Avalanche Season Recap 2013/2014

Last week was the first week I could see the gravel in my driveway after a long frosty winter, reminding me it is time to recap this season’s avalanche courses before I get too caught up in rock climbing and adventuring with my ready-for-Summer-toddler-son!

In mid-December I flew out to Reno, NV and attended a 1 day AIARE 2 Instructor Refresher Course at Mt. Rose. It was mostly classroom based, which was a boon considering an almost non-existent snow-pack. Most of the material revolved around some changes in the AIARE course flow, mainly a split between a recreational/guide and forecaster bound flow chart. But I’ld like to focus on the Northeast avalanche course season.

Despite some big January rains this Northeastern winter was one of the best I have in memory. Not just for avalanche courses, but the ice climbing and skiing was quite good from December to today! We ran 8 AIARE 1 courses and 1 AIARE 2 course… and while I am slightly relieved they are over I kind of miss them already. I met so many enthusiastic outdoor people in these courses… from aspiring young back-country skiers to seasoned alpinists, each course was comprised of 7 to 14 like-minded individuals who love to spend time in the mountains. I really feel lucky to have a small part in these folks risk management education and to share some time on the trails with them.

EMS Schools AIARE 1 Avalanche Course

It starts like this

Our first course started on December 28th, and as fate would have it 2 hikers from Massachusetts triggered and survived a nasty 800 foot avalanche down Tuckerman Ravine after getting lost coming down from the summit the day before our course! From reading the various media reports from the Boston Globe, Concord Monitor, and watching various news clips it was apparent they were not aware of the danger they were descending into and are indeed incredibly lucky to have survived. While they did not originally plan to enter this type of consequential avalanche terrain they lacked the skill in navigation needed for above tree-line low visibility travel that is in such short supply these days. Do you really know how to use a map & compass? Carrying them are not enough… but I will stop preaching. Some links to the media reports can be found here:

http://www.avalanche.org/data.php?date=&sort=&id=605

http://www.mountwashingtonavalanchecenter.org/search-rescue/incidents-accidents/2013-2014-summaries/

After that the season was relatively quiet as far as human/avalanche involvements were concerned… but things got interesting around early February. Back to back January thaws had us sitting on a relatively thin snow-pack. We then got hit with prolonged COLD… which set us up for a very high temperature gradient. So, all my attentive students from this season, what does extreme cold and shallow snow produce? That’s right… persistent slabs. To be honest when the rangers first started talking about it in the bulletin I resisted. We don’t have these issues in the East right? Well, turns out we do. For 3-4 weeks all I read about in the daily bulletin was persistent slabs issues. Felt like I was living in Colorado! But a little bit cheaper ;).

EMS Schools AIARE 1 Avalanche Course

My field notes from a tour day

That January 11th rain crust became a household topic (well, maybe just my household), as the USFS snow rangers tracked it day after day wondering when something big might happen on it. As is consistent with the persistent slab problem, nothing happened… until March 29th.

On this early Spring day a historic avalanche rocketed the southeast snowfields on the summit of Mount Washington. Human triggered, and narrowly missing a large group of people who had been in the run-outs minutes earlier, the size and location of this rare event raised everyone’s eyebrows.

Photo from former AIARE 1 student B. Galluzzo

Photo from former AIARE 1 student B. Galluzzo

Photo from former AIARE 1 student B. Galluzzo

Photo from former AIARE 1 student B. Galluzzo

Photo from former AIARE 1 student B. Galluzzo

Photo from former AIARE 1 student B. Galluzzo

Photo from former AIARE 1 student B. Galluzzo

Photo from former AIARE 1 student B. Galluzzo

The official USFS report is here:

http://www.mountwashingtonavalanchecenter.org/2014/03/31/southeast-snowfields-avalanche-saturday-3-29-2014/

Former USFS Lead Snow Ranger Brad Ray confirmed nothing this size has happened here in at least 50 years! While it was inspiring to see so many ready to respond to this avalanche with appropriate gear it was a little disheartening to hear of the disorganization of the initial rescue effort (since no one was caught no harm no fowl)… but we should all read or learn a bit about rescue organization.

