Since our regional avalanche forecasting center, Eastern Sierra Avalanche Center (or ESAC), started issuing its advisories on the first of January, we have seen “considerable” to “high” danger ratings more than fifty percent of the time, with more than a dozen days so far receiving the latter rating. For some, this might seem unusual for the Sierra considering its reputation for stable snow conditions. But consider the facts: there have been problems with our snowpack since the beginning of winter due to a prolonged dry and windy spell after our first real snowfall last Thanksgiving. We have even seen multiple instances of buried surface hoar, which is rare for these parts, as it is usually quickly destroyed by the ever-present winds (both a blessing and a curse). Then, on top of this questionable snowpack, it started absolutely dumping after the new year. Our snowpack is now at the average for April, and it is still February. We have not even had our so-called “Miracle March” storms. With numerous skier-triggered avalanches and quite a few close calls, reading the ESAC observations page as well as the Sierra Avalanche Center’s website has been far more interesting than reading the news lately. So, it probably comes as no surprise that avalanches have been a common topic for conversation lately here in the Sierra.
It was definitely a great time for this guide to take the AIARE Pro 1 avalanche course. This five-day course, intended for professionals working in avalanche terrain, builds upon skills and knowledge covered in the AIARE 1 and AIARE Avalanche Rescue courses, but with more emphasis on conducting study plot weather observations and completing snow profiles as well as other things more relevant to resort and guiding operations than recreating in the backcountry. The AIARE Pro track courses, introduced just last winter season, represent an attempt to improve upon the one-size-fits-all flow of the previous AIARE course progression. Beginning this winter season, AIARE is offering these courses for three different modes of travel: ski/splitboard, motorized, or foot/snowshoe. As a skier, I was happy to see the ski/splitboard course option offered right in my backyard at the Mammoth Mountain Ski Area, from February 6 to 11.
On the first day, the AIARE instructors asked us what we hoped to get out of the program. I hoped to gain knowledge and skills that would help me become a better guide as well as a more confident and skilled contributor to ESAC’s observations page. Not surprisingly, “staying safe” was a primary theme of the morning’s introductory discussion. But when choosing to participate in an inherently dangerous activity, what does that mean, exactly? Even one of our instructors said something to the effect that if safety was our primary goal, we would stay home rather than go out backcountry skiing or riding. But more on this later.
We were given a thorough overview of the AM and PM forms we would be completing every day as well as provided various weather data resources on the web. Then, we got down to business right away and were introduced to the snow study plot set up for the course just behind Main Lodge. Here, we would be getting daily practice recording weather and snowpack observations. Snow boards were put into place and ready to go so we could measure both the height of new snow as well as its water equivalency, both important measurements for avalanche forecasters.
Since we would be traveling in avalanche terrain during the course, it made sense that we would need to show competency with our avalanche transceivers on the first day. From the study plot, we made our way to a snowfield and got ready for the avalanche rescue drill. For this assessment, we each needed to “rescue” two avalanche transceivers buried within a 50 by 50-meter area. We had seven minutes, and the clock would stop only once both transceivers were on the surface. To make things even tougher, we would not be allowed to turn off the first beacon we recovered but would instead need to utilize a signal suppression or “marking” function on our own transceiver while searching for the second signal. While completing this drill and watching my classmates, it was hard not to think about the full burial and death of a participant on an avalanche course in Colorado last month, a tragedy we discussed and examined critically multiple times during our course. Ironically, even participating in an avalanche safety course might carry the risk of being injured or killed in an avalanche. Accidents happen, and one of the most important things any backcountry traveler can do is read about the mistakes that lead up to these accidents.
On day two, it seemed we all came to class a bit more relaxed with the rescue drill out of the way. This day was primarily a classroom day interrupted with a brief ski tour to do a bit of snow pit observation as well as to check out the Sesame Study Plot. Information about weather and the snowpack for the ski area is gathered here both manually and with automated instruments, and much of this information is made available to the public through the ski patrol’s website, a resource we would all reference quite heavily during the course. For me, the highlight of this day was the lecture on snow particles, including how they form, evolve, and how they can be identified. I already knew that snow grain identification was a weakness of mine. After the lecture, I was anxious to get out again and squint through my loupe with a better understanding of what to look for on my crystal card.
Day three was the most action packed of the course. Class began with Geoff giving us an engaging avalanche path identification and analysis activity using maps and photos of the Dragon’s Back of Mammoth Mountain. We had a chance to make some predictions. Clues? Orientation to prevailing winds, elevation, topography, and cliffs and protruding rocks we could see in the photos. Mike Phillips, ski patroller and fellow guide at Sierra Mountain Center, came in from the storm that was brewing outside to inform us about how the ski operation catalogs its avalanche occurrences using a GPS database. The operation has been keeping careful records of its avalanches one way or another for decades now, and ski patrollers make use of these records when planning their control routes.
