Arapahoe Basin, CO,--Good skiers don't die skiing. At least that was what I thought until a friend of mine died in an avalanche when I was thirteen. Rich was the typical avalanche victim of early 1990's--a male in his mid-twenties, a superb athlete, and buried by a slide he or someone in his party triggered. Almost a decade later, I am still terrified of avalanches because of his accident and because I know nothing about them. I've skied in the backcountry, but never felt I had enough training to safely be where I was. In an attempt to quell my fears and enable me to travel confidently off-piste, I enrolled in the Arapahoe Basin Avalanche School.
Run by the Arapahoe Basin Ski Patrol, the three-day course teaches the essentials of backcountry travel including beacon usage, introductory snowpack and terrain analysis, route finding, rescue skills, and methods of winter weather forecasting. Since a nationwide avalanche certification body does not exist in the United States, instructors create their own curriculums within guidelines set by the American Avalanche Association (AAA). A-Basin's program meets the AAA's Level I standards, and adds two additional sections about explosives and resort-based avalanche rescue.
Located against the Continental Divide in Summit County, Arapahoe Basin, Colorado is in the heart of Avalanche Country. Since 1950, Summit has accrued the most avalanche deaths of any US county. Patrollers use explosives to trigger 80-100 slides a year according to Ski Patrol Director and instructor Tim Finnigan. Additional instructors at the school include A-Basin's snow safety director, the patrol training coordinator, the mountain manager, a meteorologist from Colorado Research Associates, and the education director for the National Ski Patrol. Together they have years of experience in snow safety worldwide. Several have firsthand experience under the tonnage of a slide and chances are good that it was another one of the instructors that rescued them.
The school created a realistic environment for snow stability tests and rescue practice. The instructors used terrain that has slid in the past to teach snow pit analysis. In fact, there was enough uncertainty about the stability of one slope that the instructors made sure it was bombed just hours before we walked out on it. They also used snowcats to build mock avalanche runouts, buried dummies and scattered equipment around debris fields. During the last round of scenarios, one instructor even buried herself in the snow.
The three days increased my respect for avalanches and showed me that I need to learn a lot more about them if I'm going to travel safely off-piste. One of the men in my group described this dilemma as a chicken or the egg question: "This course has not only taught me that I don't know anything about the backcountry, but also that I'm going to have to go into the backcountry to learn more."
I think the answer is easy: avalanche education first and conservative travel in the backcountry second. That way you have a fighting chance to survive.
For more information visit Arapahoe Basin Ski Area.