A Weekend Experience of Snow Safety in the Mountains

By Hana Carlson

On route to the Snow Safety Course held on the last weekend of July 2018, I experienced a few challenging emotions; excitement, enthusiasm and fear. I was feeling very keen to experience and learn some new things and ultimately, I was just excited to be outside and in the snow. When we pulled up to the hall at Castle Hill I was overwhelmed with the feeling of fear. It’s the kind of feeling you get when you attend a event on your own or when your asked to go on a bike trip with new faces and aren’t sure if you’ll meet the expectations or standards of your peers or when you have climbed a rock wall reached the top and then look down. Overall a very exciting overwhelming feeling that you push through and look forward to the surprise on the other side.

We, myself and eleven other, new to backcountry skiing goers embarked on a two-day course filled with fun, new learnings and fresh faces. We were led by two instructors who were great, very passionate about what they did, very real and honest about what could happen but there to give us the facts and help us make the right decisions with a laugh or two along the way. The course offers hands-on avalanche awareness. The courses are designed to improve the skills of skiers and riders who may be venturing into the backcountry from any of the South Island ski fields. Backcountry skiing does come with its pressures and hazards so knowledge is key. With the right training and insight your safety level can be significantly improved.

The first day of the course was predominantly theory based, a number of slides, images, videos and scenarios to play out. Our morning began with us getting familiar and up close with real avalanche stories (through YouTube). We learnt about where and why they occur and basic approaches to managing risks when they occur. An avalanche is a snow slide, it occurs when a cohesive slab of snow lying upon a weaker layer of snow in the snowpack fractures and slides down a steep slope when triggered. We learnt about the angles to ski on that are avalanche prone. We ensured we all had the correct safety equipment needed during backcountry recreation. This includes a working transceiver, a shovel, an avalanche probe and an option avalanche airbag pack. On Top of this we discussed other factors that can contribute to hazards in the snow, like choosing your friends wisely, ensuring all the equipment is working and easy to access (not wrapped up in cute cases). We also discussed and learned different safety techniques. We also learnt about the best practice and back country etiquette and were given insight into reading the weather forecast and or avalanche forecasts.

The afternoon involved putting our acquired knowledge into practice. This is actually a very important process in learning because we got to see stuff we could relate what we had just learnt to. We located transceivers or beacons buried in the snow. A transceiver is very important when snowboarding in the backcountry. It can make a difference between life or death should an avalanche strike. It works by emitting a pulse radio signal. In case of an avalanche the victims buried transceiver sends electronic signals that are picked up by other searching transceivers. Playing out the scenarios got the heart racing and adrenaline pumping and the result of finding the beacon in less than three minutes was incredibly rewarding.

The second day of the course was a lot more practical, a full day on the slopes. Yay. It was a day well spent on the mountain with awesome weather after some fresh snow fell overnight (we got lucky!). We played out some scenarios, practiced skiing on our skins and searched for buried beacons. We dug a pit to assess the snow pack along with skied some epic terrain. It was a great learning experience all in a day.

I left Mt Cheeseman a more informed skier. I realised that the experience was very crucial especially when I am someone who visits the mountains on a regular. We learnt the right way to do things from experienced professionals. Although there are lots of safety gadgets out there, they can never fully take the place of experience. This training course will help you learn to avoid avalanches. There is a limit to what transceivers and other safety tools can do for you should the avalanche be dangerous.

There is something mountain guides call “mountain sense”. It is ability to judge the danger level through your experience. Learning safe backcountry recreation cannot be done through studying alone. This course gave me enough knowledge and practical experience to ensure safety anytime I go skiing. It’s only the beginning, it’s given me a thirst to learn more and practice in the snow.

If you want to be apart of a course in 2018, there is some last minute spaces this week along with the weekend of the 1st / 2nd of September, contact Chill today. Otherwise book in for the course in 2019, it could be life changing.

Photo Credit - Hana Carlson & Ben Corcoran .

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