During the last weekend in March, Mt. Bohemia played host to one of the Midwest’s only Avalanche Level-1 Rescue certification courses. MiSkiReport.com contributor Ryan Baker and team were in attendance to learn and gain knowledge on avalanche awareness and safety.

An Avalanche Course in Michigan?
Several people have asked me why I wanted to attend an avalanche rescue course because I live Michigan. This was a common question and topic that was brought up during the meet and greet before our sessions began. Of the 22 attendees, about 10 were either members of the National Ski Patrol getting experience credit, or were planning on becoming patrol members this coming season. 2 or 3 were college students looking for extra credit for class, 1 teacher looking for outdoor environmental experience, a group of 8 who came up from Madison to pay tribute to 2 of their friends who lost their lives in an avalanche in early February, and then there is me, just a guy interested in avalanches awareness and wilderness safety.

The class was led by Jay Zedak, National Ski Patrol, National Outdoor Emergency Training (OET) Program Director, Level 2 Avalanche Certificated Instructor Trainer. Assisting him was Les Robinson NSP North Central Region Director and Keith Robinson Regional Avalanche Adviser.

Class kicked off bright and early Saturday morning at 7:30am Jay talked about the basics of equipment that are needed for exploring the backcountry whether skiing or snowboarding. There are three  pieces of equipment that everyone need to take with them when exploring the untouched freshies, an avalanche beacon, a shovel, and a probe. These three things will [help] save your life if you or your party become buried.

Other tools to check snow pack conditions and the safety of a slope included a snow saw, collapsible ruler, snow density gauge, cornice cutter, inclinometer, and a compass. Students interested in moving on to take a Level 2 course will also record all of this data taken with the next level of tools. If desired, this data can be submitted to the regional avalanche center to help others prepare for their journey to the region.

Reading Terrain
Once we finished learning and familiarizing ourselves with the equipment we started into the nitty gritty of reading the terrain. As the program was light hearted and fun there was always a point of seriousness. I mean, we really are talking about life or death. One simple mistake and it can cost you, or your entire party’s life.

An avalanche can slide most frequently on a pitch of 30°-45°. The optimal pitch for an avalanche resides around 38° along with a trigger point to start the slide. There is not one set series of conditions that will trigger a slide, it is a combination of variables. Everything from the changes in temperature, winds and wind loading, direction the slope faces, time of year, time of day, elevation, and amount of moisture in the snow. Even taking all of these into consideration, an avalanche can happen at any time. Keeping in mind snow pack itself does not like a lot of change. Change, like increased snow volume, needs to occur slowly over time to maintain its consistency. When snow piles on and wind increases, avalanche activity tends to be more common.

Beacon Testing at Mt. Bohemia's Avalanche Course

Biggest Safety Factors
Of everything that was covered in the class, the two biggest safety factors that were expressed are 1) Never travel in a group larger or smaller than four and always designate a leader of the group. When traveling in a group it was taught that 8 eyes are better than 2. When a group consists of more than four people, you start to break down communication in the group. It is estimated that for every one extra person in a group, up to an hour of communication is lost. If you only have 3 in the group, you have lost 50% of your search team. 2) When designating a leader of your group, come up with a plan on the snow, and STICK TO THE PLAN. If at any moment someone feels like something isn’t right, you walk away from the zone. This will save your life. As cliché as it may be, better safe than sorry.

Snow Lab
Around noon, we took a break for some skiing and snowboarding, enjoying 2 hours of bluebird riding at beautiful Mt. Bohemia. Snow conditions were spring like. Soft, but not slushy, warm, and sunny. After break we got into the fun part of the class – the lab, as opposed to the lecture.

We broke into two groups, and moved out onto the hill. From here we dug pits to read the snow conditions, seeing the layers in the snow and what that meant for riding. Snow was analyzed for density and layer weakness by doing a compression test, with the final test known as a Rutschblock test, where you stand above the pit, cut the snow, and more or less jump on this block to see if the snow pack can handle the weight of an individual.

Digging Snow Pits at Mt. Bohemia's Avalanche Course

While half of the group was digging the pit and reading the snow, the other half was using beacons to find beacons that had been buried in the snow. We learned that movements must be urgent, but controlled so proper signal pick up is achieved to direct you toward the buried victim’s location. Once the beacons were located, we went through drills on proper use of probes and shovels for recovery. Then the digging begins…

After the Snow Lab portion, we came back together as a group to compare data from the snow and experiences, breaking for dinner afterward. The evening was capped off with a film about the dangers of snow and riding in the backcountry.

Sunday morning brought on another session of beacon use and searchng in new areas, adding on another level of detail as to how a resucure would go about happening. Individually we were instructed to go outside, given a direction of the slide and a last place of sight. Beacons were promptly switched to receive and our search began again.

This definetly was an excellent class. While serious tone was set across the entire course, it still was fun and I found it to be very interesting and informative. Anyone who is considering going out of bounds, even into the “sidecountry” I highly recommend you educate yourself. By no means am I an expert on avalanches now, nor will you become one by attending such a course. But you can bet when this class comes around again, I plan to attend and hone my wilderness emergency skills.

Ryan Baker at Mt. Bohemia

Written by: Ryan Baker