The only other real notable thing on my mind from this past winter was the support that Ortovox gave EMS Schools. This company produces some of the finest avalanche safety gear I have ever tested. I reviewed one of their shovels earlier this season here and have reviews for some of their beacons and probes coming soon. But beyond all the great gear they make they contribute SO much to avalanche education by partnering with AIARE and supporting EMS Schools with great gear. You’ll be hearing more about this company from me in the near future!

So that’s it, while I have 1 more Spring mountaineering ascent of Mount Washington planned my sights are on early season rock climbing and hiking around the Whites with my 2.5 year old son. Find guiding related stuff here, and toddler hiking/climbing related stuff over at my other blog, www.adventurewithalex.com.

Thanks for reading, be well.

Posted in Avalanche Courses, Backcountry Skiing, Professional Development | 2 Comments

Photos from Feb/March 2014

As the winter guiding season winds down I’ve had the time to upload a few dozen photos from trips & courses I have run over the last two months. Changes to photo usage within the company have made it slightly more tricky for me to post direct, though I should be able to embed them directly shortly. For now, here’s a link to the album on the EMS Schools Facebook page:

https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.10153971916450084.1073741851.328763640083&type=1

You should be able to access them there. In the next day or two I will have an avalanche course season write up posted, stay tuned!

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Mount Washington Observatory Overnight

Just back from a fun two days on the rock pile with 9 great participants! Conditions could not have been better!

Info on these trips here:

http://www.emsoutdoors.com/north-conway/ice-climbing-mountaineering/mount-washington-observatory/

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Mount Washington Summit 2/7/14

Last Friday I got to summit Washington for the 1st time this winter with two motivated USN Seabees and one civilian contractor from the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard. We enjoyed fine weather, some deep drifts, burly windchill, and an almost empty trail.

EMS Schools Mountain Washington

Our weather forecast

EMS Schools Mount Washington

Lion’s Head steeps

Breaking tree-line

Breaking tree-line

Below Lion's Head

Below Lion’s Head

Summit cone

Summit cone

Sucess

Success

Current summit conditions when we topped out

Current summit conditions when we topped out

Clearing during descent

Clearing during descent

Along Alpine Gardens

Along Alpine Gardens

041 042 044Info on this course here:

http://www.emsoutdoors.com/north-conway/ice-climbing-mountaineering/mt-washington-ascent/

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Ortovox Kodiak Shovel Review

I have used a lot of different back-country shovels over the last 10 years of avalanche courses and last year I had the opportunity to review a Brooks-Range Sharktooth Pro Shovel. This year Ortovox sent me a Kodiak Shovel to demo and I’ve been extremely pleased with it, so much so that I have tried convincing fellow Mountain Rescue Service members to pick one up.

Ortovox Kodiak Shovel Review

Ortovox Kodiak Shovel

There are a lot of positives to this shovel and only one negative, so let’s get that negative out of the way first.

Weight: At 1lb, 12oz (790g) this shovel is a bit on the heavy side for someone who only visits the back-country occasionally and doesn’t do a lot of pit work. However it still breaks down and easily stores in the avalanche gear front pocket of my EMS Wintergreen Backpack.

And now for the positives that make this shovel a digging machine;

Blade: This large blade, (11.8 x 9 x 2.4″), has almost 2 square feet of volume. It easily moves more snow per stroke than any other shovel I have used. The sharp serrated blade cuts through hard debris (and parking lot snow banks) like no other edge I have used. It also is flat on the bottom axis allowing for smooth pit walls to aid in quality snow-pack observations. Finally the top of the blade has some non-slip step grooves to facilitate using your ski boots on the blade to cut through cement if need be.

Shaft: This telescoping shaft extends from 20″ to 28″ but still fits easily in my avalanche gear pocket when collapsed. The oval shape of the shaft is really comfortable to dig with compared to traditional round shafts and the rubberized portion adds control when wearing iced up or slippery gloves. The shaft quickly inserts and self locks into the blade due to a well designed self-feeding slot that guides the locking button into place with little effort.

