Avalanche Course with ApexEx: Day One

Like I mentioned on Friday, this past weekend was spent up in Estes Park taking an avalanche course. And y’all, it was so cool!

Will’s flight landed right on time on Friday evening, so I picked him up (Yay for my fifth visit to DIA in 11 days!) and we immediately began the drive up to Estes. Weather alerts were warning the Denver Metro area of a huge blizzard that was only supposed to be larger in the foothills and the mountains. With any luck, we’d arrive at our cabin before the snow really began to fall. Luckily, the drive was mellow and we didn’t see a single snowflake the entire time. We pulled up to our cabin (adorably entitled “Hummingbird”) around 8pm and settled in for the evening. We had a big couple of days ahead!

Avalanche Course

Inside of our cabin

Saturday dawned bright and early, and after meeting up with the rest of our classmates and ApexEx instructors, we piled into cars and drove up to the Bear Lake parking lot in Rocky Mountain National Park. After strapping on our respective snowshoes, skis, and split boards, we set off into the snowy forest for the first day of our course.

Day One:

The entire first day of the Avi 1 course was dedicated to snow science. Although that may sound like a bizarre term, it is critical to your safety while traveling in the winter backcountry. And you know what? The stuff is fascinating!

In short, avalanches frequently occur under certain circumstances of distress. For example, they can occur at any angle, but the magic number for a slide is 38 degrees. What does that mean? Well, if you’re hanging out on a mountain that has a slope angle of 38, you should probably check yourself and get on out of there!

Avalanche Course

Will in his first pit

Additionally, we were able to literally dig into the snow and check out all the layers. Luckily, the fresh snow from the storm had covered everything in a beautiful layer of powder that made for interesting lessons. How do you check out the layers of snow? You dig a pit.

All of us had come prepared with an avalanche beacon, probe, and a shovel. The beacon and probe stayed in my backpack until the second day, but we got plenty of use out of the shovel right off the bat. In order to check out the stability of the snow, our instructor Rob taught us to dig a pit of at least three feet, if not more. Colorado is known for our epically terrible snow conditions (in regards to avalanches), so it was suggested that we dig to the ground when possible. Quite frequently, Colorado’s avalanches break off to the ground, so it’s important to check out all the layers.

Avalanche Course

Digging the pits was insane and the layers of snow were fascinating to me. It reminded me of studying tree rings when I was in elementary school! If you looked carefully, you could see the different layers of snow in addition to feeling the difference against your hand. Bad, crumbly, loose snow is called faceted snow and is similar to sugar in its consistency and appearance. This, along with surface hoar, leads to the majority of North American avalanches. You could see this crappy stuff in the layers because it looked larger in granules and was incredibly soft to the touch. However, just looking at it doesn’t help anyone determine the stability of the snow, right? You have to perform some tests!

There are three types of tests that help figure out the stability of the snow and where the weak layers of snow are located:

  • Shovel Shear: After digging the pit, cut out a foot by foot block of snow and insert your av shovel behind the block. Apply pressure to the shovel while pulling it towards you. After the snow fails, a block will fall out of the pit wall. Examine where the snow failed to help evaluate the weak layer.
Avalanche Course

A block of snow that broke off during the shovel shear test

  • Tap Test: Again, isolate a foot by foot column of snow from your pit. Place the flat side of your shovel against the top and administer 10 light taps from the wrist. If the snow hasn’t failed, administer ten more taps from the elbow. If the block is still standing, administer 10 taps from the shoulder. The more force required to cause failure, the safer the snow conditions are for skiing.
  • Rutschblock Test: Cut an isolated block of snow away that is roughly six feet by six feet. Instead of using a shovel, use person’s weight to identify the weak layer in the snow. This is more accurate since you are using an actual person to find the weak layer, but it takes a lot more time so it is less frequently used. Want to see a video? This is our instructor Rob jumping on the block to help us find the weak layer:

 

As the day went on, digging the pits became more and more tiring. The snow had eased up after lunch, but the temps were still hovering around 20 degrees. While we were moving, I was plenty warm, but I definitely got chilled once we stopped. After all, we were outside for well over six hours sitting (literally) in the snow! The storm kicked back up again around 3pm, and that’s when I got really cold. Luckily, I had some great gear on and had packed warm tea in my Hydroflask, so I had something hot to warm me up from the inside. Made all the difference!

