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Essential Skills: Avalanche SkillsTraining Level 1 (AST-1)

Just this past weekend I completed the Avalanche Skills Training Level 1 course or AST-1 as most people know it with Canada West Mountain School. It was a great opportunity for me to improve my mountain skills and get more experience on the snowpack for my trips in the future. The course consisted of a 3 hour classroom session followed by 2 days in the field. It was definitely worth it and provided invaluable skills that I’ll be using day in and day out.

After spending Tuesday night learning theory such as terrain features, route planning, reading avalanche bulletins and how avalanches occur, we were ready to experience it all for real during the weekend. We spent all of Saturday at Mt Seymore familiarizing ourselves with our avalanche beacons, probes and shovels then how to rescue our buried comrades when disaster strikes. It really stuck me how fast we were able to home in on a buried “body” using the beacons and then how slow it was to dig down into packed snow. Reaching and rescuing a friend buried deep within the snow within maximum 30 minutes (the absolute max until survivability drops to morbid levels) is not an easy task.

Sunday was spent at Whistler where we got great use of our alpine touring skis and started to dig pits to assess the snowpack using a variety of tests (hand shear, compression [photo right], etc). It was interesting to dig a 2 meter pit and see all the different layers of snow that accumulated over the winter, their weaknesses and potential to avalanche. I was surprised to find a very sugary and extremely weak layer of snow had developed about 2 meters below an extremely strong and solid 1 meter layer. Who knew snow was so complex? We also looked at more terrain, wind loading and assessing what was safe and not safe. There is so much to take in account and so much to learn, it was incredible.

Not only did I get to learn about avalanche country, I also backcountry skied for the very first time. It’s funny because I didn’t like powder before, as all I had experienced to date was at resorts. You know, where there is a layer that falls but it gets all messed up by skiers before you, so you end up going over small bumps and moguls? I quickly found out this is not at all the same as in the backcountry where you get to make your own line out of nothing. The feeling of freedom and the sounds of the smooth snow underneath my skis was amazing. It makes me never want to ski resorts ever again! Mind you, you gotta work hard to get your runs in! That means long uphill climbs with skins on your skis (fur like attachments that stick to your ski bottoms) at a slow pace. Tiring but well worth it.

It really was a great weekend and I fully recommend taking the AST-1 course. It really is a absolute necessity so you can start exploring the backcountry safely.

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