Readjusting your backcountry lens through an Avi 1 course
We all know the backcountry is a powerful place. A world that harbors the sea of deep, white magic. Of cascading mountain flanks bristled with ghost trees, and rolling slopes that accept your call to drop in. So you do, suddenly and entirely igniting every endorphin in your being as the earth falls away and the hovering sensation takes command. Leaning back, you sail down, down through the powdery surf as it blows its plume up and over you, engulfing you and transcending your world.
It’s a realm we dream about soon as the bite of winter rolls in, and each day after that we’re not out there getting our share of the wonder.
But how much do you really know of the powdery pastures in which you play?
After recently having my mental backcountry lens readjusted through an Avi 1 course, I thought of, of all folks…. my dad. Not because he was a ski bum. But because of an intrigue he sparked in me early on.
This has to do with the backcountry, I promise. As a mechanical engineer, my dad used to take things apart just to see how they worked. He’d unscrew the screws that the average consumer never noticed and remove the lid that encased the mysterious innards of whatever banal appliance had stopped working—revealing a world of tiny parts working together in a simple formula of cause and effect. He’d tinker with the spring that’d sprung out of place and the appliance was working again.
My point is, knowing how something works has this incredible way of shifting your perspective on your universe. And knowing how the backcountry works—its snow, its terrain, its weather patterns—can take you from ignorant bliss to calculated love affair. For me, it’s a different kind of romantic angle on it all. Amid that sea of white and gray, the trees are no longer just trees. They’re anchors in the deep stuff. And trigger points. Slopes are a mathematical equations for stoke. And slide zones. The weather is both a gift and a guise.
And the snow… it’s the siren. Unless, that is, you know how she works.
Of course, what causes avalanches, or stable pow conditions, isn’t simple mechanics. Snow conditions are the results of complex recipes; but they’re made up of many ingredients working together in, really, a simple formula of cause and effect. Knowing how those ingredients react allows for that seismic shift in your backcountry knowledge. And in the mountains, knowledge is key.
With that notion, 10 of us huddled in nuking, sub-20s conditions beyond Mt. Baker’s gates this December, learning the fundamental recipes that produce avalanches, from our guides through the American Alpine Institute. Highly impressive snow scientists, mountain experts and teachers, they walked us thoroughly through the anatomy of a slide, types of avalanches and the terrain that breeds them.
But that was just scratching the surface.
We dug deeper to reach the complexity—found in the snow’s layers. With weather as the active ingredient in all this, the layers it creates over a season, or even during a single weather pattern, are what’s most important to your mental calibrator. Early season freezing rain can create a hard bed layer. It dumps. Then cold, clear star-lit nights rear beautiful snow crystals—hoar frost—that in effect can crush like champagne glasses under the dense wind-deposited powder that builds up next, given the right trigger.
So, we learned how to travel properly in avalanche terrain: on shallow slopes, up through densely forested terrain, and along ridges exposed to no wind-fed cornices. We learned to discuss meeting points with the group—outside the slide path. And to drop in one at a time.
Prior to heading out on our Sunday tour, we’d practiced proper use of our gear and rescue techniques. We’d been thrown into a crash-rescue scenario with two (backpack) burials, forced to work together, and were quickly made aware of how inefficient we were at using our gear and saving someone’s life when shit hits the fan. But we practiced and practiced and made realizations and mental notes, shoved into our backcountry arsenal next to the promise that we’ll never let the group dynamic obscure our decision making out there.
Now, Sunday, we were ready to reap the rewards of all this education. We were ready to drop into our chosen safe zone that harbored that white magic.
And then we hiked back up to get some all over again.
But one class doesn’t do it all. As I toured with friends a few weekends after, it was clear only experience would make me an expert out there. You must go out again and again with folks who know how the mountains work, follow in their tracks and constantly learn. Ask questions.
For me now, taking an Avi class was just lifting the lid.