Avalanche Class
February 2001

Did I forget to mention the 2 day level 1 avalanche class? Sorry.

Our instructor Kyle has an MS in Snow Science. No kidding. From Montana. He seemed like your average quiet ski bum.

Then he buried us in an avalanche of information about snow crystals and their various interactions. I can't stress how detailed we got. Words like "visco-elastic plasticity" and "spatial variation over time" were bandied about. There was a movie I had already seen. I napped.

Then we practiced finding "buried" victims with our beacons. Kyle had a couple extra Ortovox M1s and sold one to me for half of retail. That was sweet.

My buddy hid the victim and it took me all of 3 min to find him. I put my buddies' victim in the mailbox and it took him a little longer. We had a good laugh.

The next day we hiked up to Tuckerman's Ravine, home of the most famous extreme bc skiing in the east. A 55 degree headwall and frequent high avalance danger.

More info on Tucks

Our luck was good and the danger was high that day. No one on the headwall, but we noticed a couple yahoos out in the runout zone of Hillman's Highway. A very bad place to be. One of the rangers was staring at them, fuming, occasionally looking at them through his binocs.

Several of us noticed them and I joked that they were practicing self-arrest. Someone reacted badly. "You're kidding!" they said. "Yes. I am. It was a joke. They're just stupid." I said.

Just a bit later one of the figures fell, slid a distance and self-arrested. He then hiked back up to the first guy who repeated the performance. So, I was right. On both counts.

Mt Washington gets high winds year-round. If you track the path of most low pressure systems through the US, 90% of them travel thru the NE. Plus there is a persistent high called the Hudson High over central eastern Canada and a persistent maritime low south of Nova Scotia. The wind is nearly always from the WNW.

Tucks faces due E and gets significant wind deposit snow. A couple inches of snow on the W side turns into several feet on the E side. There had been fresh snow a day or so before in light winds. That snow had been overlaid with almost a foot of wind deposit in the intervening time. The fresh snow was a weak layer. It hadn't had time to consolidate (lose most of it's facets) before being buried. The wind deposit snow was much rounder and stuck together better.

So we had ideal conditions for digging full pits and testing strength, crystal morphology and shears. We hiked up to a steepish face with little to no runout for a Rutschblock test. The pack was different up here (something Kyle wanted us to see) as the face was more S facing. This meant it was getting more crossloading and the pack changed in as little as a few yards from the small ridge.

The first Rutschblock was a smallish one done with Kyle on skis. We took guesses on how it would rate. We knew it wasn't stable at all and the consensus was a 2 (failure upon initial ski pressure). We were right.

We then dug a large pit and cut the sides. Several of us jumped on the block from above and rode the slab the few feet it slid. Nice.

We also practiced finding multiple buried victims with the beacons. There were full-on scenarios with third-parties acting as surviving victims and leadership practice in direction of efforts. Cool. Nearly all of it is similar to any rescue training (eg. my rescue diver class).

Not bad for $180.