This article is written to help someone prepare for an AST1 avalanche course. It picks out a few ideas to focus on.
The article is opinionated, in the sense of giving a specific and useful perspective.
An AST1 course has two purposes, one is stated and the other isn’t:
- The official purpose is to give a brief introduction to important topics such as gear, trip planning, conditions, risk assessment, and rescue.
- The unofficial but most valuable purpose is to scare you, so you are cautious and follow basic precautions.
The course is designed to scare you because it is inadequate to transfer the skills to safely navigate avalanche terrain. Wrongly used, these skills can become a distraction and provide a false sense of security. A good course will give an outline for dealing with avalanche danger but will not increase your confidence or risk tolerance.
In preparation for your course, I’ll flag a few areas I think it’s important to pay attention to. I’ll start off with the rescue situation.
The aftermath of an avalanche can be dismal. The most serious situations, when action is the most important, doesn’t resemble a “Easter egg hunt”. Instead, it feels more like the moments after a car bomb:
The situation is chaotic. Even before the avalanche, your party may already be tired and unorganized, now one or more people may be buried, and the rest of your party is probably scattered. There’s the serious concern of another avalanche onto your rescue effort (“hang-fire”). It’s often pitch black, and in the disorienting circumstances even short distances can feel remote. You are aware that as the moments pass, your loved ones may be dying.
In the immediate aftermath, a leader is required. This person needs to establish and maintain a perspective of the situation, minimizing danger, while at the same time organizing probing and digging teams, all within the first precious few minutes. This is hard when the group is scattered, or when the experienced members are casualties themselves. Leadership here is probably the one scenario where textbook preparation is the most remote from actual practice. Still, it’s important to prepare and make the best effort. When the situation is most dire is when action is often the most impactful.
In this situation, people may be incomprehensible or panicking. It’s not unheard-of for experienced guides to make errors, like failing to switch their beacons to search.
You don’t hear about these mistakes because the situations are so demanding. No one needs more burden: in 2017, two elite climbers got caught in a slide. The man couldn’t save his partner, and drove home to kill himself. In this incident, the party had all the safety gear, but the victim had her beacon turned off. After probing for three hours unsuccessfully, the man carefully marked the scene with his shovel and probe. It was just 20 feet from her.
Your AST1 course should give you a sense of the difficulty in these situations. The takeaway you should get is how to make sure the survivors are safe, and you should see what sensible leadership and decisions look like. A good course will give you an unforgettable sense of the chaos, and challenge you with increasingly complex scenarios: arbitrary party members missing, people providing wrong information (about your loved ones), multiple burials, missing equipment, and additional slides.
The actual use of beacons and probes during a search is surprisingly complex. It requires hands on practice. It is also dependent on equipment, with everyone’s beacon behaving differently. You should get the sense that even the latest, most expensive beacons can behave in strange and confusing ways.
Searching involves progression through distinct stages, each of which can involve a delicate skill that’s hard to describe. For example, certain people could read their beacons for a few moments and narrow the search to a few meters, while others may need much more time to achieve the same progress. Experience with a probe can allow you distinguish between hitting grass, rocks, boots or a helmet.
In your training, you should also get a sense of how to deal with multiple burials, which can be otherwise confusing. In addition to the use of digital beacons, you should be given a sense of awareness of the “scene”, how to read clues such as scattered clothing or gloves, and a sense of where a person would be buried, given their location when they were caught in the avalanche.
A big part is discipline in charging batteries and testing the beacons of party members at the trailhead, before setting out. Also, don’t use cheap beacons or shovels.
You should be shown how shockingly hard digging out a victim is, especially in dense coastal snow and debris. To get a sense of this, you should be told that it’s common to tacitly write off people who are buried little more than one meter deep.
Digging out an avalanche victim requires special practice, as ordinary methods of digging are exhausting and ineffective. You should be taught organized methods of digging as a group, usually involving one person closest to the burial moving debris a short distance, while being supported by other party members pushing out the initial debris. Each person will take turns in the most laborious position. Ideally, you want to set up parallel to or at the same “depth” of the buried victim, so that you can dig sideways, not downwards.
Defensive Posture during Avalanche Burial
You can find advice for a variety of actions when personally caught in an avalanche. These include digging your ski or board edge into a deep layer of stationary snow, or alternatively removing your skis (they tend to drag you down like an anchor) and trying to “swim” with the avalanche. I’m skeptical of any advice that is even slightly complicated, and most of this kind of advice only seems useful in the case of a small or beginning avalanche.
Instead, consider a major avalanche when you have been swept away and lost all control. A small act that can make a big difference is a defensive posture that protects your head and creates a pocket of air in front of your face. A good way to achieve this is to cross your arms across your chest by grabbing your backpack straps with the opposing hand, forming an “X” across your chest. Then, tuck your head close to the created space. If you can keep conscious, you should do everything you can to maintain this posture. This can be decisive, increasing your survival from a few moments to possibly many minutes.
Be aware that the forces inside a major avalanche can be massive, and severe injury can occur from hitting objects or just tumbling in the debris. In this situation, being “calm” and “relaxed” is valuable in both reducing trauma and extending your air supply during burial.
Remaining “calm” may initially sound absurd, but this doesn’t mean you are expected to enter a Zen-like trance. Rather, it’s more that any incremental relaxation is helpful. For example, if you can recover from a blindly flailing panic, the subsequent awareness you gain can save your life.
During your avalanche training, a valuable activity is to experience being buried by other participants. Try having your body and head buried completely if possible. Some people find this very uncomfortable. I found it sort of comfy.
I’m not going to write much. Instead, I emphasize that you should not be given any confidence that a day or two of training is enough to assess avalanche danger.
One useful piece of advice is the safety of ridge travel. Travelling on a prominent ridge almost always removes all avalanche danger when you are on it (except for extremely large avalanches). It’s typical to use ridges this way when planning approaches.
The guides teaching the course will have valuable local knowledge to share, such as the predominant snow types, as well as (season-limited) anecdotes about the current snowpack. They should tell you about the best websites to check snow conditions, as well as their favorite current forecasting websites for the region.
I think I’ve given a sense of the danger and consequences. You should take an AST1 course.