MM Collection
Checking in from the Condor's Nest on Illimani, Bolivia. MM Collection
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March 26, 2014

AIARE Level 2: Snow Geeks Anonymous

Checking the vertical stability…i.e. skiing. Andy finds his rhythm. Dallas Glass photo

It’s a common question, “So what’s the next step in avalanche education?” Well, for some it’s continuing to refresh and sharpen the skills taught in a Level 1. For others it’s stepping out and taking an AIARE Level 2 course. AIARE’s Level 2 is titled “Evaluating Snow Stability and Avalanche Hazard” and we lovingly call it “Snow Geeks Anonymous.” Why? Well, a Level 1 focuses on how we make decisions and identify avalanche terrain. So, a Level 2 really delves into the snowpack and how avalanches happen. The goal is to become a skilled observer who can formulate his/her own opinion, localizing the avalanche concerns within the terrain, and thereby travel safer while exploring the mountains during the winter. The other key objective is to develop as a leader in the backcountry environment, facilitating open group communication and terrain selection. 

What’s the best way to learn about snow? Get your hands in it. Ryan using his tools to find the different layers within the snow.  Dallas Glass photo

We gathered the first morning in the quiet hamlet of Ashford, WA to begin our journey with our time tested introductions. “Hi, my name is Dallas and I love skiing powder.” Don’t get me wrong, I’m a scientist at heart, and love understanding the physics of how snow and avalanches behave. But let’s be honest, we are all hear for one big reason: we are a little addicted to mountains covered in nature’s pure white blanket of snow. With a storm raging outside and up on Rainier, we spent the day upping our knowledge of the latest in snowpack metamorphism, avalanche fracture mechanics, weather data interpretation, and why we care. 

If this isn't geeking out, I don't know what is. Josh, takes an up close look at the snow grains.  Dallas Glass photo

With a fresh 8” of snow we headed up to Rainier to begin our education of how snow actually works. If you aren’t one for standing around in snowpits, Level 2 may not be for you. How better to understand how snow behaves and changes than by getting our hands in it? We spent the bulk of the day digging in the snow, looking at it under a magnifying glass, taking temperatures, and hitting it till it breaks. All in the name of science, right? Snow pits are a great way to understand the snow in one particular point, but I typically like to move around a bit while I ski. So, the next day we took our newfound knowledge to the skin track and focused on moving observations. This is the bread and butter of any skilled snow observer; traveling across the terrain and obtaining relevant information that helps us make informed decisions about our safety and where to find the best snow. 

Grabbing some information on the move, Kyle keeps an eye on some of the surface snow instabilities late in the day. Dallas Glass photo

For our fourth and final day at Rainier, it dawned sunny and clear. The mountain was in full view today! With one of the most dramatic mountain landscape backdrops, we again hit the skin track. This time, terrain selection, group management, and leadership were at the top of the list. Oh, ya, I forgot, we also wanted to get some high quality skiing in. With the strong March sun quickly altering the recent snow, the group had their work cut out for them. Fortunately, they were up to the task, quickly gathering information, formulating an opinion, localizing the avalanche concern in the terrain, carefully avoiding it, and skiing the best snow on the mountain. Nice work guys!

He must have liked what he saw, cause Kyle is ripping up the descent on a near by slope.  Dallas Glass photo

MM Guide Tod Bloxham putting a little spring in his step, and showing the students how it’s done on the last run of a great day of skiing. Dallas Glass photo