YOU will never be 100 per cent safe in the backcountry. The fact that you can be severely injured or die out there is, ironically, a fact of life. However, you can go to measures to minimise the risks and ensure you are as safe as possible out there. This is especially necessary when skiing, boarding or hiking the back country of avalanche-prone Hokkaido.
I recently went along to a weekend recreational avalanche course with seven other keen students from all over Hokkaido, who were also thirsty for knowledge. The class was led by experienced Furano local and regular visitor to Niseko, Chuck Olbery, alongside Japanese guide, Nori Watanabe – both from guiding company, Hokkaido Powder Guides. Going into the Canadian Avalanche Assocation-recognised class with basically no prior knowledge or experience, the two-day intensive course gave me a comprehensive, practical, entry-level understanding of how to prevent avalanche disasters, and how to minimise the damage or deadliness of an avalanche should it strike. This knowledge was worthwhile, as after all, avalanches are some of the most powerful forces of nature known to man, smothering, deadly and fast as they reach speeds of up to 200km/h.
After a briefing, we were taken out into a snowy field, armed only with a backpack filled with shovels, beacons and probes – objects all foreign to me prior to this course. First of all, we were taught how to operate a beacon by burying several of them in a massive, snow-coated field, and were then asked to track them all down. As we learned, initially nonsensical bleeps and flashes on the dial soon turned to coherent directions. It is harder than it looks, believe me – which is why I wasn’t surprised to hear that it is quite common for many to venture into the back country with a beacon and absolutely no idea of how to work the thing. We were then taught the right way to use a probe, an object which, by its namesake, is used to probe through the snow to locate those trapped within. After lunch, we then took the gondola to the top of Higashiyama, where, armed to the teeth with shovels and snow saws, Chuck and Watanabe san instructed us how to test and assess the snow pack for weaknesses by literally cutting apart the snow and looking at its ‘history’. The different types of snow beneath the surface – a variance of rock-solid ice, powder and sugar-like granules – were fascinating; it was much like peeling back the skin of an onion, or looking at the age rings of an old tree. These were telltale signs of the stability, or instability, of the snow. These snow pack tests were only something I had seen in skiing and snowboarding movies, and I’m glad to now say I know how to perform these tests myself. Later on in the night, in the warm, comforting setting of upper Hirafu’s Après Bar, while nursing a couple of well-deserved Kirins, a movie and presentation fleshed out the technical side of things – mainly focussing on environmental aspects of avalanches. We learned what angle grade and parts of the mountain were avalanche traps, along with what kinds of snow, and even sounds of snow, mean you should basically get the hell out of there. On the preventative side, we also learned how to read the weather forecasts and assess other environmental factors, in order to make a safe and sound decision to head out back, or not. I will never go riding or hiking and look up only to see simply snow and a mountain ever again. I now see so much more.
Today, we put all our newfound knowledge into action. We drove half-an-hour outside Niseko to a mountain called Iwa Annapuri, where our group hiked, then, retracing our tracks, we boarded and skied down in some of the freshest thigh-deep powder I’ve had all season. Besides the hike being a rude shock to the system by way of snow fitness and strength (in parts I was sinking in snow up to my waist – the curse of the large-framed man), this was a practical way of putting into action all we learned the day prior. To close out the course, we were thrown into an avalanche simulation exercise. We were, all of a sudden, a group of people on a mountain struck by an avalanche – the only ones who remained above snow level. An unknown number of victims were stuck below in a snow death trap, and we were the only ones who could get them out. With the snow all messed up and debris everywhere – skis, gloves and poles littered the site – we needed to track down all the beacons that had been cunningly buried beneath more than a metre of powder by our guides. Showing dedication and sacrifice to his craft, Chuck became a human icicle, burying himself in a creek bed in minus-three-degree temperatures. Without time for preparation, our group needed to come up with the best plan of action, then employ all our new knowledge. I’m pleased to say we tracked down the all beacons and, thankfully, Chuck, in close to 10 minutes – considering the situation, a very good time, say our guides. This was proof and affirmation that what we learned actually worked. Plus, we got a nifty little Canadian Avalanche Association certificate for our troubles.
I’m not ignorant enough to make myself believe this course equipped me with all I need to know about snow disaster; quite the contrary, it gave me a thirst to seek more. As they say, the day you think you know everything is they day you stop learning. Follow up courses and more experience in the back country will certainly be on the horizon. But, all in all, this weekend did provide me with the stepping stone I needed, along with affording me a healthy respect for the snow that I never really had until now.
Chuck Olbery’s top tips for avalanche safety
• Have the right equipment – at the very least a beacon, probe and shove – and more importantly, know how to use it.
• In the car park, make sure beacons are transmitting before you head out.
• Have an experienced partner who also knows how to use all of the gear. It is useless and dangerous going out there unless you are with someone who knows how to extricate you from an avalanche.
• Before you head out, check the weather forecast. Know what the snow, wind and rain are doing, and whether these conditions will make stability trends better, worse or the same.
• Check on avalanche conditions at the time by checking avalanche reports posted on gates of the back country, or ask guides, friends or patrol about conditions. Alternately check the regular and accurate internet postings by experienced Niseko local, Akio Shinya, at http://niseko.nadare.info/.
• Make sure someone knows your plans for the day – where you’re going, what you’re doing and when you’re going to be home. Then, call this person and let them know when you arrive home safely.
• Think about the snow pack, weather and terrain. Know what’s dangerous and what are the ‘red lights’ for the snow pack, such as hollow sounds under foot; ‘whoomphing’ noises; cracking around skis, board or snowshoes; and the most obvious, recent avalanches in the area you plan to visit.
• On the terrain side, be aware of cornices and convex slopes and also areas where the snow might build up below you on the mountain, such as gullies.
• Red lights for the weather are 2.5cm per hour or 30cm overnight of snowfall; wind over 15m/s is cause for concern; rain on new snow; and temps at zero or above degrees celsius.
• Travel safely in avalanche-prone terrain. If you’re skiing or riding down in avalanche zones, go one at a time; have one person at the top and one person at the bottom spotting you; don’t have ski poles tied around wrists because they can act as anchors if you are caught.
• If an avalanche does come down around you, know beforehand safe areas to escape or retreat to, such as 45 degrees out of the avalanche’s path; behind a clump of trees; behind or under a rock; or a high point on the slope.
* Hokkaido Powder Guides is holding another avalanche course in January, 2009. For more information, call 0167 225 655 or 080 3492 0433. Alternately, email email@example.com or check www.hokkaidopowderguides.com.
Check out the next fortnight’s edition of Powderlife for survival tips for when you actually get stuck in an avalanche.