Friday, February 13, 2015

AIARE Level II Avalanche Course

The members of the AAI AIARE Level II course psyched to be out in beautiful snowy conditions!  (A. Stephen)

Over the last four days I was fortunate enough to be a student in a Level II AIARE course, taught by American Alpine Institute instructors Cliff Palmer and Richard Riquelmie.  For those who don't know, AIARE (the American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education) is the foremost organization for snow education and avalanche awareness in the U.S.  AIARE has designed three courses (Level I, II, and III) for backcountry travelers hoping to increase their knowledge, and improving their safety margins in avalanche terrain.  Level I is focused on basic interpretations of weather data and snowpack, terrain selection, and rescue protocols.  Level II begins to step into snowpack analysis, detailed weather data interpretations, heuristic factors, and multiple burial recoveries.  As our instructor Richard put it, in Level II, we learn "now-casting."

Tools of the Trade: a thermometer, magnifier, and crystal
card are used to gather key data points about the snowpack. (A. Stephen)
Coming into the course, I think we were all a little unsure of how much practical experience we were going to be able to gain.  The Northwest has had one of the worst snow years on record, and I was definitely concerned that with the dismal conditions it would be hard to apply the knowledge we were being taught.  It turned out that although the snowpack was quite low, it actually contained some variance, and we were all pleasantly surprised when the last two days of the four-day course we actually received quite a bit of snow!  All said, we were able to witness a good storm cycle, observed some considerable avalanche conditions, and got a good look at the metamorphosis of the snowpack under changing conditions. 

Digging some hasty pits to quickly examine how well the new snow is bonding
 to existing layers on one of our snowier days (A. Stephen)
Our typical day in the course was split between classroom learning and heading into the backcountry near the Mt. Baker ski area to dig data pits and examine the layers in the snowpack.  We learned how to gather data about the layers using a magnifying glass to examine snow particles, and performing stability tests to see how well the layers were bonded.

"This is snow!" Richard explaining the properties of some freshies. (A. Stephen)
The last day of the course it was snowing heavily and forecasted considerable avalanche danger for the day.  I had never been out on a day with considerable danger, but with Cliff and Richard's expertise and careful route selection we were able to make it to Artist Point (around 5,000 ft of elevation in the Baker backcountry), where we dug some data pits and were able to examine first-hand where the weaknesses in the snowpack were, and why considerable danger had been forecasted.
A student preparing a stability test in a data pit (A. Stephen)
As we descended back to the cars, we were able to get a few turns in some of the best powder we had skied all year in the NW.  As Cliff remarked, it may have been the best skiing we will get all year short of going to Japan!  The AIARE Level II course was eye-opening, empowering, taught by two expert snow professionals, and with practice and experience, it set me up to get there one day as well. I would highly recommend any winter backcountry traveler become involved in the AIARE programs, and what better place to do it than in the (usually) epic snows of the Mt. Baker area.  For a list of AIARE programs offered by AAI, click here

--Andy Stephen, Instructor and Guide

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