Getting into the backcountry to snowboard rather than riding the resort is an inspiring and eye opening experience, each time. It is also a very technical and potentially hazardous process that makes you hyperaware of your surroundings, terrain and the crew you choose to trek out of bounds with. Whether you’re skiing, split-boarding, snowshoeing or mountaineering, education is the most important aspect to keeping you alive out there. Never go out unprepared.
This is not just to be able to travel safely, but efficiently. You’ll need more than just the equipment and a daring friend to go out with you. What you need before hand will be knowledge of how to use your avalanche gear including a beacon, shovel and probe as well as an understanding of the terrain you’re riding and the surrounding terrain so you don’t cross avalanche paths or find yourself having lunch in a run out zone.
Avalanche awareness courses and talks have been becoming more popular, naturally, as more people are going out of bounds to find their own untouched turns. Backcountry Babes is an organization that wants to promote backcountry travel with a variety of courses and events to sign up for throughout the season.
“It feels more like a summer camp with a bunch of friends”
With a concentration of all-girl courses (though they have held a few co-ed classes) it gives women an amazing environment to learn and not hold back when they have questions or concerns. It’s comfortable and honestly makes it feel more like a summer camp with a bunch of friends rather than being in a lectured course.
The AIARE (American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education) level one course I participated in, hosted by the Backcountry Babes and Underground Snowboards, was held at the Burton Colorado show room in Vail. This course has a 24 hour curriculum, therefore we took three days to complete everything, though, you’ll finish wanting more.
The first day was an introduction as well as learning companion rescue. Figuring out how to track with our beacons if someone was to be buried then use our tools to get them out, so we will be that much quicker when a real emergency occurs. With sixteen girls, all split-boarders, everyone was very supportive of each other. The day was hot and sunny, so smiles never left our faces. We ended back at the house with a review of what we learned and an overview of what was to still come.
Day two was more preventative. We were taught how to identify avalanche zones, where they like to creep, the different types of slides (yes there are way more than one) and how to responsibly avoid them. Once in the field, we split into groups and started to get a little more scientific. Checking the snowpack by digging a proper pit tells you so much about the entirety of the winter through different layers created from separate storms and wind.
Our final day was the last step to truly find our own confidence in the backcountry so we can have self-accountability in our decisions out there and not just follow the crowd, or worse, the skin-track. The night before we all had a print out of a topographic map of the area we were going to explore. We had to read the map, the forecast of the day and make a trip plan. From beginning to end of what aspects we were going to ride, the slope angles we wanted to stick to and most importantly, what we were planning to avoid.
When we had a plan we all could agree on (and a plan B) we set out to West Vail Pass to tour up Dog Run. Taking turns, we guided our small groups to the different zones we chose. Stopping to take more observations, we found a lot of evidence of recent avalanche slides on different mountain faces. This made us more confident with our particular slope of choice, yet more observant of our surroundings. Another pit was dug for practice then came the fun part. SHRED TIME. We earned some serious hot pow laps.
Staying Alive in Avalanche Terrain
-Doug Fesler and Jill Fredston
AIARE 1 Student Manual
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Backcountry Babes Intro