I’m a big fan of continually honing my skills, especially the ones that are likely to keep me alive. When I’m operating as a mountain leader, I’m assuming responsibility for the clients I have with me and this responsibility takes on a whole new dimension in winter when the snow underfoot transforms the mountains into places of remarkable beauty, but also creates potentially deadly hazards which have to be managed.
Those hazards have probably been underplayed for many years in Scotland and, in comparison with the USA and Europe, our scientific understanding of snow and the hazards it creates is fairly rudimentary. As a result, when I was offered the chance to undertake on the American Avalanche Association’s Level 1 training courses, I jumped at the chance.
The course took place over 2 days at Glenmore Lodge, nr Aviemore, with tutor Mike Austin providing an excellent mix of classroom learning and sessions out on the snow to put the theory into practice. As well as developing our understanding of how snowpack forms, and how potentially hazardous transformations take place deep within it, and the various techniques available for investigating snow conditions on the ground. There was quite a bit of humour throughout the two days, but also some very sobering moments as we discussed the accounts of avalanche victims, some of whom had emerged broken but alive, and others whose lives had been snuffed out by a wall of snow.
The high winds put paid to any attempts to get high up the hill on day 1, but we were able to make it to the snowline and get our hands, axes, shovels and saws into the snow to explore the layers. The weather on day 2 was much better, and we were able to carry out some companion rescue scenarios using transceiver searches, along with a chance to undertake an Extended Compression Test, which is a fairly recent innovation that tests the propensity for any shears in the sample snowpack to propogate.
Over the course of the two days, Mike passed on a lot of helpful avalanche avoidance ‘kung fu’; here’s hoping the snow lasts long enough for us to practice them a few times before we’re back to green hills and t-shirts for the summer.