“If you don’t know, don’t go!” is what they say in Jackson Hole, WY before you exit the tram and head into off piste terrain (they also check your avi gear 🙂
I had always wanted to take an Avalanche Safety course but I could never afford it in the US and when I could afford it I never found the time to take 3 days off my hectic ad agency job (quit that one since 🙂 and head deep into the mountains. So being randomly in Bulgaria longer than expected between 2 business trips to far away places, I hopped on the opportunity to enhance my skills and stop being the backcountry novice, aka “dumb blonde”, who always rides in the middle of the group so the front and the back can save her. (Obviously, not having the training under my belt hasn’t stopped me from riding off piste, BUT in restrospect it should have!)
The course is called Avalanche Safety for a reason as the most important part of your backcountry training is avalanche prevention. Even thought you’ll learn basic mountain rescue skills, your goal is to not have to use that knowledge on yourself or your mates as your chances of survival in an avalanche are very minimal. You’ll also learn first aid and assisting the injured before the paramedics arrive but in such stressful situation you’ll be probably too freaked out for your first aid knowledge to kick in (unless you practice it often and let’s be honest how long has it been since you practiced chest compressions and mouth to mouth breathing 🙂 (and no, I don’t mean THAT mouth to mouth 🙂
We were lucky to have 2 amazing instructors from IntoTheWild.BG – Hristo and Zahari – each bringing their respective set of mountain skills acquired over decades of skiing, riding, and mountaineering in Bulgaria and abroad. IntoTheWild.Bg came highly recommended to me by a number of friends as masters of organization and outdoor adventure whose primary mission in the mountains is keeping their clients safe and inspiring them to explore more. I loved the “safety first” spirit of the instructors and their maturity so much, I followed them on a Freeriding / Catskiing trip deep into the Caucasus Mountains of Georgia. More on that “outworldlish” trip in a separate blog 🙂
Now onto the training itself – it comprised of 2.5 days over a weekend at a high mountain hut in Bulgaria. We covered a number of lecture topics every night and then got to put all our newly acquired knowledge into practice next day at a backcountry field in the area.
The first day we were focused on the avalanche gear kit, how to use it, how to keep it fully functional, how to check it every time. We also learned about winter mountain topography, terrain, and features, what to watch for and what to avoid. Being the dumb blonde I am, I still don’t know which direction the wind blows, even after multiple exercises and demonstrations 🙂 We got to talk to the local Mountain Rescue Service and discuss with them the snow profiles they publish daily. They told us about weather events that can cause sudden changes in snow cover and snow density and advised us to watch the forecast not just for the future but also check actual weather yesterday, the day before, and one week ago.
N.B. Before you head in the backcountry to ski or snowboard, stop by the local Mountain Rescue station or give them a call to obtain all the detailed information about the specific area you are planning to ski tour and get their recommendations. If avalanche danger is 3+ just don’t go. (Although most accidents happen at the 2-3 level)
On day 2 we got to use our gear kit in a sample “avalanche field”. We learned how to behave in the case of an avalanche, what actions to take and in what order, and what are the roles and responsibilities of the first responders – US in this case!
Day 3 was entirely dedicated to snow. Developing snow profiles on a real slope, checking the snow consistency via many different methods (no we didn’t bleed a wild animal on the field – this is French snow density test with red wine :-), identifying layers, performing tests, learning what to look for and a WHOLE LOT of shoveling 🙂 The course finished with a real life training as a team – we had to “respond to an avalanche” where a number of “bodies” (with and without beacons) were buried and we had to locate them, dig them out and “rescue” them all in under 30min.
What are my 5 cents on the topic after having done the course and ridden backcountry in the Caucasus Mountains with IntoTheWild.Bg – have the avi gear, know how to use it, check if it functions properly every time BUT most importantly take the necessary courses and acquire all the knowledge you possibly can about the mountain, the weather, the conditions, and the terrain before deciding to ride off piste as you don’t want to trigger an avalanche. Surviving being buried is sheer luck, airbag backpack or not 😦 AND always go with a guide! Your life is worth more than paying for the guide.