Outdoors

Are you ready in an avalanche?

LEAVENWORTH -- So you want to ski without lifts, to the backcountry where solitude and untracked powder, and potential avalanches, await?

"When you're looking for good skiing, you're also looking for avalanche terrain," said John Race, a certified mountain guide in Leavenworth.

Most skiers want to ski slopes that are 25 to 40 degrees, and 30- to 45-degree slopes are where most avalanches occur, Race said.

Deciding when to go and which slopes to ski will save your life, Race said, more so than top-shelf gear or the number of beacons your party carries.

Race and his wife Olivia Cussen own Northwest Mountain School, which taught a three-day avalanche course on a recent weekend.

Eight skiers spent a day and a half in the classroom, learning about avalanche types, snow pack and case studies. They practiced rescue technique with beacons, shovels and probes.

"Think of it as run, walk, crawl," instructor Nick Pope told the class, holding up a beacon. "If I don't have a signal, I've got to be running."

Once buried, survivors have about 15 minutes before they suffocate under the snow.

"The beacons are great technology, but that only helps you 50 percent of the time you're not killed by trauma. It's sobering," Pope said after the demonstration. "You have to be as good as you can with these things but this isn't the solution."

He said the best solution is to avoid hazardous slopes in the first place. It's a decision based on observation, snow analysis and careful consideration.

The class skied in the backcountry near Stevens Pass one day recently to practice route selection, observation and snow pack features.

The $275 course was a Level One course certified by The American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education, a nonprofit that built a national, standardized curriculum.

Local clubs and ski resorts also offer free avalanche seminars and classes, from an hour long to a day, as an introduction or refresher to avalanche basics.

"I'm thinking back to the trips I went on last year, and I'm like, 'Oh my gosh I should not have been up there,'" Tina Castellano of Pasco said as she waited for her turn practicing a beacon rescue recently.

Castellano and some friends had ventured out on a nice spring day in California last year when she noticed the snow melting. Her group wanted to keep skiing, so she turned back alone.

"They turned around and followed me and there was an avalanche," Castellano said. "It was fairly small but we would have been right there."

Race said the Northwest Avalanche Center gives a generalized forecast about hazardous conditions in the backcountry, "but once you're out there, you have to make your own decisions about which slopes are safe to ski or safe to be anywhere near," he said. "We're not really teaching people how to forecast avalanches. We're teaching them to select terrain that's appropriate for their skill level and the hazards that exist."

Northwest Mountain School is one of about eight private companies, clubs and ski resorts in north-central Washington that offer avalanche preparedness classes.

Race said 10 years ago there were far fewer avalanche courses. This season, the Northwest Weather and Avalanche Center lists nearly 100 classes between December and March. They started offering the class five years ago.

"I think what's going on is skiing in general is kind of on the decline but back country seems to be on the rise," Race said.

Race said the classes tend to fill up faster in February and March, especially after a major avalanche accident.

"The logical thing to do is to take avalanche classes in January, February, and then you have several months left to go out and practice," Race said.

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