Check back tomorrow for day #2: it was all about search and rescue!

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How do you feel about snow sports?

Would you ever take any backcountry safety classes like this?

22 Comments

  • Reply Heidi @BananaBuzzbomb at

    I think it’s absolutely crazy that we have that much knowledge about snow and avalanches. Then again. it is science and there are people out there constantly studying it all. Amazing. Props to ya’ll for being so smart and learning all about it. Gotta stay safe out there.

    • Reply heather at

      Yeah, there is a definitely line between the technical science stuff that is involved if you’re studying it vs. the general knowledge that will help keep you alive in the backcountry. It’s fun stuff.

  • Reply Kaitlyn at

    You are reminding me that I need to brush up on my backcountry skills. It’s been a while since I have taken a course. I’m totally a snow nerd too.

    • Reply heather at

      Always a good skill, you know? I really want to take my WFR course! Have you done that?

  • Reply Natalie @ Free Range Human at

    I think this is fascinating. I would love to take a few backcountry safety courses. Of course, I’m not usually in the backcountry in the winter time, but maybe someday!

    • Reply heather at

      Worth a shot if you think you’ll ever be frolicking in the snow 🙂

  • Reply Kierston @candyfit at

    I’d love to try snow shoeing. Perhaps if the snow hasn’t melted this weekend I shall go!

    • Reply heather at

      YOU TOTALLY SHOULD! A lot of people don’t like it, but I really do. It’s great cross training for running etc but doesn’t require the skill or involvement that skiing and other sports do. Basically, if you can walk, you can snowshoe!

      • Reply Beth at

        I love love love snowshoeing! Best ever. Although I recommend walking on some packed trails to start out. Our first attempt was hiking up to our cabin and breaking trail the whole way…probably not the best intro…

  • Reply lynne @ lgsmash at

    Hooray for snow! 🙂

    • Reply heather at

      No kidding! And today’s storm?! Where did this come from?!

  • Reply misszippy at

    Even though here in Maryland, none of this applies to me, it really is fascinating! So great that you got out and did this. Interested to read part two!

    • Reply heather at

      Thanks! Day #2 was my favorite…although it was also more sobering since it truly dealt with survival issues.

  • Reply Kovas - Midwest Multisport Life at

    Such great skills to have!

    • Reply heather at

      Agreed! It was good for me because I tend to think I can handle “anything” because I’ve done ok thus far…it was a good remember that I am not invincible and a lot of scary stuff can happen out there!

  • Reply Beth at

    We took a one day avalanche safety course offered by the Forest Service last winter in Idaho. The day we took it actually had really high avalanche danger but Forrest, two of our friends, and I were the only ones who showed up to take the course! (We could only assume that everyone else in the Silver Valley was out snowmobiling anyway…) The information was fascinating–and as usual whetted my appetite for more!

    Jealous of your awesome Estes Park location though! …Maybe we should escape up to Colorado for some snow before it’s all gone. Just a little bit of winter might do us well!

    • Reply heather at

      You definitely should! If today’s random snowstorm is any indication, winter is finally arriving…now that we want spring! 🙂

  • Reply Alyssa at

    Not my thing but that sounds pretty cool! I am too much of a wimp to spend that much time in snow – I like my weekends to be warm and cozy!

  • Reply Avalanche Course, Day Two: Search and Rescue - Just a Colorado Gal at

    […] ← Avalanche Course with ApexEx: Day One […]

  • Reply Christine @ Love, Life, Surf at

    I’m totally fascinated by this and love hearing what you learned over the weekend. I’m a total science geek and love learning about snow layers. I would definitely be interested in taking a course like this – so important to be safe out there!

  • Reply Kayla @ kpLOVINGit at

    Interesting. I always am fascinated by the volume of snow that can stack onto the smallest of surfaces.

  • Reply Colorado: Wilderness Trekking School - Snow Day - lgsmash at

    […] it’s imperative to take this class. To see what an AV1 course entails, check out Heidi and Heather‘s […]

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