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 Yamnuska Avalanche Skills Training 1  - AST1 - Course Review

Avalanche Training Course In Calgary and Bow Summit

 

 

Rating:

 

What's Good: top-notch instructors, well organized. 

 

What's to Improve: more digging practice. 

 

Day 1

 

Being my first season venturing into the world of backcountry skiing, I knew that one of the most important things to do would be to educate myself about avalanches. As a starting point, I decided to take Yamnuska’s Avalanche Skills Training 1 (AST1) course, the snow safety program developed by the Canadian Avalanche Association. The course takes part over two days, with the first in the classroom and the second in the field.

The classroom day had about twenty-four students and was led by Steve Blagbrough, a fully certified international Mountain Guide. Steve began our day by showing some short ski/snowmobile film-clips to get everyone in the right frame of mind. He also went over the objectives for the course as a whole and the specific objectives for each day, building a clear framework that we’d be filling in over the next couple of days.

 

We then moved right into how to identify and evaluate avalanche terrain. There are so many pieces of information that one can use in the evaluation – we created a chart of over thirty, ranging from a plethora of visual cues, to recent/current weather, to avalanche reports and bulletins, and many others – that it can quickly become quite confusing as to how to make sense of it all. Steve’s solution was to create a hierarchy of these pieces of information, condensing them into six groups and then ranking each group according to importance level. This was a great idea and really key to helping a beginner simplify and deal with what seems to be an overwhelming amount of data to process during decision-making.

 

Next, we talked about route selection and how to formulate a plan for the best way up and down terrain. Not only did Steve show us which terrain characteristics were danger signs, but also which ones could be leveraged to our advantage in staying safe. We then got to put this to use by doing several group exercises where we would look at photographs of different pieces of terrain and come up with route plans. Since we are always in the backcountry with partners, it was also a good exercise for understanding the group dynamics in play during planning.

 

After this was some discussion on how to deal with the situation where your group is actually caught in a slide. We covered this from the point of view of being a skier caught in a slide and what you can do to help increase your chances of survival, as well as from the viewpoint of a witness who is watching part of their group caught in a slide. This led into a discussion of the stages involved in performing a rescue.

 

We also covered some of the “science” of snow, talking about the general weather patterns of the rockies, the different types of snow crystals, and how snow layers interact to produce stability or instability. This was a small part of the day, though, because the new-school thinking is that this type of information is just too complex to be useful to a recreational skier making decisions.

Steve lays out what the next couple of days have in store.

 

Making sense of everything that can be used during decision making.

 

Students working through route selection exercises.

  

We all received a collection of printed material to take home with us for further study and reference.

Steve did a great job as an instructor. In addition to having a relaxed, down-to-earth personality, Steve spoke slowly, clearly, was well organized, and was very open to fielding questions.

Doing a probe line.

 

Grant showing us how to analyze the snow layers of our snow pit. 

 

Grant doing a compression test. 

 

Studying the snow crystals using a magnifier.

Day 2

 

For the field day, we made our way out to Bow Summit via carpool. We had a mix of people on skis and snowshoes and, since actual snow travel was fairly minimal, either seemed to work fine. I chose to use snowshoes and think that they may be the best choice since skiing is not the emphasis of the day, while having good mobility to easily move around was quite helpful. For those who didn’t have transceivers, shovels, or probes, Yamnuska provided some. 

We were divided into smaller groups of eight. I had Grant Meekins as an instructor. Grant first gave us some background on his experience and got us all to introduce ourselves. Then we headed right onto the snow to practice some rescue. We learned how to use the transceivers, how to perform a search using them, how to probe for the victim once their approximate location had been established, and how to dig them out. We got to spend lots of time practicing these skills both in pairs and in larger groups. Once again, it was great to do the group practice because group organization and dynamics come into play in a big way during the stress of a rescue. We also formed a probe line for the case where a buried victim could not be located via a transceiver.

That took all morning, so we took a short lunch break before moving higher up the mountain onto some surrounding slopes. There we got a much better view of the surrounding ranges and Grant led us through some visual evaluation of nearby slopes. Further on we stopped again and Grant dug a pit, did some compression tests, and studied the snow pack. Then each of us got the chance to dig our own pits and do some testing.

From there we continued to move higher and do some more evaluation of the changing terrain as we toured.

We then finished off the day with a multiple-burial rescue scenario.

Grant was a super easy-going guy. He was also very well organized and had a great handle on what he was teaching – and one could tell he knew “how” to teach. He ensured that everyone got involved during the day and he managed our group well. The exercises were often adrenaline filled and fast moving, so after each he always did a debriefing to slowly break down how it went in order to help us understand what we could have done differently so that we could improve the next time.

In the course as a whole, the only thing that I feel would have been valuable to spend more time on was digging during the field day. We did cover the theory of it in both the class and field, and Grant even demonstrated how a group of several people would perform a dig. We didn’t really, however, go through a whole-hearted dig as a group. Digging has the potential to be the most difficult and time consuming part of a rescue, so I think it would have been a good use of time to put a bit more emphasis on developing it as a skill. Maybe by doing one less transceiver search we could have freed up some time for a dig. Both instructors did, however, make clear the non-triviality of the digging process. I think this set into people’s minds the point that, as course follow-up, they need to go out with their trip partners and make sure they get some practice digging quickly and efficiently, without moving more snow than is necessary. 

Overall I think Yamnuska did a fantastic job of taking an extremely complex - even overwhelming - topic and packaging it into a digestible introductory course. It’s certainly not a simple task. Both Steve and Grant were great teachers with vast amounts of knowledge and were able to transfer some of that to us on a level that we could understand and deal with. The course was well orchestrated and organized.

 

While it’s simply not possible to master the topic of avalanche safety in a weekend, it’s crucial to begin learning about it before venturing into dangerous terrain. I think a great thing about the course was that while it didn’t make an attempt to fool me into thinking that I was now anything close to being an expert – in fact, it did somewhat the opposite in giving me a healthy respect of my limitations to truly predict the snow with certainty - what it did achieve was to make me keenly aware of when I would be putting myself into harm’s way. I really think this is key. It also gave me the tools to find safer alternatives in these situations, which could mean the difference between life and death should a slide occur. And finally, it gave me the confidence and skills to deal with a situation should things turn ugly.

To me, this is a great beginning. Thanks Yamnuska.

 

If my review sways you to go and take the course with Yamnuska, please come back to this page and add any comments you have in the section below to help other future readers - thanks.

 

For further information, see Yamnuska's website: http://www.yamnuska.com/avalanche-courses/ast1/

 

 

 

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