At the start of the ski season, Kenon and I took an Avalanche Awareness Level 1 course through Utah Mountain Adventures. Utah Mountain Adventures offers a variety of courses and guided tours that keep you safe in the backcountry.
Utah Mountain Adventures has multiple Level 1 sessions to serve different schedules. When we went it was priced at $399 per person which is the cheapest in Utah. Find a complete schedule, with pricing, here. The class we took started on Friday night and went through Sunday evening. The class schedule was approximately as follows:
Friday Evening: Lecture, 6 – 9 pm
Saturday: Lecture 8 – 9 am; Field Work 9 am – 3 pm; Lecture 3pm – 8 pm (dinner break around 4)
Sunday: Lecture 8 – 9 am; Field Work 9 am – 2 pm; Wrap-Up and Quiz 3 pm – 5 pm
These classes are led by real ski guides and ski patrollers with years upon years of experience. They are highly educated and skilled. My favorite part was that they had a variety of lecturers. This gave us the opportunity to get many perspectives on avalanche issues. The lectures are mainly science and statistics. They give a good base for understanding why avalanche safety is important and the logic behind certain practices.
The field sessions are really where the money is at. During lectures, there were about 24 of use. During field sessions we were broken up into groups of just 6, making it easy to get hands on and ask a lot of questions. The groups are decided based mostly on skill level but even the guides admit that system is super arbitrary. They try to keep together people who are planning on being backcountry partners, even if there is a variance in skill level. Kenon was put in a group with all the other split-boarders but I got to be in that group, too, as the only skier since Kenon and I were planning on touring together. And it worked out really great!
Day one covers companion rescue and digging snow pits. There is not a lot of skinning involved, just enough to get to good test sites but definitely enough to be tired. We spent a lot of time running scenarios and digging up beacons that our guide very creatively buried. The second part of the day was spent digging snow pits.
I’m not sure if that is a look of concentration or a look of frustrated exhaustion. This photo was taken toward the end of a long day of skinning and digging! We got done a little early on day one and were able to skin up a little further and ski back down.
Day two is spent completing a tour. The purpose of this tour is to practice reading terrain. It is slow going because more time is spent stopping and chatting about aspect and avalanche hazards than actually trying to get to the top of a line. Of course, the pace depends more on the goals of your guide than anything else. We got in only one lap, dug multiple snow pits, and talked about aspect A LOT. Another group got in about four laps.
On our tour day, we spent a lot of time discussing these snow pits in depth. It was great, though, because the purpose of the workshop is to practice skills. I have my whole life to do laps and practice touring. The time I spent looking at snow and talking with the guide was much more valuable.
Now, the class is not meant to make you an expert. One of the guides said it best – the purpose of the workshop is to give you the skills and information you need so that you can go out and practice. Take a lot of notes. Volunteer for as much as you can. Ask questions. When the class is over, go out and practice.
I Do Not Have Backcountry Gear
One of the things I loved about UMA is that they were diligent about making sure everyone had the proper gear. They send out multiple sign-ups via email that lists what gear is needed, what gear they provide for free, what gear you can rent through them, and what gear you need to rent elsewhere. As long as you communicate, they work with you to make sure you have everything you need to participate.
I’ve Never Skied Backcountry!
Are you nervous about your skill level in the backcountry – worried that you won’t be able to keep up? Do you think that you don’t “belong” in an Avy 1 class because you have not spent enough time practicing in the backcountry? No worries! I thought the same thing and I am extremely glad I took the class first.
First of all, the teachers in the class will be proud of you for taking the time to be safe in the backcountry before trying to conquer the backcountry. That is really the order of events that should be followed. The website literally says, “Introductory. No previous experience required.” There is no need to worry that you do not “know the backcountry” well enough. The purpose of the class is to teach you the things you need to know. However, if you do want to gain some background so you can better process the information the class provides then check out these resources:
- How to Survive in Avalanche Terrain by Bruce Temper
- Know Before You Go FREE online avalanche education class by Utah Avalanche Center. This course is meant as an introduction and/or refresher. It is not a certified course and should not be used in place of an Avy 1. However, it is a GREAT place to start your avalanche training.
The skill of skinning is not an easy task. This is something I would practice before signing up for a class. It is awkward and exhausting the first few times. Having a few days of this under your belt will make the class much more enjoyable. The nice thing is you can practice on a mellow snowy road or low angle skin track. Find a friend who is experienced and talk them into teaching you in some safe terrain.
But I’m Not a Great Skier
Yes, most people who take an avalanche course have been skiing for a long time – it’s true! And yes, you should have a high comfort level on blue squares and black diamonds in resort. However, just be honest with your instructor about your comfort and confidence level so they do not choose routes that are going to be way over your head. I did have the embarrassing incident of ending up on a route that I could not do. To be honest, I could have skied this line and have done similar lines in resort. This particular day, though, I just got stuck in my head (my biggest challenge with skiing) and was having a lot of difficulty making it down (read: falling a lot). The awesome thing about these instructors, though, are that they are first ski guides! And very good ones at that. They are not surprised by someone in the tour having a difficult time. My guide knew exactly how to talk to me and how to lead me so that I could safely get to the bottom of the mountain.
Overall, we would both recommend this course. It is informational, hands-on, and the instructors are both knowledgeable and fun to be around.