Three things I learned in Avalanche Rescue Training
The one-day course is packed with valuable, life-saving lessons
Thursday was a snowy day on Meadow Mountain. As my wife, Jess, and I pulled into the parking lot to take our first avalanche rescue course, we experienced a mix of emotions.
We were glad it was snowing, for multiple reasons, but mostly because we wanted an authentic mountain rescue experience where howling winds and reduced visibility added to the challenge.
At the same time, there was nervousness and uncertainty in the air. We didn’t know who would be joining us that day, we worried we might be the ones who slow down the group, and we also individually carried our sense of “couple competition” where our main motivation is to be less embarrassed than our partner.
As we geared up near our Jeep, we were approached by our Avalanche Education Instructor, John Jennings of Apex Mountain School, who made us feel comfortable right off the bat by assuming the first spill of the day, and slipping in the icy parking lot on his ski boots. I don’t know if that’s a trick Jennings applies with every class to lighten the mood, but it sure worked for us. And it helped create a comfortable learning environment for a day where we were going to be learning a lot.
Here are my three main takeaways from the course.
Rescue training and certification courses are two different things
In my humble opinion, there’s no better way to break the ice than asking dumb questions right out of the gate.
“Oh, this is different than the certification course? Did we need that first?”
Luckily, Jennings was quick to reassure us that we would do just fine, and then explained to us the differences. Among other things, avalanche certification classes teach you about noticing hazards, identifying the layers of snowpack, reading slope and really having the awareness necessary to keep you out of dangerous situations … you know, the things you need to know so that you, hopefully, would never have to use the skills practiced in an avalanche rescue course.
The only other student in our course, Jackson Fuller, was fresh out of his avalanche cert 1 class, and was taking this class as a “refresher on skills” and to also hone the things he’s learned through more simulations. An aspiring ski patrolman, Fuller was there for both personal and business reasons. “I’m here to refresh my knowledge, learn more, and hopefully get set for being on ski patrol one day,” Fuller said.
Throughout the course, it was clear that our fellow classmate had the upper hand. We assigned him as the leader on all our simulations, because he clearly knew more than we did. Together we were able to achieve our goals, but Fuller’s knowledge and confidence sure helped our momentum.
There are no shortcuts to learning this stuff
No, you cannot learn avalanche rescue just by watching videos, or just by reading, or even just by taking a course. You have to do all those things, and you have to practice them.
What I found to be most important was the thorough debriefings after every simulation. We had open and honest discussions of what we could have done better to reduce rescue time. In those discussions, we broke down every aspect of our rescue efforts and were able to reflect on our own actions and adjust accordingly.
According to Jennings, even the most confident professionals never neglect the potential to be better.
“This is a perishable skill. Avalanche education and expertise is a lifelong pursuit and progression, and you want to keep learning as you go,” Jennings said.
Not only could the training save your life; it’s really fun
If you want a good physical and mental challenge, this class provides on all levels. Our endurance was put to the test, as was our ability to think clearly while moving fast.
But that doesn’t mean mountain rescue is an adrenaline junkie’s dream job. Avalanche rescue is absolute chaos, with low chances of success. Even in simulations without human victims, our group had to manage stress when we missed a probe, got turned around by competing beacon signals or botched a shoveling rotation. It takes a special kind of person to mitigate the chances of success through repetition and constant learning to be the best they can when the situation arises.
I had respect for mountain rescue personnel before going into the course, but that respect only got deeper throughout every hour. It amazes me that some people choose this as a profession, and it blows my mind how lucky us locals are to have a group of brave and selfless men and women in Vail Mountain Rescue who volunteer to put themselves in perilous positions to bring avalanche victims back home.
In conclusion, this course offers a slew of benefits that you won’t find elsewhere, and you get way more than your money’s worth, even if you don’t have much interest in the backcountry.
“Don’t hesitate to take the course. This is the best thing you can do for you and for your partners,” Jennings said.