MM Collection
Checking in from the Condor's Nest on Illimani, Bolivia. MM Collection
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March 2, 2011

Invaluable Lessons in Avalanche Education

After a relatively warm and dry late January and early February, vigorous winter snow storms and cold temps hit the Pacific Northwest these past few weeks bringing great learning opportunities to our back-country travelers and young outdoor enthusiasts! This week's forecast is promising more great skiing and snowboarding conditions and making it hard to stay indoors! Our weekend avalanche courses have been a great success, with our students walking away with invaluable knowledge, greater confidence, and sound decision making tools to aid their travels in avalanche terrain.

Obvious Clues in the field: Avalanches

Our February 18-20 Level 1 Avalanche Course was held in Ashford, Washington; with field sessions taking place above Paradise on Mt Rainier's south side. On day two, MM Guides Ian Nicholson and Dan Otter arrived at the Paradise parking lot (5,540 feet) where they observed strong easterly winds loading west facing terrain and cross loading many other steep slopes. The avalanche danger for the day (according to the Northwest Weather and Avalanche Center) was rated "considerable" above 6,000 feet on easterly aspects - meaning "natural avalanches are possible and human triggered avalanches likely."

Snow profile. Ian Nicholson photo

The group traveled above Paradise a short distance and demonstrated a snow profile and various instability tests on a small, sheltered slope. They found very "easy" results in bonding tests, and a generally sensitive snowpack structure - weak in strength and with energy to propagate a fracture and produce avalanches. En route to their profile site, they talked to a skier who had just triggered an avalanche next to the Panorama Point Winter Route. One client reflected that even though there were tons of people committing themselves to that slope, the conditions that they were observing told them that travel on that particular terrain feature was not recommended. The guides agreed and began discussing other options. Five minutes later, as the guides were making their snowpack observations, multiple students began yelling "avalanche!" and pointing towards Panorama Point, which was in sight of the team. They reported seeing two people on the slope as an avalanche released. Using the training they had already received, they were able to describe the situation to Ian and Dan (whose backs were to the scene and did not immediately see the incident). Ian and Dan immediately shouldered their packs and ascended the 600-700 feet to the debris pile in the slopes runnout. As they neared the debris, they saw two people ski out to a ridge nearby. They called to them and asked if they had triggered the avalanche. The skiers confirmed they had - they also confirmed they were the only ones on the face when it slid. The crown (what is left once a slab avalanche fractures and fails) was 300 feet across, ranging from 15cm to 100cm deep. The debris ran into a terrain trap at the slopes base and was estimated at over 5 feet deep.

Skier triggered avalanche on Panorama Point.
Ian Nicholson photo

Seeing avalanches in the field is an invaluable experience for any student or instructor. In many respects, avalanches are natures most "obvious clue" to a dangerous snowpack. When avalanches are occuring, it is very likely others will be as well.. Most of the time, however, (well over 90%) it is impossible to have avalanching in the winter snowpack.

Of course, weather and hidden mountain hazards are complex and variable.  This said, most experts agree to leave variability to nature.  Two things we do have a high degree of control over are the terrain we choose and how we travel in that terrain.  We can also choose our partners and teams wisely.  Last Saturday was sunny and gorgeous on Rainier - a classic bluebird day - with dozens of people around Panorama Point and in the Paradise area.  Lots of people. Lots of clues. And some very real hazard.  Among many things, this incident was great example of the effect of "social facilitation" and a huge variety of other "human factors" that increase our risk taking.

Stayed tuned for a re-cap of our fantastically successful Level 2 Avalanche Course taught by Scott Schell and Erica Engle.  As expected the conditions became even more condusive to learning....

Never too young to start learning...

Mountain Madness' Jeremy Allyn presented an avalanche awareness talk to teens with the Seattle Park's Outdoor Opportunities Program last week. The two hour workshop got the kids involved in an informative and visual lecture that helped prepare them for a weekend snow camping trip in the midst of this winter storm. The students were involved and full of great questions and an excitement for their adventure that followed.

More good snow to come!

We've got some more great snow conditions on the way and several more ski trips before the season ends. Hope you can join us on the slopes! Check out our guided and custom ski trips for opportunities in April and May.