ADVENTURE STORY: CHILL SNOW SAFETY COURSE
Words & Images by Mark Bridgwater
Migrating from the relative safety of the patrolled ski area and into the back-country is a natural progression for anyone who skis the clubbies.
Like a gateway drug—the all-too familiar club field traverse inevitably leads to short boot-packs to gain extra elevation and a couple of extra un-tracked turns; which in turn leads to further and higher afield hikes, eventually exposing the endless possibilities found beyond the boundary ropes.
After a few hundred expletive-filled postholes and being passed by effortless looking tourers—conveniently on-top of the snow surface—desires for a lighter set-up, skins, touring bindings and the transition into scroggin life begin.
‘Earn-your-turns’ has seen a coming of age in recent years. With the current explosion in popularity, ski-touring has been seen paired with the ease of using the clubbies as your springboard to get into the un-tracked terrain we all yearn for—it is easy to let eagerness take over and forget about the most important aspect of any back-country trip… Getting back to that beer with a smile on your face at the end of the day!
The sheer numbers of skiers choosing the sweat-accessed approach to attain untracked snow is seeing a dramatic increase in the numbers of inexperienced, under-equipped, and ill prepared skiers blindly following the masses into avalanche terrain… Unaware that they are not only risking their own lives, but the safety of their friends and fellow back-country riders.
Avalanches are a scarily real threat and not to be taken with the classic Kiwi ‘she’ll be right’ mentality. No matter where you are in the world, they remain a very real possibility wherever you can slide on snow; definitely not reserved for the huge amounts of snow in Europe and North America.
My own transition from in-bounds skier to back-country tourer has seen its fair share of ups and downs (pun intended). I have been partially buried, felt the panic trying to get to a suffocating friend in hip deep powder, and pulled a friend out of a tree-well. I have also grown as a skier around a lot of experienced friends, all with their own memories, scary stories, and even lost friends.
From my first tentative steps past the patrolled area boundary, it has always been the norm to constantly communicate what we’re all thinking regarding the possibilities and dangers of avalanches when in the back-country; to the point where it’s second nature now. But most people don’t spend most of their time photographing pro skiers in the back-country. So where does the average skier go to get the necessary knowledge and experience to move safely and enjoy the big mountains beyond our clubbies?
This brings me to the opportunity I had last season to document one of the Chill Snow Safety Courses taken by the incredibly knowledgeable and experienced Anna Keeling. I don’t think I’d ever turn down an opportunity to get into the mountains with my camera; it’s my office of choice for a reason! I also saw this task as a double-edged sword, an opportunity for me to indirectly use my time photographing the course as somewhat of a refresher for my own knowledge.
The two-day course was a mixture of ‘classroom’ theory and on-snow practice; covering the equipment and how to use it, the types and causes of avalanches, understanding forecasts, rescue methods, snow-pack analysis, and safe route-finding. The course was presented in a logical order that saw novices gain a solid understanding of not only the equipment and methods needed in case the worst does happen to them or someone around them, but possibly even more valuable, the knowledge of decision making to avoid avalanches.
Listening in, and occasionally relating to my experiences, I found the course just as helpful to re-visit the methods and theories I have come to know and use while in the back-country. This illustrates to me some key points that I can’t stress enough.
• It doesn’t matter if you have the best equipment, you MUST know how to use it.
• Once you know how to use the tools and techniques, you MUST practice and continue to be familiar with using them.
• Your friend is putting their life in your hands, and vice versa.
• Always communicate your thoughts and observations in the mountains, ask questions, and learn from those with more experience.
• Don’t assume that someone with more experience than you is making the right calls. Question them often—the worst that could happen is you learn something!
• If you don’t know, don’t go.
• Have fun!