Guest Blog: Sylvia’s AAI Level II Class

February 23, 2017

I moved to Jackson in 2012 with an internship and a vague plan of staying for the winter to ski at the resort. Coming from New England, where deep powder is scarce, I had never heard of tech bindings or skins, and avalanches were natural disasters that happened far away. Soon, I heard others talk about backcountry touring and I knew that it would be the side of skiing that I would love best. I decided to learn how. A few patient and more experienced friends took me out during that first winter, and then I took a Level I class in early December the next year. I slowly became more familiar with the Tetons, my own risk tolerance, and the qualities I look for in a partner. I found regular ski buddies, many of them women with whom I shared similar goals. I sometimes even found myself in a leadership role because I knew the area best. Assuming greater responsibility made me want to improve my skills so I applied for the Jackson Hole Babe Force AAI Level II scholarship. The class consisted of three half-classroom, half-Teton Pass days and a full day tour on Togwotee Pass. The first field session focused on rescuing multiple burials. The second saw us digging deep study pits and shallower test pits, learning about crystals, metamorphism, and the applications of different tests. The third day, at Togwotee Pass, dawned clear, cold, and windy. Gusts whipped snow off roadside drifts as we drove to the Breccia Peak 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. Pre-skin, we had a “guides meeting” where we discussed problems within the snowpack and our planned route. We each assumed leadership or the group for a portion of our tour. 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. Members of the group received feedback about setting mellow skin tracks that stay grippy and communication about group spacing and meeting spots. 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. He also timed our study, with our first pits taking nearly an hour to finish and our second around ten minutes. By the end of the four days, I felt more confident in forecasting; I could look at past weather conditions to make judgments about current problems, my snow pits were more efficient and professional, and I had practiced trip planning and group management in the new terrain of Togwotee Pass. I loved learning systems from the instructors; the three that taught the course had wonderfully effective ways of doing things. I also enjoyed learning from my fellow students, including Ilka Hadlock, another Jackson Hole Babe Force scholarship recipient. The forecasting, trip planning, and decision-making skills will definitely be useful for me this season; I am spending my first winter in Missoula, Montana, working on my Master’s degree. I have already started collecting weather data for the season, and I am using it to predict avalanche problems before I ski terrain that is still new to me. 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.