I have been back in Chamonix for about 10 days now and it has snowed almost every day. Outstanding powder skiing and outstanding opportunity for avalanche activity- full depth slabs have been visible at moderate altitudes in numerous aspects. This is common in the spring when warm temperatures cause water under the snowpack to lubricate the undersurface and whoooph down it comes in a oner. But what was going on here with consistent subzero temperatures? (-16C in the valley on Wednesday morning). I had always planned to refresh and update my skills and when Jim Blyth organised Jeff Banks to run a Guides Avalanche Training 3 day course I jumped at the opportunity. http://www.jeffbanksmountainguide.com/jeff_banks_guide/Home.html

Jeff is a very modest and likeable IFMGA Guide from the US. Somewhat soberingly he reckons with his 17 years experience he is only just good enough to safely get around the hills in the winter. Remember the avalanche doesn’t know you are an expert- sobering reminders on Manaslu and Mt Maudit make this all too obvious.. Jeff has worked all his adult life in avalanche forecasting and teaching in Crested Butte and here in Cham. He is one of the key players in AIARE (American Institute for Research and Avalanche Education) and our course was a mixture of aspects of the AIARE Levels 1, 2 and 3 courses. There were also with guide-specific subjects eg how to teach your clients to have a basic handle on transceiver use in 15 mins- not really that long and might be in your interests to make that time available.

The AIARE Level 1 course is a stand-alone course synthesizing a huge amount of information into a digestible package, open to anyone. Level 2 is a progression and concentrates on the snow science/snowpack evalution and level 3 is the highest professional standard aimed at avalanche forcasters, guides and ski patrollers.  I had No chance of going to sleep in the morning classroom sessions- it was b@llock freezing in there and there were plenty of “Oh no I know what’s going to happen next…” type avy video clips to keep you stimulated. He illustrated the aspect of the problem that human factors are predominant in 90% of avalanche “accidents”, ie only 10% were truly unpredictable. We are all susceptible to numerous influences that we might not like to always consciously acknowledge. Critical awareness of this is a big step in the right direction.

With a ton of new snow it was very informative looking at the snowpack on the hill on the second day, looking at quick and simple methods with ski, pole and probes as well as other methods such as hand shear testing and shovel compression tests. It was a great relief that in the 10 years since my BMG avalanche course in la Grave things appeared to have got a lot slicker and more pragmatic in on-the-hoof snowpack evaluation- not Rutschblocks were dug- yippee! I had also done an AIARE level 1 course in 2005 and the course material was very different this time- a work in evolution.

I don’t think AIARE offers any specific hard information that is significantly different to other things that are out there. But where it wins hand down is in having a simple system that has been worked out from numerous professionals over many years, to give you, as they call it, a Decision Making Framework. A super-practical small field book on waterproof paper has all in the pertinent information and can be carried anywhere. Jeff pointed out that, American and cheesy though it may appear, having a formal checklist does prevent things being forgotten. Pilots do it, Operating Theatres do it, why shouldn’t we do it before putting others (and ourselves) into a potentially dangerous environment? The other parallel I noticed was to a system I and most hospital doctors involved in the resuscitation of trauma patients use- ATLS (Advanced Trauma Life Support). ATLS is now the gold standard management system for trauma patients across initially USA and now UK. It has its flaws but its simplicity and structure allows everyone to speak the same language in a stressful environment. I predict AIARE will become the same gold standard system in the avalanche world.

The third day of the course was a full day ski touring- prep using the DMF the night before not only ensured we picked a safe objective but also that we found amazing powder. Plenty of pragmatic discussions, slope evaluations, route selection and wise travel techniques made for a fun day. We even felt the need to spice it up with a bit of combat skiing- lets face it perfect white smoke powder is a bit easy even if it is delicious. Oh- and my question was answered- the full depth slides were occurring because the heavy snow had fallen on ground that hadn’t had the opportunity to freeze first. This was confirmed by finding snow you could easily compress into a snowball at ground level, despite air temps being significantly sub-zero.

The Chamonix mentality for terrain travel on the snow, it appears, is truly out of kilter with that of the rest of the Western world- people just don’t instantly leap onto slopes like Glacier Rond with 40cm of fresh snow elsewhere. Sure- skier compaction is a part of it, but if that is your modus operandi there’s trouble ahead. It is the human factors coming in- it must be OK- “everyone is doing it”. I have come away from this course with as many questions as before but different ones. I also sense partly disappointment at the lack of concrete answers but partly contentment that I now have a system I can use to guide me through this highly complicated world that is avalanche. Will I be safer for this experience? Impossible to prove but I believe so.

So many things are uncertain in this subject- so often Jeffs answer appeared to be “it depends” which is the sign of a reflective master with his subject material. Yes it asks more questions but when you stop asking questions the alarm bells should start ringing. One thing he was absolutely clear on was to buy quality kit- if your shovel is plastic, your probe held together with nylon string or less than 2.5m, your transceiver less than 3 antenna then bin them- DON’T give them to your mates- who are they looking for?! Oh and if your rucksack isn’t pressured to 300 bar you are failing to recognise that you too are human or that some avalanches are utterly unpredictable. Would you take your 300 bar rucksack on a multiday tour, Jeff? It depends..

Happy skiing!