Why You Should Take an Avalanche Safety Course
An avalanche safety course is extremely important if you plan on spending time in the winter backcountry. Like many sports, backcountry travel, be it skiing or splitboarding, skyrocketed in popularity with the onset of the pandemic. With increased restrictions at resorts and longer lift lines, it’s no wonder so many people decided to make the transition.
I was one of those people. I was no stranger to the backcountry in my summer activities, however, adding variable snow and avalanche conditions into the mix was definitely new territory. While I’d still consider myself a beginner to the world of backcountry skiing, I’m here to share my experience on breaking the boundaries of the resort.
One of the biggest adjustments to the backcountry is learning how to navigate and avoid avalanche terrain.
Learn Avalanche Safety Before You Ski Tour or Splitboard
I took an AST 1 (Avalanche Safety Training 1, basic avalanche safety skills) course a few years ago before I had any intention of getting into backcountry skiing. It’s a great (and essential) starting point that will teach you about different types of avalanches and how they occur, terrain choices, how to read an avalanche forecast, and most importantly, how to use your rescue gear.
While your avalanche certification never really expires, if you’re not getting out regularly with experienced people, a refresher is never a bad idea. I have been lucky enough to work in the ski industry for the last few years and received some avalanche training through work. If you can’t convince your employer on a backcountry team building day though, there are a few other ways you can do this.
- Hang on to that handbook they give you in your AST 1 course and review it at the start of your season (or anytime, really) for a basic review of the theory portion of your course.
- Aside from retaking the course, you can also sign up for a guided day or an introduction to backcountry skiing or splitboard course. While it’s not a replacement for an AST course, guides are great at creating a memorable experience in the mountains while weaving in some learning and skills progression.
It’s one thing to take the course and purchase avalanche rescue and safety equipment, but you also need to know how to use it. That comes with practice. Suggest a quick companion rescue scenario with your group before you set off (bonus: it will warm you up), or organize one in the park after work. Not only does it help you become more efficient with your gear, but also gives you confidence that your friends know what they’re doing if they ever need to rescue you.
Once you’ve gotten out for a bunch of touring days and have some hands on experience with decision making in avalanche terrain, you may be ready for an AST 2 course. I’m not going to cover that though, because a) I haven’t taken it yet, and b) we’re talking about getting started in the backcountry.
Deciding Where to Ski Tour and Splitboard
Before you venture out on your first tour, take a minute to assess your current skills. This will help you choose appropriate objectives. When choosing where to ski, you’ll want to consider your skiing ability, fitness level and risk tolerance. Here’s my personal assessment:
Intermediate. I ski blues and blacks in the resort, but tend to shy away from really steep or variable terrain (ex: moguls).
Moderate. Throughout the summer an average hike would be about 15 km with up to 1,000 meters of elevation gain. I can achieve this pretty comfortably, once I push myself beyond that I find I will feel it the next day.
Low. You won’t see me bagging summits on skis, skiing couloirs or anything else in the “sending” category.
Based on this, my ideal day in the backcountry would be lapping low angle terrain where I can improve my off piste skiing ability and build confidence in avalanche assessment. As my skiing ability improves, my risk tolerance will likely increase as well.
Next Steps for Evaluating Avalanche Safety
Once you’ve done that, you can start scouring through guidebooks to find objectives that match your skill level. The Confessions of a Ski Bum Guide Books are a great resource for the Bow Valley, Kicking Horse Valley and Icefields Parkway.
Here are a few more resources to help you choose the right trips:
- See if there is a recent MIN report on avalanche.ca for the area you’re considering going to. Conditions can vary greatly over time and reports can become outdated within a few days if a new weather system rolls in, so make sure you are reading the most recent report available.
- Check Facebook groups for recent trip reports. Backcountry YYC has a pretty extensive member base and sees regular posts for Kananaskis, the Bow Valley, Kootenay, Icefields Parkway and more.
- Google Earth is a fantastic way to scope out an area before you go. It can give you an idea of the terrain and potential avalanche hazard.
- See if anyone has published a YouTube video for the trip. I will usually search the name of the trip + ski tour. You won’t always find something, but if you do it can help you decide if the terrain is right for you.
There is a lot of calculated risk involved with backcountry skiing, but there are definitely options for most levels of skiers - provided you equip yourself with the right knowledge and equipment. And this all starts with taking the proper avalanche safety course, and having the proper avalanche rescue equipment.
Thanks for coming to my TED Talk, stay tuned for more pro tips.
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