AIARE – Level 1 Course at White Pine Touring

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“Always leave yourself an out” is a saying I grew up with. I used to think it was just a lesson my Dad passed down to me while I was under his wings, learning poker. But as I have come to realize, it is applicable to all aspects of life. And as of recently, it has become an essential mantra that I have had to adopt in my newest pursuit, backcountry ski touring.

Backcountry skiing has always allured me, and with a deep fondness for the outdoors, I see it as another opportunity to expand my appreciation for the mountains. There is, and always will be, one underlying factor that has deterred me for several years now from pursuing this new passion, avalanches.

Avalanches have played a big part in my life. They have taken the lives of several close friends, as well as taken the lives of several of my ski heros. It is a common topic amongst the community I’ve grown up in, and I’ve had recurring avalanche lectures since the first grade. With this ‘fear’ in the forefront of my mind, I had finally committed myself to channeling these anxieties of mine into education. To prepare myself for a season of exploring the Wasatch, as well as a trip to Japan, I have dedicated myself to learn, practice, and experience the amazing backcountry with the right tools.

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Photo courtesy of Jans, Ross Downard

Several weeks ago I signed up to take my AIARE LEVEL 1 through White Pine Touring. AIARE (American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education) is a non-profit association that developed standardized curriculum to teach skills in identifying and mitigating problems in the backcountry. The level 1 course is designed to give you day-to-day skills and covers an array of topics that deal with planning, observation, teamwork and rescue. Taking an avalanche course is not about going out and getting rad for a couple of days on untracked snow. Instead, it focuses on developing skills and introducing resources for those who want to go out and explore the mountains they love in an educated and responsible way.

White Pine Touring, a retailer and guiding shop in Park City, Utah is one of the most proficient providers of the AIARE courses. With twelve certified and experienced backcountry instructors, it is one of the only programs in the country that has four experts teaching the course at any given time. The AIARE program was started in 2003 by Freddy Grossniklaus, a swiss alpine ski racing coach residing in Park City. Grossniklaus’s program was adopted by White Pine, where they provided the funding and marketing to spread awareness about the course.

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Photo courtesy of Jans, Ross Downard

I met with White Pine instructor and guide, Scott House, before the course to get some background on AIARE and why one might want to take the class. Every year, I have more and more friends venturing into the backcountry and I know some of them have never taken an avalanche course. I asked myself, are books and mentors sufficient enough? After meeting with Scott and taking the course myself, I am a huge advocate in taking this course before you head out. Scott explained how the course isn’t there to scare you, but rather give you knowledge and tools to use when you are scared and manage that uncertainty.

“Of course there should be some sort of fear, it’s what lets you ask important questions such as why are we skiing this,” Scott says, “everyone should know why.”

Scott reminded me that avalanches, for the most part, occur from human error. It’s our mistakes and our thinking that get us into trouble.   That is why the decision-making framework taught in the class is so important to have when deciding to go out on something that potentially might slide.

The frame-work consists of: Plan, Observe, Teamwork, Choose Terrain & Travel Wisely.

My first day in the course was a Thursday evening in a small conference room with twenty or so other outdoor enthusiasts. The course is designed to incorporate your 9-5ers and weekend service industry workers, which makes up the majority of this small ski town. The instructors introduce themselves in the beginning of class and have everyone go around saying their name and why they are interested in taking this course. Immediately, everyone is gasping about one another trip to Alaska or wanting to exchange phone numbers because they realize they have ten new friends who want to go touring locally. The instructors have a range of backgrounds, from heli guides to ski patrol. Their knowledge is just as extensive as their passion for the backcountry. They make three hours in the classroom fly by with their presentations. It is a heavy topic with an abundance of information to remember, so being able to make everyone smile and laugh for a moment makes what you’re learning that more memorable.

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Photo courtesy of Jans, Ross Downard

The class discusses avalanche fundamentals and you get to watch several YouTube videos of past slides. After learning and reviewing the different types of avalanches, results of climate changes and a variety of terrain traps, we then start assessing scenarios ourselves. By the end of the class, you are able to analyze terrain through important factors like location of slope, elevation of slope, aspect to wind and sun, slope angle and any physical characteristics in the start zone. The classroom also develops teamwork skills by breaking the class into several groups to do activities where communication is key.

By the weekend, you are ready to get out in the field and expand your knowledge of snow science and rescue skills. The AIARE 1 isn’t so much focused on snow science as the AIARE  2 course is, however, it gives you basic recognition of different snow types. We break into groups, dig pits and start analyzing the snow via different tests. The tests show you the different layers, each representing a different storm and whether those layers are strong enough to hold the ones above. In our circumstance, there was a prominent weak layer at the bottom which gave us intimidating results, displaying a ‘mini’ slide.

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Photo courtesy of Jans, Ross Downard

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Photo courtesy of Jans, Ross Downard

We also spent a great deal of time doing rescue missions that involved beacon practice, as well as probing and shoveling. I was really impressed with this part of the class because they made you search for a beacon over and over until your time was reduced by half from when you started.

After the class, everyone gathers and shares what they learned. Everyone is humble, and stoked. I honestly recommend taking an avalanche course and if you are in the area, taking the AIARE 1 course at White Pine Touring. A big thank you to Scott House and the rest of the class for sharing your knowledge with me.

ME

Photo courtesy of Jans, Ross Downard

 

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