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Are You Avalanche Aware?

Avalanche ClassI’m so excited. It’s snowing.

As I watch the flakes come down, I feel a wave of joy. I want to run and shout, build a snowman, throw a covert snowball, and GO SKIING!

When I was a kid I dreamed of being a downhill ski racer, flying down mountain slopes. I was fearless and strong. Gravity was my best friend.

I chased my ski-racing dreams from North Carolina to the University of Vermont, home of many ski Olympians. But after a few years of over-crowded ski areas, I escaped to the backcountry where I found ice and alpine climbing. That’s when I discovered the pure joys of winter, where I feel the most at home in this world. I finished university six months early (so I could get on to what was really important!), moved into “Camp Subaru” and headed West.

A few weeks later I found myself with my newfound mentor, Lyle Dean.

Lyle and I were on skis approaching Liberty Ridge on Mt. Rainer when a thick fog rolled in and Lyle said, “We need to stop.”

I said, “Why?” We weren’t near our intended camp.

“It’s dangerous to travel in a whiteout.”

Suddenly, there was a loud BOOM—and I was falling.

Everything went white and silent.

I remembered from the avalanche class I’d taken from Rob Newcomb, that I should

SWIM. And, once the snow started to settle I should
MAKE A SPACE FOR YOUR FACE, and
RAISE YOUR OTHER ARM so it might stick out of the snow.

I kicked my skis off, let go of my poles, and swam hard.

Finally, everything stopped. Both Lyle and I ended up OK and on top of the cement-hard snow.

It turns out that we’d been standing on a cornice. The cornice gave way under our weight, and the force of us hitting the slope below started an avalanche.

They say that failure offers an enormous opportunity for learning and that good judgment comes from surviving mistakes. While that may be true (as long as you get back in one piece!), I’ve learned many things from mentors, partners and the courses and classes I’ve taken over the years.

So, I want you to do two things:

1) Click the link (Know Before You Go), watch the video, and share with all your backcountry partners
2) Take an avalanche course

Take a Chicks Avalanche course!

Chicks and the Silverton Avalanche School have partnered to create all-women’s avalanche courses taught by the most bad-ass, knowledgeable and expert women in the industry.

In December 2018, despite no snow, the partnership launched with three super successful one-day Avalanche Rescue Courses. Check out Angela’s trip report Can You Dig | Chicks Joins Force with Silverton Avalanche School to find out more and how in the heck you practice Avalanche Rescue with NO SNOW?

Also, Chicks is offering an AIARE Recreational Level 2 course.

If you want to spend a day learning backcountry ski skills or making the transition from downhill to backcountry, join us on our Intro to Backcountry Skiing Skills course.

If you want to combine turns with avalanche education while staying in a ski hut (so much fun!), we would love to have you on our Intro to Backcountry Skiing and Riding Hut Clinic.

Hope to see you soon—and look out for snowballs!

Chicks Tech Tip: Avalanche Transceiver Check

Avalanche TransceiverWinter is just around the corner and we’ll be skinning for the goods not soon enough.  If you are relatively new to the backcountry, are you familiar with what we consider standard maintenance and safety checks for your highly technical avalanche transceiver?  These life-saving devices are critical equipment for every backcountry day and need thorough inspection pre-season, every year.

One of the most often overlooked details that lead to transceiver failure is leaving the batteries in the device over the long summer season or for extended periods without use. More often than not this leads to corrosion on the terminals and WILL cause malfunction.  When you remove the batteries make sure the casing and terminals are clean and dry.  Below is a list of suggested maintenance checks to keep your avalanche transceiver up to the task of its job.

  1. Inspect the battery terminals carefully. If there is any sign of corrosion, send the device back to the manufacturer for a complete inspection.  Do not touch the terminals with bare fingers but do check with gloves that the terminals are not loose.
  1. Use high quality alkaline batteries. Never use rechargeable batteries. Some devices will work with lithium batteries if set to do so but unless you are going into extreme cold environments, it is recommended to stick to alkaline batteries. You will get about 200 hours of use with fresh alkaline batteries. A daily battery check is the first thing you do when you turn your device on and if yours indicates they are 40-50% or less, replace them or follow the manufacturer’s recommendation.  Carrying a spare set in your pack is good insurance and often you’ll end up giving them to a partner to use.  Don’t mix brands and always renew all of the batteries at the same.
  1. Follow the manufacturer’s suggestions for inspections, life-span and use. This varies considerably.  Mammut recommends sending their Pulse in for a factory inspection every three years and their Opto 3000 every two, with regular practice sessions to check for any erratic behavior.  BCA recommends thorough and regular inspection but does not specifically recommend sending it in for checks.  Knowing what the recommendation is from the manufacturer of your beacon is important and following it could save a life. Be sure to check the harness system and casing of the device for any problems.
  1. This is all over the board with many manufacturers not specifying a lifespan for their device, to others such as Pieps recommending that 10 years is the maximum lifespan. Again, follow the manufacturer’s recommendation and retire any beacon that is malfunctioning or displaying erratic behavior.  Retire it as a practice beacon and practice regularly.
  1. Check the transceiver’s signal acquisition and transmit function and range. The manufacturer of your device has recommendations on how to do this and there are many good resources online.
  2. Check all the device’s display and buttons to insure they work correctly.

All of these checks should be done at the beginning of every season before your first day out and if there is any question about a device’s integrity, consult the manufacturer right away.  You may need to replace your device, which is a small investment in longevity.

Be sure to guard your device against impacts and drops.  The antennas are fragile.  If burying it for practice, it’s a good idea to protect it in a pack with tupperware or something that a shovel won’t damage.

For more information and a few additional tips, go to the link below for an interview I did with Women’s Adventure Magazine on this topic two years ago.

Have fun getting your winter kit together and stay tuned for more tech tips from Chicks Climbing and Skiing!