AIARE 1 - Mount Washington, NH
I spent my first weekend of 2020 taking an AIARE 1 course to learn about avalanche safety with Synnott Mountain Guides. It was a great lesson in what to look for when you get out in the backcountry and Mount Washington certainly kept things interesting for us.
Classroom work isn't the most exciting aspect in any form of learning, but it is necessary at times. There was a lot of focus on understanding how weather patterns effect the snowpack. Everything from the types of snow, aspects of the slope, wind direction and speeds, air temperatures, sun exposure, and then into the details of how snow becomes more stable through the rounding process or less stable through the faceting process were all foreign to me prior to this course. Taking a look at each of these different factors and determining the safety of the snowpack was a huge takeaway from this course - when in doubt, take a step back and look at the whole picture.
Mount Washington is considered an arctic-maritime climate due to the proximity to the Atlantic Ocean, mainly the Gulf of Maine, and the wind and weather patterns coming across the plains of Quebec. If you don't know about Mount Washington's weather, they're an anomaly for the East Coast. 60-70 mph winds are common, upslope snow fall, and persistent freezing fog and cloud cover are all frequent, and occur year round. One neat result is that these conditions lead to a layer of thick rime ice that builds up on the weather station each winter, it almost looks like another planet (find them on Instagram: @mwacenter). This is just a glimpse into the climate we welcome to access some of the best terrain the East Coast has to offer.
Day 2 took us up to the base of Hillman's Highway to do some practice with avalanche rescues. On the trek up, we learned about some informal snowpack testing to do all throughout our trips to the backcountry. Visual observation, probing the snow with your pole, and studying the wind on the way up to your objective.
The weather was the typical Mount Washington micro-climate. Temps in the single digits, winds in the 60 mph range making the wind chill some -20 degrees, cloud cover for low visibility, and snow showers throughout the day, which primarily peppered our faces as we climbed above 3500ft elevation.
Practicing avalanche rescues for a full burial is a stressful activity, even when it's only a backpack with a beacon in it buried some 30cm under the snow. Probing for the victim can take much longer than expected, and not getting a solid probe strike is incredibly unsettling. Learned that patience and staying calm are two key factors in a successful rescue attempt.
Base of Hillman's Highway near the first aid cache
On day 3, my group headed to the Gulf of Slides, a zone I had never been to prior to this course. The report issued a moderate rating that morning and stated that the snow was gaining stability, but may still be unstable in some areas, a common statement for that rating. Weather was surprisingly clear and calm through the morning on the skin up, very rare for the micro-climate around Mount Washington. Clouds started to roll in as we started our final approach in to the runout of Gully #1.
View of the southern ridge of the Gulf of Slides from the skin track near Gully #3
We stopped just below the runout of Gully #1 to practice digging snow pits to test the snow pack. Snow started falling as we dug a rather large snow pit, revealing small trees and some rocks that had been covered by early season storms. Running our tests we gathered the following results: ECTP, 50 cm, RP, FC on our extended column test (our compression test yielded similar results). This outcome was not what our guide suspected, he had a sudden "woah" when the slab displayed propagation. A clear no-go to go hike up the Gully and ski down from the now clouded, flat light, region of the mountain.
We did hike up a little farther to check out the runout more closely, studying a debris field from an avalanche that occurred earlier in the season. Our guide mentioned that this area will be covered in 6+ feet of snow in the coming weeks as more snow fall comes through and more avalanches occur, making where we dug our snow pit directly in the path of future torrents of snow.
Looking up from the base of the runout of Gully #1
We skied down from where we dug our snow pit, a much better option than putting ourselves in what could have been a risky situation. The photo above shows the cloud cover in Gully #1. The ski down was primarily hard pack, but there were some moguls mixed in and some wind buffed snow on the sides which made it really fun.
Snow was falling as we skied down from the Gulf of Slides
Once at the bottom, we found out that there had been a natural avalanche in Tuckerman Ravine earlier that morning, with a 70cm crown at its thickest. The Ravine is just north of the Gulf of Slides and has similar terrain characteristics and would have seen much of the same weather and wind patterns. This reassured us that we made the right decision in not hiking up and skiing down from any higher elevation than we already were.
The AIARE 1 course is a necessity for anybody who wants to go out and explore the backcountry during the winter. With the number of people out there and touring becoming more popular, the skills learned in this course are something that could keep you out of a high risk area or even help you rescue someone who wasn't so prepared.