Into the wild with Backcountry Babes
Special to the Daily
In a winter of heavy snowfall and avalanche activity of historic dimensions across Colorado, I decided that 2017 would be the year for my AIARE Level 1 course. AIARE, the American Institute of Avalanche Research and Education, provides a standardized curriculum for avalanche education. AIARE 1 is an intense, three-day course for backcountry travelers split between the classroom and the field.
As a woman who has observed and experienced gender dynamics in the outdoor sports world, I knew I wanted to take the course with other women. Through Backcountry Babes, an international outdoor organization created for and by women, I was able to learn the following skills from three female instructors on a trip to Mount Baldy outside of Breckenridge.
Day 1: Snow safety 101
Like any first day of class, I feel nervous meeting my classmates and instructors. As we learn about each other and our goals, however, I realize that we have a lot in common. We want to understand the terrain and snowpack. We want to be responsible and gain knowledge that allows us to make sound decisions in the backcountry. We want to be good outdoor partners — in communication, in travel, in rescue. And, for many of us, we want to meet like-minded women we can call up for ski tours and hut trips.
Luckily we’re all Colorado girls, hailing from Lakewood to Edwards and points in between. Some are drawn to the fact that this is an all-female course, and others are drawn to the price. AIARE courses aren’t cheap (roughly $415 per course), but hopefully, neither is my life.
Anne St. Clair, our lead instructor, begins the class with a video. After watching massive avalanches and hearing stories of unfortunate accidents, St. Clair says that she wants to “make the scary video constructive” for us.
“Decision-making: that’s the focus of this course,” St. Clair says. We learn that while there is a lot out there that we can’t control, we can always plan ahead, identify avalanche terrain, and decide where and how to travel. She wants us to see ourselves in the case studies we read.
“Experience can work for and against us,” St. Clair says, warning us of the “expert halo” that can cloud decision-making.
“The exit is where people get caught up,” she continues, saying that when people suffer from what she calls “mad pow disease,” they deviate from their plans and make mistakes.
‘Emo kid’ snowpack
One of the best ways to self-educate is by learning about the snowpack. Kirstin Nelson, a ski patroller at Breckenridge, takes the floor from St. Clair and tells us that Colorado is home to some of the trickiest snow conditions in the country. Because of this, taking a local class prepares us well for backcountry travels here and elsewhere.
In Summit County and across the state, our main problem is facets, a type of snow formation that Nelson compares to the “emo kid” from high school. They don’t bond well with other snow kids, creating an unstable layer that can cause problems throughout the season.
Terrain, unstable snow and a trigger, like skiers or other outside factors, create an avalanche-risk triangle. Terrain choice is always in our control, and we learn to scout for flat areas, low-angle ridgelines and tight trees on the ascent. On the descent, we learn to look for low-angle slopes to ski.
“Putting the triangle together is a big goal for this course,” St. Clair concludes.
Day 2: Power of the plan
Armed with basic knowledge about avalanches and how to minimize our risk, on day two of the course we learn to prepare for our travels. We read through out new AIARE bluebooks and follow the prompts to help us plan a tour on Mount Baldy. The instructors model the process for us today so that we can execute a tour tomorrow.
One of the tasks for the day is to hone our observational skills. Nelson explains that it’s more than what we see in the terrain and snowpack — it’s also what we notice in ourselves. Under Nelson’s tutelage, we set expectations for how we observe as a group, and, most importantly, how we talk about those observations.
We break into three groups and practice making observations in the field. After skinning up for a few hundred feet in elevation, we veer off the trail and find a spot to dig snow pits. With very simple technology, we examine the snow layers firsthand, measure their resistance and perform stability tests. With a little time left over, we skin up further for a few well-earned turns.
Day 3: The human factor
On day three, we talk about the human element of avalanche risk. In a room full of women, this sparks a lively discussion about how difficult it can be to speak up when we feel uncomfortable.
Emma Longcope says she doesn’t want to reinforce gender stereotypes, such as being cold all the time, even when it’s an important element of self-care. Another woman chimes in with, “You don’t want to be known as the b****” when voicing concerns. Others nod their heads in agreement.
Our instructors try to flip that mentality.
“Especially for females traveling in male-dominated groups … it’s important to empower ourselves to speak up and say what we think,” says Janine Prout, former director of ski patrol at Monarch Mountain. “That’s one of the things we’re teaching you here, so that’s pretty cool.”
St. Clair agrees.
“People are more willing to listen to you if you can tell them why you feel uncomfortable,” she says.
The final exam
After putting all the pieces together — evaluating the snowpack and weather conditions; assessing safe, skiable terrain; and checking in with ourselves about how we feel today — we create an itinerary everyone finds comfortable. On a day when there is considerable avalanche danger everywhere, we make a conservative plan that will be reassessed in the field.
At the trailhead, the group of six students and St. Clair test our avalanche beacons, and then head for the hills. We make observations on the way up, noting the fast-moving clouds, blowing snow on ridge tops and wind-drift accumulations. While taking turns leading the group, we manage potentially dangerous terrain through travel techniques.
Not far from Francie’s Cabin, a backcountry hut in the area, we hear avalanche bombs from across the ridge at Breckenridge. It’s a sobering reminder that the danger is out there today, and on this side of the rope, we have no one but ourselves to manage it.
By constantly checking in with our plans and digging snow pits to test our concerns, we decide to ski a 27-degree slope. The snow is light and deep, and it’s all the sweeter knowing we chose our descent wisely. Our one regret: that we only had time to ski it once.
During the course, Nelson referred often to the well-known Chinese proverb about the benefits of teaching a (wo)man to fish.
“Now go fish!” she said on the final day. That’s the beauty of a Backcountry Babes AIARE 1 course: By slowly taking off the training wheels, we now possess the basic tools to travel the backcountry whenever — and with whomever — we want.
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