Basic Avalanche Training Review

Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow.

It was here in mid-November and now it is mostly blown into crusty slabs. Good snow in early winter on the eastern slopes of the Rockies can be a fickle thing. There’s a storm track that seems to always dump buckets of white stuff across Burstall Pass and Chester Lake in Kananaskis Country’s Peter Lougheed Provincial Park. Right now though, the snowpack is low, wind slabs are prevalent, avalanche danger is rated “considerable” and backcountry touring conditions are not yet in their prime.

I was hoping to test out new skis and was in need of a little avalanche beacon practice. Instead of Burstall, we headed up Marmot Basin next to Nakiska in the Kananaskis Valley. Skier trackset, the trail climbs up through dense forest with glimpses of Mount Collembola.

At the junction for the old road leading up towards the slopes of Collembola, we stopped for a snack and pulled out the avalanche beacons. We started with a quick review of what to do if one of your skiing buddies is caught in an avalanche and you are safe on the sidelines.

Bear in mind that this is like having car insurance. You need to have it, but you hope you never need to use it.  Should an avalanche happen after you’ve taken into account hazard level, terrain and the host of other factors that goes into winter travel in the backcountry, you need to know what to do.

Note the last location your buddy is seen – no point in searching above that point. Scan the slope for any obvious gear – glove, pole, ski – it may have your partner still attached. Turn your beacon to receive and get to work. We took turns searching for a second beacon set on transmit mode and buried in a plastic bag. We also talked through when to probe and how to shovel.

Megan's practicing her avalanche beacon use.

This basic review is important. Avalanches take lives. Ignorance of how to act in avalanche country is no excuse. You need to be prepared when you venture off groomed slopes and trails. The better you are at searching, finding and uncovering the face of your skiing buddy, the better the chances of survival.

After work, comes play. We topped out at the Mid-Mountain Lodge and got to practice a few rusty telemark turns down the packed slopes.

A Few Tips:

  1. Buy the gear you need.
  2. Take a course with professional instructors.
  3. Practice – often.
  4. Know where to get more information about avalanche hazards. In Kananaskis Country, that would be the Backcountry Avalanche Report page on the Government of Alberta Tourism, Parks & Recreation website.  Throughout Canada, information and links can be found at Canadian Avalanche Centre. In the U.S., one site to check out is the Northwest Weather and Avalanche Center.

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