Monday, January 26, 2015

Soldier Mountain Boot Camp

Without personal photos, I'm hard pressed to share the full scope of agony we newbies endured at Avalanche Training. I thought I could use backcountry skis to get on location. Wrong. Snowshoes were the ticket for anyone not used to 30 degree slopes iced over like Lake Michigan.
Ok. Got it now.
The first night, Friday, we assembled at a country church camp to spread out our winter gear and sleep. We reassessed our heavy 24 hour packs, knowing shovels, snow probes and snow travel gear, along with high tec beacons would add to the weight we must carry up the mountain.
Thank goodness I've been working out. Thighs were burning as we did maneuvers Saturday and Sunday in waist deep snow, post holing at times. I can only blame it on the 30 pounds of food, water and gear that maxed out our systems.

A ten dollar pass on Saturday morning got us a one way lift up to the second mountain. Three learning stations were established. John taught us how to dig out a body, hopefully in time and with enough finesse to prevent fatality. The v shaped conveyor system of extracting thick snow pack was both effective and wet when shovelfuls of snow landed smack in my face as I kept up with the guy in front. We had several opportunities to quickly assemble shovels from sections strapped to our packs. The brand that could convert to both "hoe" and "shovel" was best.
Brad taught us beacon specifics, how to flag a first victim before scurrying on in concentric circles to locate a second. This is when beacons really proved their weight in gold. If a buried victim has a beacon, and has it turned on, the chance of recovery rises dramatically. Bottom line, it's an acceptable expense for back country skiers. Note, you should never ski alone if you're in avalanche country.
Greg taught the third station, which dealt with organized probing of buried victims. We used poles that were ten feet tall and activated from a two foot package with the flip of a wrist. Again, I was impressed by the technology.
The afternoon was spent in scenarios where we buried two canvas bags with beacons, then called on our competitors to find them. The double black diamond ski run was chosen for the descent. 
Exhausted, we returned to the parking lot, either by skiing or walking. Much of the descent I carried my backcountry skis which were way under equipped for such dangerous travel.

The cat track shown here looks benign, but steeply climbs to a ski patrol hut, then onward  to Playland.
Sunday, I tested snowshoes and realized that was the proper gear for that type of work.
Secured footing helped me stay above ground as I held the probe line after two scenarios provided training in both beacons and slow, steady 50 cm. search. After a row of probers followed succinct direction from the Location Commander, my compatriot (stationed twenty yards across the debris field) and I crawled uphill 50 cm. to reposition the line, straight up the steep slope. Much of the time I had to squat and hold firm, realizing if a person was indeed buried, our emotions would be rising. Time is of the essence.
I'm thankful to be on the Idaho Mountain Search and Rescue Unit whose dedicated leaders provide such excellent training. I practiced real time self arrest with my ice ax, not part of the regular programming.
Smiling and bonded, my fellow trainees bid goodbye at the parking lot, heading home for a hot shower and some TLC.

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