Guest Blog: Sylvia – 10 Things I learned in my AAI Level II Class

February 23, 2017

Read about Sylvia’s AAI Level II Class by clicking here

My class consisted of three half-classroom, half-Teton Pass days and a full day tour at Breccia Peak on Togwotee Pass. I am so grateful that Jackson Hole Babe Force and the American Avalanche Institute helped me take this step toward becoming a leader in the backcountry. Here are ten things I will take with me:


We looked back at weather and past avalanche observations for the season and made inferences about potential problems in the snow. We were able to establish a mindset about “open” terrain before we even stepped out of the car, and then supported our hypothesis with observations from the field.

Trip planning

In class, we determined whether hypothetical camping or evacuation locations fell within avalanche runout zones.  After reading a read a case study, we each researched and planned a Togwotee route reasonable for the avalanche conditions, then had a pre-tour “guides meeting” to discuss.

Setting skin tracks

While an aggressive track with repeated kick turns may make some folks feel especially macho, it is not the most efficient way to ascend a slope, no matter your fitness level. A mellower track that switches back on flatter benches or near trees helps everyone glide along smoothly and quickly, especially in larger groups. The rounded turns even become less icy. If your risers are at their highest level, then your track is too steep.


I have led groups in backpacking, hiking, and cross-country ski situations, but I learned a lot by taking on a leadership role within a group backcountry skiers. I had to steer the group down from Breccia Peak, and I struggled to find the most precise and clear explanations for our intended course. Buddy skiing in safe terrain, asking followers not to ski below my tracks, and picking common landmarks from our ascent as meeting locations worked well on our tours.

Speedy Pits

The instructors emphasized that digging a test pit should be quick and efficient, something you can do before skiing a slope and not worry about losing any time. Our first test pits took us nearly an hour. Toward the end of the full-day tour at Togwotee, my partner and I took just over ten minutes to finish digging, testing, and filling it in.

Talking about the tests

Togwotee had been chosen thanks to its thinner, less stable snowpack, and we were not disappointed. We dug several test pits in shallow areas and found moderate to high strength snow with low friction, poor structure, and propagation on several different weak layers. Our instructor challenged us to think and converse about the meaning of the extended compression and propagation saw tests, rather than the individual test scores.

Multiple burials

We practiced locating and digging out three buried beacons. Multiple burials take more finesse and attention to detail on our beacon, but my group managed to excavate all three of our “victims” in six minutes!

Reading your surroundings

The Togwotee Pass day dawned clear, cold, and windy. Gusts whipped snow off roadside drifts as we drove to the trailhead. Even in the thickly treed area around our skin track, the wind carved wave-like patterns on the surface of the snow. Our instructor pointed out these clues, as well as several fresh crowns, as signs of building wind slabs. He stressed that minute changes in the environment can hint to potential avalanche problems. This way of looking at the natural world feels familiar to me thanks to my background in ecology, which was my focus in college; small details point to larger, landscape-wide stories and patterns.

Snow mechanics

We discussed the details of near surface faceting; storm cycles that can produce wet slabs, snow creep, and the mystery of propagation. Although I remembered some of this from my own research or my Level 1, I learned so much about the mechanics of a snowpack.

Fellow students

I loved hanging out with and learning from my fellow students, including Ilka Hadlock, another Jackson Hole Babe Force scholarship recipient. Their goals and experiences inspired me.