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[Adventure Journal] Cooke City AIARE 1 Avalanche Course

During university finals week and a couple of weeks after we’d started dating, I asked Kalem to go ski touring with me. He rented a set up and we strapped on our climbing skins to hike up a local resort after it had closed for the spring. The next week he’d bought his own backcountry ski set up to be able to keep going with me. I was impressed- it was a big investment for a college kid, both financially and as an investment into a fledgling relationship.

I’ve been teaching him how to ski ever since, and he’s been a champ learning from me. I’m not the best judge of my abilities, but I know for a fact that I am not the most patient teacher in the world. To keep both of us safe, I’ve also taught him about avalanche terrain, companion rescue and snow science, but knowing how critical those things are and how unqualified I am as a teacher, have been advocating for him to take an AIARE Avalanche course. I decided for Valentine’s Day that I’d sign us up for a class together, as it’s been three years since my last course and I definitely need a refresher. After all, what says you love someone more than wanting to keep them alive?

For those unfamiliar with AIARE, or the American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education, it is a non-profit established to provide a standardized curriculum for avalanche training, which is to say that they providing information and skills to prevent injuries and fatalities related to avalanches. They are recognized by the AMGA (American Mountain Guides Association) and are the only name you want to trust in terms of getting a quality education in the risks associated with traveling in avalanche terrain.

Doing school work and “work” work in the van along the way, we made the journey up to Cooke City, Montana for our class with Beartooth Mountain Guides. Arriving after dark, we woke up surrounded by a wonderland ice and snow, below zero temperatures and steep mountains full of rad lines to ski on both sides of the road. The first day was mostly spent in the class, which I appreciated as I wasn’t quite ready to deal with the freezing temperatures outside. We became familiar with the 7 different types of avalanches and their causes and looked over case studies of avalanche related accidents. From there we took class into the field to practice companion rescue, make field observations and conduct snowpack tests. As we stepped outside I learned that as long as I was moving around, the cold wasn’t so bad.

For the next three days, fueled mostly by peanut butter and jam sandwiches, we pushed into the mountains surrounding Cooke. We’d click into our skis as we stepped out of the van in the morning, skin own Main Street, and take off to have a hands-on study of the snowpack (which always ends by seeing how sweet of a line you can put in it). I loved the access and relative emptiness of the Absaroka-Beartooth wilderness, which while foreign and new, felt like our own private mountains, so unlike the backcountry city of the Cottonwoods I’m familiar with here in Utah.

Once we took off our skis for the day, we’d hang up our snowy and sweaty gear all over the vents and seats in the cab of the van, which we dubbed our “gear room”. We’d keep the heater blasting until the van was almost too hot and the gear dry. We’d then fall asleep after drinking copious amounts of hot liquids (rooiboos chai tea for me and hot chocolate for Kalem), making sure to leave enough left over that we could stick a full Nalgene of hot water by our toes to keep us warm all night. We’d then wake up the next morning to a van frozen from 20 below temps, and repeat our trek down Main Street for another day of skiing.

The course fell over Valentine’s Day. We celebrated Valentine’s at the Miner’s Saloon, an authentic Montana bar with the best thin crust pizza in town (if you want thick crust head across the way to the Antler). Kalem and I downed a pound of wings and a pizza between us, starving after a day of touring through the cold. Our hair was matted down from three days of sweating in a beanie, the bar full of the rough banter of locals, snowmobilers and backcountry bums, but the night was still utterly romantic.

While it was my second AIARE Rec. Avalanche 1 course, I continued to learn a lot, and appreciated the knowledge and experience imparted by my instructors from Beartooth Powder Guides. It has given me confidence to come back and navigate Utah’s scary 2020-2021 snowpack, which after the Millcreek avalanche a few weeks ago has left me spooked. The snowpack hasn’t started to heal either, today was the first time I’ve seen an extreme avalanche advisory (see a screenshot from today’s advisory below) . It is sometimes said that taking an avalanche class is like watching Shark Week on Discovery Channel— you don’t want to get in the water for a long time afterward. I find the reverse to be true. While I have a renewed reverence for snow, I gained a lot of confidence in my own route-finding and decision making skills on the snow. I reacquainted myself with my avalanche gear by participating in mock companion rescue scenarios, digging up plastic bags with beacons fast enough that if they were my friend buried, they’d still be alive. The mock companion rescue scenarios aren’t exactly the same, but allowed me to flex my muscles and build some muscle memory for if the situation ever arises.

I’d highly recommend anyone that travels through the mountains in the winter— snowshoers, runners, skiers, boarders, and climbers— to go through a AIARE course and invest in avalanche safety equipment. AIARE Rec. Avalanche 1 teaches risk awareness and management in the avalanche terrain, which all of us that like to recreate in the winter could benefit from. The course won’t turn you into an expert over a weekend, but it gives you a framework on which to continue to grow and introduces resources from the experts that you can use to travel safely in backcountry areas. Avalanches may seem random and mysterious, but are really measurable scientific phenomena that can be avoided or navigated safely with knowledge, training and preparation.

Find a provider of AIARE Avalanche courses near you by following this link.

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