The Outsider: Some lessons learned from the AST 2

Like a lot of backcountry skiers and riders, for years I’ve been heading out into avalanche terrain with the absolute minimum level of education.

I took my Avalanche Skills Training (AST) Level 1 (or Recreational Avalanche Course as it was known at the time) in 2007 armed with a plastic shovel, a flimsy probe and an Ortovox F1 single antenna analogue transceiver that I’d purchased from one of the local guide bureaus. But I got what I needed out of the two and a half days, which is more or less the same as the current, entry-level avalanche courses. I learned that I really knew nothing about avalanches, the snow pack or travelling safely through complex avalanche terrain.

I also came away with a healthy respect for practising with my transceiver at least once a season and always reading the avalanche bulletin before heading into the backcountry.

Over the better part of the last decade I’ve managed to increase my experience by travelling with peers more educated than me, and when leading (read: not guiding) a group, have kept my terrain selection and decisions pretty conservative. On separate occasions, I’ve also been caught in two Class 2 avalanches and witnessed dozens more.

It was time to hit the books again.

Last week I finally ran out of excuses to procrastinate and attended the four-day AST 2 course run by Extremely Canadian. Our group was a mix of experienced backcountry travellers and regular ski touring dabblers feeling that their current level of education (AST 1) had become insufficient. These were my biggest takeaways from the course:

The morning “guides” meeting.

Pretty much all backcountry winter guiding operations have this meeting daily, but recreationists should do the same. By checking the avalanche bulletin and the weather trend over the last 25-48 hours, our group would enter data into the Decision Making in Avalanche

Terrain log book (published by Avalanche Canada) and come up with a route plan, a risk management plan and make any other pertinent notes of relating to points of concern.

How much snow fell yesterday and which direction was the wind blowing it? What’s going on with that surface hoar layer that formed during the clear weather last week? What avalanche results, if any, have the forecasters observed? This is the daily bread and butter of informed backcountry travel.

Transceiver search anomalies.

As great as the new three antennae digital transceivers are these days, they still have their limits. Ever tried finding three targets within a three-metre radius with two of the targets stacked atop one another? These probable, multiple burial situations can temporarily baffle even the latest transceivers, so knowing the quirks of your own device is paramount. It’s not always as simple as following the arrow.

Following my more trained and experienced friends into the backcountry isn’t good enough.

When starting out with ski touring after taking the AST 1, everyone should try to latch onto a mentor to learn from and gain experience with, safely. But after a few seasons I found myself relying too much on their knowledge and decisions. If I’m ever to grow into the wise (and more importantly, alive) mountain traveller that I want to be, I have to start treating each day of touring as having potential hazards and concerns. As the veteran guides and forecasters always preach, avalanche education is life-long. That means I’m constantly aware of my surroundings, poking my pole handle into the snowpack and if I really need to get an idea of what’s underneath, digging a snow pit to observe the problem layers.

I’m not one for New Year’s resolutions, but with this season turning out to be one of the best ones in a long time, I’m going to do my best to anticipate what the snow is going to throw at me in the backcountry.

Vince Shuley recommends that backcountry users take the AST 2. For questions, comments or suggestions to The Outsider email vince@vinceshuley.com or Twitter @vinceshuley.

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