Handle: While D-shaped handles add a little weight to a shovel they add a ton of control, especially if wearing mittens. T shaped and J shaped handles are very hard to operate with mittens on, and since our avalanche terrain is often brutally cold and half of my students often have mittens on this style of handle should preferred, especially if you deal with cold hands alot.

Added functionality: This is the first shovel I have used that has a 90 degree clearing function, essentially making it an entrenching tool (memories of USMC Boot Camp coming back). While using this mode did not feel effective at first I quickly realized this is a great mode for secondary shovelers moving snow further back from the main shovelers in a companion rescue scenario. I think it would also be quite handy for digging a quick snow cave while on a mountaineering trip.

Ortovox Kodiak Shovel Review

 

I put a quick video review of the shovel up on my YouTube Channel:

Final thoughts: This is an aggressive powerhouse of a shovel perfect for avalanche professionals, search & rescue teams, and hard-core mountaineers. While slightly heavier than other models it makes up for it in utility & durability. Final grade: A

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Avalanche Awareness Course 2/3/14

Yesterday Dan & Paul joined me for a 1 day avalanche awareness course and intro to back-country skiing. While not an official offering from our course programs we are always happy to customize a day for someone. The crux here though is realizing there is only so much info and practical application you can squeeze into an 8 hour day. However we did cover quite a lot of ground, metaphorically speaking, when it came to basic avalanche awareness. The 2 hour skin up to Hermit Lake was filled with chats about snow climates, basic snowpack metamorphism, and types & characteristics of avalanches. When we reached the bowl we poked around in the snow under the Sluice and found some of the layers I had posted this video about the day before:

After finishing our observations we got a nice run back to the floor of the ravine before hiking down to Hermit Lake and skiing the Sherburne Ski trail back to Pinkham.

EMS Schools Avalanche Course

Dan eyeing his line from our high point

EMS Schools Avalanche Course

Selfie

 

EMS Schools Avalanche Course

Our Descent

We finished the day with a 1 hour companion rescue introduction at Pinkham, and Dan & Paul left with quite the appetite for more information. As Dan commented “Today has really shown me how much I don’t know”. That’s good to hear, and I expect to see both of them back for a formal AIARE 1 Course in the future!

To see what courses still have spots available please go here:

http://www.emsoutdoors.com/avalanche-training/

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AIARE Avalanche Course 1/31/14 – 2/2/14

Just wrapped up an awesome 3 Day AIARE 1 Avalanche Course. Conditions couldn’t be better with reactive Wind Slab, Storm Slab, and Persistent Slab all making an appearance. 13 inquisitive and engaged students helped contribute to a very productive 3 days ending today with an excellent field day in Tuckerman Ravine.

EMS Schools Avalanche Course

Getting ready for a range check on our beacons

EMS Schools Avalanche Course

Mike talks about measuring slope angles on Mt. Willard, Crawford Notch

EMS Schools Avalanche Course

AM Trip Planning at Pinkham Notch Visitor Center

EMS Schools Avalanche Course

AM Trip Planning at Pinkham Notch

EMS Schools Avalanche Course

Beacon Checks heading up Tuckerman Ravine Trail

EMS Schools Avalanche Course

Getting close to Hermit Lake

I took a minute at Hermit Lake to review the shovel I have been using this season:

EMS Schools Avalanche Course

Staying warm?
EMS Schools Avalanche Course

Check out the pencil hard slab that failed under 1 finger slab while a student was digging out his chimney…

EMS Schools Avalanche Course

Positive Tilt Test results

Some cool Compression Test Results, not sure why I am having an issue embedding these at the moment so for now here’s the link:

EMS Schools Avalanche Course

Our high point, just to the right of the mouth of Right Gully

EMS Schools Avalanche Course

My field notes from the day

Avalanche Awareness course tomorrow followed by an Observatory Overnight this weekend, and our one and only AIARE 2 course the following weekend. Two big storms in the forecast, so things should be exciting!

Posted in Avalanche Courses, Backcountry Skiing | Leave a comment