Where life used to revolve solely around climbing, if you’ve been around awhile you know that I’ve diversified. Saturday marked the start of my fourth season of trying to learn how to ski — a task I wouldn’t highly recommend taking on in your 30s, but in some ways, I wouldn’t trade it. Trying to learn to ski as a grown up has been humbling, and after years of lessons with various instructors, it’s also reminded me that learning new things is hard, which I try to remember when I’m the one doing the teaching, in other areas of my life.
The whole reason I started skiing was to get into the backcountry. I found as a mountaineer that my lack of comfort on snow (read: snow terrifies me) was a liability — I moved slower, and less efficiently than my climbing partners because I wasn’t comfortable with the way snow naturally moves. I fought to keep my grip with every step, burning up precious calories. I thought that learning to ski would help me build comfort with the natural movement of snow under my feet (or boots, or skis), which would help my mountaineering. Plus, the idea of swishing my way up a slope in solitude, away from the crowded slopes of a ski area, is a frequent daydream. My daydreams, however, never actually involve the coming down part. In reality, when it comes to the coming down part, my true nature — my climber nature — comes out. When I’m standing at the top of a slope, looking down, my ski partners cheering the powder and the angle of the terrain, all I can think is “where’s my ice axe, crampons and how do I get traction?”
I haven’t yet developed a skier brain. Maybe this season.
In preparation for another season of trying to develop a skier brain, I signed up for last week’s Pro Guiding AIARE Level 1 Avalanche Course. I’ve been trying to get into a course for the last couple of years, and for various reasons have had to postpone, which has meant — for me, and my risk assessment — staying out of the backcountry and sidecountry and sticking to the groomed runs. This year, we’re headed up to the Methow for a hut trip in January, and my rule before we go was to complete an Avy Level 1. So, we signed up for the first weekend in December then prayed for snow.
And maybe we shouldn’t have prayed so hard.
The classroom sessions were okay — it’s tough to stay engaged in a classroom session from 5 to 8:30 pm on a Monday and Wednesday, but our instructors did a good job of keeping the lecture nights interesting, sprinkled with case studies and real-life experiences as well as drilling some of the textbook basics of planning and preparation for a day in avalanche terrain, decision-making, and companion rescue. Then, Saturday morning I scrambled eggs to go, packed up thermoses of tea and soup for lunch, and we headed up to Alpental for the on-snow portion of the training. We spent two full days on snow — Saturday practicing beacon and probe searching, then doing a short tour to practice digging pits and looking at snow conditions; and Sunday doing a tour to practice our field observation skills, practice evaluating terrain and spotting terrain traps, and working our way through a rescue scenario.Dave and Erin, during the test pit portion of our training on Saturday at Alpental.
The on-snow days were challenging considering my skiing ability (or lack thereof) and the conditions (lots, and lots, and lots of snow). Saturday was — humbling — to say the least, but guide Erin Smart was amazing. She helped me get down the hill in one piece, and was above and beyond encouraging and supportive. I could have written off skiing as “not my thing” after that particular run, and instead, I’m looking forward to scheduling a private lesson with Erin, to try to overcome some of the challenges I’m still having when it comes to deep snow.
I was able to opt to snowshoe on Sunday, so that I could finish the course without being in over my head on the skiing for day two, which was great — although not nearly as easy as I expected, being a novice snowshoer. We toured up to Source Lake and near Snow Lake Divide, and the snowshoeing was strenuous but beautiful and peaceful, and the two of us on snowshoes weren’t that far behind our skiing classmates until the steep downhills. Turns out, descending deep snow on snowshoes is more strenuous even than falling downhill on skis — but thanks to patient guides and travel buddies, and Louise, the 20-year veteran snowshoer in our party who coached me on the way down the tougher terrain and kept me company on the hike out, the day was completely worthwhile.
I expected after the training to be afraid to even set foot in the mountains, for fear of the difficulty of partner rescue, and the increased knowledge of the risks involved.
And I was completely wrong.Why I can’t seem to give up on learning how to ski, even when it’s frustrating. I love seeing views like this.
Instead, I’m completely jonesing to put trips together, reading the NWAC weather and avy forecasts daily, ordering topo maps for the places I’d like to visit this winter, and looking at the calendar to figure out when I can take a few ski lessons to get my skills up to start the season. The training did not give me a false sense of confidence — I know, firmly, that I’m a novice who needs practice, and who will be choosing my tours conservatively to avoid avalanche risk. But what it did give me is an ability to read a map, read the avalanche and weather forecasts effectively, and look at aspects, elevations, and possible tour options in the safety of my own warm cozy living room, so that I can make tentative plans that suit my skiing ability and the conditions myself. And then, I can get excited about those plans, because I made them myself, and then, when I get to the parking lot, I’ll look up and know what to observe to choose which option is the best choice for that particular day, instead of always just getting to the parking lot, looking up, feeling unprepared, and deciding to buy a lift ticket instead.
A huge thank you to Chris Simmons, Erin Smart, Dave Jordan, Solveig Waterfall and Matt – you were all very effective instructors, and did a great job of meeting a large group of students where we each were. In large groups sometimes I can feel a bit “left behind” because I’m (it’s true) slow, and I didn’t feel that way at all with this class even though my skiing and snowshoeing ability wasn’t quite up to par for the touring we actually did.
On Sunday, partway up the trail, I pulled off the trail to let a faster-moving group of ski tourers by, and a gentleman in the group asked if I was with the Pro Guiding Avy class. I answered yes, and he smiled and said “Thank you.” I guessed that the smiling man was Martin Volken, the owner of Pro Guiding, who nearly all of my skier friends — including some nowhere near the Pacific Northwest — steered me toward when I asked for suggestions of AIARE courses around Seattle. Thank YOU, Martin, for assembling such a great team of guides, and for providing this service to our community.
If you play in avalanche terrain, I’d highly recommend this course. Play safe, out there.