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Backcountry 101

Learning just enough to get into trouble at an A.I.A.R.E. Level 1 course.

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By Elizabeth Carey

Our backcountry crew’s appointed leader told me to call 911. My legs quivered a little, nerves mixed with the Jello-O my quads and knees had turned into while skiing down a ravine to the edge of a rock garden in Rocky Mountain National Park, where we encountered an emergency rescue scenario.

I knew it was staged, but even so, my heart beat furiously. An avalanche, said our guide Kelli Rohrig, just buried an ice climber. From our perch below an icy cliff, we scanned the scene for clues, like a glove, and danger, like another slide, while we pulled out our beacons. Allie, our student leader, told us to switch into search mode and ski in pairs down the avy path, strongest skiers first.

The weakest skier in the group, and on my first legitimate backcountry tour, I stayed put to fake-call the authorities. After floundering through fresh pow on the skinniest touring setup in too-big boots, I could use the breather. The wind whistled past my ears. I felt naked without my helmet, but one of our guides said helmets muffle sounds like “whumpfs,” so I left it at the trailhead, a mere mile or so away near Bear Lake.

I don’t belong in the backcountry, I thought. I wanted to, sure, but that’s why I was here: to learn.

A total noob, I’d enrolled in the Level 1 course from the Colorado Mountain School’s American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education because the backcountry was calling—thanks to my desire to earn turns, and the promise of untouched pow. But I lacked an on-snow backcountry mentor. (I’d practiced transitions in my apartment, to the bewilderment of my cat.) As a new chapter in my gaper chronicles opened that icy dawn in Estes Park, I realized I was the least experienced among 20-some flannel- and puffy-clad bros and a handful of bras.

In hours of lessons in the classroom, we heard sobering stats: If you get caught in an avalanche, there’s a 50 percent chance you’ll die. An average burial will cover you with one to 1.5 tons of snow, 4.6 feet under the surface. In North America, 75 percent of avalanche fatalities are caused by asphyxiation, but the rest are from trauma, such as being Ping-Ponged through trees. We learned the Big Five, factors you should consider when choosing terrain: aspect, slope angle, elevation, trigger points, and terrain traps and run-outs. We contemplated snow science: depth hoar, stellar flakes, rounded crystals—which I started to grasp when we headed into the field.

Until I dug into it, poked and cut it, the instability of snow was an abstract concept. Snow-profile tests such as column tests, which often identify a weak layer that lies below the surface, should not dictate go or no-go, our guides stressed. “They are another piece of the puzzle,” said Mike Soucy, an IFMGA/AMGA mountain guide. I suddenly understood all the change we may not see, particularly when summit fever strikes.

Although my anxious nightmares in my bunk in the lodge suggested otherwise, Kelli said the goal of the course isn’t to scare us shitless. It’s not to keep us (and 600 other Level 1 students last season, in fact) out of the backcountry, but to inform our decision-making process. The aim, she said, is to give us the knowledge to choose terrain wisely—or according to our risk tolerance.

If you want to ski a particularly risky couloir on a day with high avy danger, said Kelli, fine. “But don’t drag anyone else into the equation,” she said.

Out in the field, Kelli had buried a backpack with a beacon on transmit mode somewhere in the deepish snow below us to represent the ice climber. Seasoned skiers Casey and Annie led a search, making wide turns with their beacons at belly level. We had run through the rescue protocol a few times before, but this time felt more real because we were no longer on a flat meadow or in the Estes Park classroom. I had no idea which way was north. I held on to what I knew: that the direction from which snowflakes were falling was up.

I skied down to the others, who had already pinpointed the buried beacon and probed something soft. I rushed to grab my shovel from my pack and to release my boots. That’s when one ski, that brakeless bitch, slid away, picking up speed as I lunged after it. It beelined for a cliff until it lodged in the branches of a tree. My cheeks burned as I postholed to the probe and dug a little before we unearthed the pack and beacon.

Choose your backcountry partners wisely, the instructors said. Not just by skiing ability, general fitness, backcountry know-how, and comfort with their gear, but by communication skills. This crew, otherwise reticent, kept talking throughout rescue scenarios. These people were the ones you want to ski with, who might be able to save you.

I wouldn’t, I realized, yet choose myself.

We learned that terrain choice is the most important hazard-management decision, but human-factor traps persist—particularly when you don’t speak up, when you have waist-deep powder laid out in front of you, or when your skiing ability exceeds your understanding of the avalanche problem at hand.

Know where you are on the spectrum, our instructors said. And keep practicing. Your tools are only as useful as their user.

“The avalanche doesn’t care,” Mike said, whether you’re backcountry pros or “people like you, who know just enough to get into trouble.”