Hailing from the rolling hills of South-Eastern Ontario, when we think of avalanche terrain, we think – Rockies. The West. While this is true, there are many hazardous zones within a short drive from Kingston. You know about the Adirondacks. You know about the Whites. You’ve heard of Gaspésie. Awesome, super safe places to go and play in the mountains, all just 5-7 hours in the car. You know what else these super safe areas possess? Steep, alpine terrain!
Until about 2 years ago before I started to expand my knowledge of the science of snow and how steep terrain, triggers and unstable snow interact, I would never have guessed that there’s significant avalanche risk in the high peaks region of the Adirondacks or on Mount Washington and it’s surrounding areas. Yikes! But, not to fear, you don’t have to immediately stop playing in snow covered mountains to be safe. With the right gear, proper instruction and safe practices any adventure is at your finger tips!
Enter the role of education. In Canada, you can take the Avalanche Skills Training course (AST) through Avalanche Canada or in the U.S. you can take a comparable course through the American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education (AIARE). Wow, that’s a mouthful! Together with a group of local cycling friends, we travelled to the White Mountains and completed the AIARE 1 course on Mount Washington. There was a 40/60 split for classroom vs on snow, hands on training. It was an amazing experience, there’s absolute avalanche risk in the area and there’s way more information than the human brain could possibly process during a 3-day course!
During the course we did everything from analyzing snow flakes under a microscope, to learning the essential safety equipment, using said equipment on mock rescue scenarios in the field and concluded with some actual backcountry travel complete with more snow analysis. But here’s the biggest, most humbling lesson of all: after 2 days of talking about epic skiing, we didn’t even get to ski!
We made a plan to summit Tuckerman’s Ravine and descend a fun line. However, after being educated in class, as a group we planned the day complete with a plan B just in case things got too gnarly. High winds, variant snowpack due to changing temperatures over the course of the early winter season meant that there was too much risk to hike beyond the tree line. Cue disappointing music! We swallowed our pride and turned back bailing on our objective, but ultimately learning that the objective is to ALWAYS make it home, no matter what.
So, don’t be scared to go play. Equally, however, don’t go play without doing your research and taking proper precautions. Take a course, educate yourself, stop by the shop and chat with the amazing staff at Trailhead and if nothing else you’ll meet some pretty rad people along the way!