged on skinny skis with his old man. Adjacent to Ben was Ryan, whose Dr. Suessian cabin wear was even more visually stunning than his new skis; and near the back, at full attention, was Marion, the only female in the class and the only student who gave up a career in international law in France to become a ski bum in Golden and Jasper.
At the moment, the seven of us were gathered near McBride, B.C., for the first ever AST2 course put on by Rockaboo Mountain Adventures. Our host and head instructor, Max Darrah, was showing the group around “the compound,” as he calls his six-acre spread high on a hill overlooking the Fraser River. When he and his wife Lisa bought the property seven years ago, Darrah could only imagine that someday he’d be overseeing transceiver practice in the adjacent cedar forest or demonstrating how to create an anchor system in the large outbuilding affectionately termed the Tao Chan. Now, as he outlined the curriculum for the next four days, he encouraged the group to get comfortable.
“This is your home all weekend,” Darrah said, passing around a tray of smoked salmon croquettes.
From Jasper, it takes three hours by train, 15 minutes by car and either 10 minutes by foot or 60, hair-raising seconds by snowmobile to settle into the cozy yet utilitarian Rockaboo Lodge. The compound would prove to be an ideal setting for learning about, and travelling in, avalanche terrain. Cordoned off from the real world, as we were, we could focus on snow observation skills, trip planning and rescue scenarios. For it’s one thing to know how to read the Parks Canada avalanche bulletin or conduct a cursory transceiver search in Beacon Basin. To properly perform your own field observations so that you can make informed route selection decisions, or to efficiently lead a large group of rescuers through a multi-burial avalanche scenario is, as we found out, another thing entirely.
“How many signals do you have over there?” I yelled 10 minutes into our mock avalanche scenario. After learning that five people were missing in an imaginary class four slide, our formerly composed group was starting to get flustered. We knew precious minutes were being lost—a burial victim only has 12 minutes or so before the chances of being recovered alive drop severely—but a lack of communication meant our searching structure was broken. Frustration was building.
“This person is buried two metres down, let’s get some shovelers over here,” barked Darcy, our designated leader for the group. As Declan and Jack honed in on the last transceiver signal, Ryan piped up that we should be triaging for victims for whom there is a better chance of saving.
“I’m digging here because this was my theoretical friend,” I said defensively. “Who’s helping me?”
After the chaos subsided and we located all the buried transceivers, we debriefed the session in the Tao Chan. Though Darcy and myself, in particular, were bummed that we didn’t operate more effectively, Max assured the group that locating five victims in a large area in under 20 minutes was nothing to feel bad about. The next day we would have a chance to improve our search strategies but for now we could concentrate on what could be learned. For me, what stuck out was the hard truth of locating a signal below two metres of snow. That’s simply too deep to have a reasonable chance of saving someone in a short time window, experts say.
“If I’m getting a signal deeper than 1.6 metres and I know there are other burial victims out there, I’m moving on,” said Jesse Milner, a ski guide in the Robson Valley who was helping Darrah put on the AST2 course.
While Milner was demonstrating pinpointing with a probe and conveyor belt shoveling techniques, the other rescue professional on staff, Barb Sharp, was skiing solo up a fire road which led to nearby McBride Peak. As it was raining at 1,000 metres and there was little weather data that Darrah could pull up to get a sense of the local snowpack, Sharp’s mission was to find the mountain’s freezing line and bring home some beta so we could decide where our field day would be best spent. If it wasn’t going to be McBride Peak, access to which is just a hop, skip and a ski from the Rockaboo Lodge, it would have to be across the valley in the Cariboo Mountains. Luckily, Sharp radioed down she was reporting snow, not drizzle, at 1,300 m. After relaying the information to the students and prompting the appropriate trip-planning questions, Darrah announced the group consensus.
“Looks like we’re playing in the home court folks,” he said while we loaded up our dinner bowls with butter chicken and naan bread. “Alpine start tomorrow. Let’s meet for breakfast at 7 a.m.”
My hip flexors growled as I scooted off the track and into deep snow, giving Max, driving his small but spunky Polaris snowmobile, and Ben, towing behind, enough room to slide by on their way up to the top of the powder-covered road. Along with the snow’s temperature at the surface, at the ground, and at 10 cms below the surface, we’d observed a fairly skimpy snow depth of 45 cms, half-way up the 12 km road. Now, three-quarters to the top, Marion was poking and prodding the snow with her ski pole and finding much more of a solid base.
“It’s more than a metre,” she reported. “And there’s some layers you can definitely feel.”
Marion was doing just what Darrah, Milner and Sharp had implored us to do as we travel through the mountains on present and future trips: gather as much information as possible to help guide your decision making. The night before we learned McBride was due to be hit with howling winds, so we went into our mission expecting potentially dangerous slab features. When we finally topped out and dug a series of profile pits, we discovered the depth of snow was around 120 cms, but although there were indeed several poorly-bonded layers, the expected wind crust was not as prevalent as we anticipated. Several compression and propagation tests later, and after peering through a loupe at the snow crystals of several suspect layers, the group was comfortable that we would be able to ski 1,000 feet of fall line, instead of back down the road.
“This way to a steak dinner,” Marion laughed as she took the first lead.
During the course wrap up, before the class boarded the Jasper-bound VIA Rail train, Darrah again showed us some hard-hitting statistics. One slide he displayed charted the general trend for those who make winter recreation part of their life: confidence, it showed, ebbed and flowed dramatically over the course of one’s backcountry career. Why would confidence drop off so suddenly over the gradual accumulation of experience? Because avalanche events—which are an eventuality in a close knit backcountry community—tend to shake one to the core.
“Typically someone will start out blissfully ignorant of the risks, then they’ll take some avalanche skills training courses and gain a lot of confidence,” Darrah explained. “However, when they or someone they know are involved in an avalanche their confidence is shattered.”
Darrah, who has been on many rescues that have had no chance of ending happily, was not trying to dampen the celebratory mood that seven AST2 graduates were feeling. Instead, he was reminding the class that even experts can have fatal encounters with avalanches.
“The mountains are generous with their gift of humility,” he said.