After quite a bit of classroom time the last two days, we were all more than ready to step into our skis and jump on the lift with Mike to rendezvous with another patroller and guide, Neil, at the top of Chair 1. Then, it was down to Roger’s Ridge behind the McCoy Station to learn about how this tricky part of the mountain is controlled for avalanches. The ridge is very steep on its northeast side, often heavily wind loaded and corniced after storms, and the runout zones for avalanches on its multiple paths go right into heavily trafficked green and blue ski runs. Skiers or boarders might lose their lift ticket for crossing the tape and attempting to ride the permanently closed terrain of Roger’s, and it is easy to see why. Navigating much of this terrain would require some mandatory air time to clear the sizable cliffs, followed by some expert maneuvering to avoid smashing into the trees below. Neil and Mike demonstrated how they coordinate their movements and explosives handling when completing the control route on top of this ridge so that they can do this dangerous work day after day and still go home to their loved ones. I was interested to learn that the more experienced patroller will typically serve as a guide for his partner when navigating the ridgetop and other patrol routes, employing many of the same strategies familiar to ski guides.
From Roger’s Ridge, we made our way to the top of Chair 25 and the location of one of the two 105-millimeter howitzers in place on the mountain, where we had a clear view of the Dragon’s Back. Drawing on Mammoth’s avalanche records, the heavy artillery on the mountain fires largely based on predetermined coordinates. Oftentimes, the guns fire into zero visibility, “at a glass of milk,” as one patroller put it. Mike and Neil’s knowledge of avalanche history on the Dragon’s Back allowed us to check our predictions of the size and destructive potential of the avalanches that might occur on any one of the many clear paths we could see. While looking at maps and photos of this ridge in our morning meeting, and after some interesting discussion, we all agreed on the same ski run on this ridge as the avalanche path with the greatest size and destructive potential, and we were correct. We skied down with Mike more than a thousand vertical feet to check out the maximum observed runout zone of this path since avalanche control work started on the mountain. Then, we jumped onto Chair 9 and made the high traverse onto the Dragon’s Back. On the ridge, we all had a chance to dig another snow pit, make some observations, and practice the shovel compression test. Before passing the course, we would all need to demonstrate the ability to record weather and snowpack observations and complete snow stability tests according to the guidelines in the “SWAG” handbook: Snow, Weather, and Avalanches: Observation Guidelines for Avalanche Programs in the United States.
It snowed the night before our fourth day, and the forecast called for more. The instructors convinced us that we should all complete our snow pit assessments a day earlier than originally planned, and before conditions got even worse.
We geared up and made our way to the bottom of Chair 12, where we broke trail in the deep, low-density powder onto Smuggler’s Knob. It was still snowing, and hemlocks were encased and bowed over with snow, seemingly studying us as we looked for good places to dig in and begin our assessment. Within a couple hours, we all had a chance to demonstrate our ability to identify the most significant layers in the upper meter or so of the snowpack, take various weather and temperature recordings, and conduct snow stability tests useful for identifying weak layers or interfaces and the potential for fracture initiation and propagation—all while getting valuable feedback from our instructors. Results on these types of tests might point to slab avalanche potential on a sufficiently steep slope. Back in the classroom, our follow up discussion was perhaps the most enlightening part of the course, and we interacted as professionals during our PM meeting, comparing our morning forecasts with what we observed on Smuggler’s Knob. We were all clearly getting a better handle on how to best analyze weather and snowpack data and use it when making travel decisions.
Getting to class for the final day of the course was a challenge. Once again, it snowed during the night, and the top of Mammoth Mountain saw winds up to 120 miles per hour. Only employees of the ski area and members of our class were even allowed to drive in the whiteout conditions up Minaret Road to reach Main Lodge. We all hunkered down in the conference center to discuss the final day’s objectives. We would need to brave the storm long enough to be assessed on our weather and snow observation and data recording abilities out at the study plot. Finally, we had to take the written exam. There is more emphasis placed on assessment for the pro track AIARE courses, and 70% or better performance is required for some of the evaluation components, including the written exam. Others, such as the rescue drill, are pass or fail.
While making the short drive home from Main Lodge, I was both relieved to have completed my examinations and simultaneously excited to get back out into the backcountry as soon as possible to keep developing my snow and weather observation skills. When starting to learn about avalanches, one truly begins a journey that has no end, as there is always more to learn.
For me, the most valuable part of the course was the opportunity to dialogue with other experienced backcountry travelers, put heads together, compare notes, and share and discuss our respective opinions. It helped that we had a great class full of curiosity and positive attitudes. As a guide, it was especially helpful to have local guides as instructors, both of whom have shown a strong commitment to mentoring other guides here in the Eastern Sierra. Will I be a better and safer guide as a result of taking this class? Will I be safer when recreating in the backcountry? It has been humorously said that predictions are hard to make, especially those about the future. Knowledge and experience cannot guarantee one will not get caught in an avalanche one day, although coupled together these things absolutely can help us all make better decisions and avoid making mistakes. So, I think the answer to both questions is yes. After all, I am not going to just stay home.
Tyler Logan is a second-year guide at Sierra Mountain Center, and works in ski, rock, and alpine programs. He has also guided several glacier routes in the Pacific North West. He is a life-long California resident, along with his wife, and when he is not guiding and exploring the Sierra, works as an English teacher.