Jill is a Truckee based freelance journalist and content marketing storyteller who dabbles in almost any sport that gets her into the great outdoors. She skis, paddles, runs and hikes, and is also interested in the arts, climate advocacy, and the outdoor industry as a force for change. Follow her Instagram-ed adventures @jillcsanford or drop her a line via her website, jillcsanford.com.
Backcountry participation is the number one winter sport on the rise and throughout the Sierra and in the Tahoe region in particular we are seeing more and more winter sports enthusiasts leaving the resort scenes behind to seek fresh tracks. Unfortunately the increase in backcountry use comes with a steady rise in avalanche fatalities.
There has already been one avalanche fatality in the area this year, and in the wake of the December 10th tragedy at Mount Rose, experts are stressing the common avalanche creed: “Know Before You Go.”
“Getting educated is the most important thing you can do to be a successful backcountry skier or rider,” advises Steve Reynaud, owner of Tahoe Mountain School, the company that teaches avalanche courses at Tahoe Mountain Sports. Reynaud has been teaching avalanche courses since 1999, and students who take his courses learn how to read the snow both in the classroom as out in the field. About 60% of the class takes place outside.
A common question for newcomers to the backcountry scene is, “How do I survive an avalanche?” The foolproof and most effective answer to that question is to not get caught in one, period. To avoid dangerous situations altogether, it’s important to know the basics of how and why avalanches occur as well as what tools are at your disposal in determining what aspects and elevations are safe on any given day. You’ll learn all this and more in an Avalanche 1 course.
The class will cover the conditions that cause avalanches, including the three things that need to be present for an avalanche to occur, how layers of weaker snowpack beneath the surface lead to avalanches, the ways in which weather, temperature and wind impact avalanche conditions, and more. There are a ton of factors that cause avalanches, and while it’s hard to say exactly when they will be triggered, experts have gotten pretty good at predicting the likelihood of one occurring.
The information is compiled and interpreted by experts and made available to the public via the Sierra Avalanche Center (SAC) website. Instructors teach you how to read and apply the information provided here to the areas that you want to ride in the backcountry. It will even make you safer inbounds to have an understanding of avalanche and general snow conditions.
Not only will you walk away from the class with a basic understanding of snow science and avalanche safety, you’ll also learn how to use the important equipment you should have with you at all times in the backcountry: a beacon, shovel and probe. These important pieces of safety equipment should be taken out frequently and practiced with often. The beacon in particular is only a straightforward tool when you understand how it emits signals, and it’s important to learn how to sweep the deposition, or debris, of an avalanche to ensure you don’t miss your buddy buried below.
An AIARE 1 class will also go in depth into how important trip planning and group dynamics are in avoiding dangerous scenarios. You’ll also cover six major heuristic traps and how to avoid them. Even more important than learning the ins and outs of avalanche science is to know when to speak up and not go along with a dangerous group mentality. Decision making and human factors play an important role in the backcountry and an absolutely essential part of avalanche safety.
Spending the time and money to get educated is way more important than whatever gear you are currently eyeing. Tahoe Mountain School and Tahoe Mountain Sports allow you to borrow the safety equipment and rent backcountry gear at a discount if you sign up through this class, so whether you are new to the sport, are semi-familiar with backcountry travel or have been doing it for years and need a refresher, prioritize your avalanche awareness and skills by signing up for a course.