Avalanche Safety Training (AST) Level 2

March 30 – April 2, 2022

After taking several AST1 courses, and spending more time backcountry skiing, I decided it was finally time for me to take the plunge and take an AST2 course.

These courses are demanding, both mentally and physically. The mountain guides who teach these courses want to ensure you have all the information to make informed decisions about winter traveling. It’s a lot of pressure for the guides, and a lot to take in for the participants.

Avalanche slide paths everywhere. Would you know how to manage this terrain? If not, an AST2 course is ideal.

ACMG Paddy Jerome, Canadian Rockies Mountain Guides

I first met Paddy Jerome last summer at an Alpine Club of Canada General Mountaineering Camp. By luck, I was able to climb with Paddy three times, but I was only on his rope once. I quickly learned that he was not only the Lead Guide for the camp, but was also an examiner for the Association of Canadian Mountain Guides. He knows his stuff, and I watched him grill both amateur leaders and guide candidates over the course of the week. While working his butt off all week, Paddy kept a smile on his face and entertained endless questions from the guests.

I also went on two via ferrata trips with Paddy. I brought along several friends who had never been mountain climbing before, and Paddy was great with them all. Patient, kind and funny.

When I found out Paddy was teaching several avalanche safety courses, I was in!

Course Length and Format

If you want to take an AST1 or 2 course, I would highly recommend Paddy from personal experience and his extensive training. However, I also recommend his courses because of the low student to guide ratio. His AST2 course was 6:1. Some AST2 courses are as big as 12:1. If you want individual attention and accountability to the instructor, go with Paddy.

Paddy also does four field days, which is uncommon. Most AST2 courses are one day of classroom, followed by three days of field travel. The classroom section is split up over four evenings. This helps break down the material into bite sized chunks, making it easier to grasp the technical details and gives specific things to work on in the field the next day.

AST2 Course – Day One

We did the first classroom section the night before on zoom, and then we met Paddy in Canmore. He chose to teach the class in early spring conditions, because the weather and avalanche conditions would be tricky and would require some work on the part of the students to plan appropriate objectives, and then execute them safely.

This was my first major route finding challenge. Heavy timber on the right, with a slide path beside it. This is the slope that required the crampons.

We started in Kananaskis Country, and I volunteered to lead this day as it was an area I was very familiar with (although we did go placed I’d never been before). I will be honest – I never lead in backcountry skiing. My husband Mike has been skiing since a young kid, and trained with ACMG Guide Ferdl Taxbock for five years before he passed. He’s great at breaking trail and putting up a nice line. Why should I do it when he’s so good at it? Well, I really need to learn, that’s why. I want to do more trips on my own, and how do you get better at something – you do it.

As there was a trail leading in, I really only ‘led’ one slope. Conditions were bulletproof snow crust, and try as I might to stomp down and break through the crust to make a trail for those coming behind, I couldn’t do it. I finally cried Uncle and got out the ski crampons. Ahhh. Much easier.

Lessons learned? Setting an uptrack is way harder than it looks. When following a guide or someone like Mike who’s been doing it for decades, they make it look easy. Getting the angles and turns just right? Lets just say I have a lot of work ahead of me.

There was just one final push to the col, but I let Mike take over and get us the final push to the top.

Skiing down was part fun through a bowl with some honest to goodness fresh snow, and part scary as heck as we held on with our toenails down a tight gully with sunbaked, hard as nails snow.

We skied up to the col on the left, but on the other side. We skied down this side, into unknown territory, another good challenge.

The highlight were the bear tracks coming down from the upper mountain to the treed area below.

Bear footprints. I think it was actually two small cubs coming out of hibernation, and making their way down to the valley below.

AST2 Course – Day Two

Day Two we were joined by young buck Noah. He thought the course was just three days (as per custom) and didn’t drive out to the Rockies from Vancouver in time for the first field day. While very young, Noah has a lot of mountaineering experience already. It was his turn to lead, and boy, the Rockies did not make it easy.

Our first objective – Little Crowfoot – was nixed because of the overly long route to get to the good parts. We then eyed up Mount Jimmy Jr. We picked a possible ascent route, only to find it a no go. We had an alternative way up, but it would have been heinous side hilling on rock hard crust. We skied back to the car, and headed for a third option – Crowfoot Bowl. Lesson learned was to be flexible. If a route is not ideal, it’s okay to back off, turn around, and change your mind.

Paddy and Noah looking at our route, which was not an option. Time for the backup to the backup plan.

Noah lead this trip, and did great. Paddy kept reminding him that this wasn’t an Olympic Event and to be mindful of who was behind him – three people in their fifties! At one point, I was directly behind Noah and was none too happy with his steep ascent angle. I said “pretend your mom is behind you.” That got a chuckle out of Paddy, and surprisingly, it worked on Noah because his angle of attack backed off and was pretty sweet after that.

Mike was leading this section. Prior wet loose debris was avoided. The lesson today was how to evaluate the terrain, and then make route finding decisions based on the hazards.

We had one section of steep and super hard snow crust. Kick turns were getting scary. Options? Ski crampons or boot packing. This is where I absolutely LOVE Paddy. Picking a Guide is a very personal thing. I noticed at the mountaineering camp that Paddy did these wonderful short stride steps across the glacier that made it easy to follow without heaving up a lung. He came through again. Paddy packed up his skis, and put in steps up the side of this slope. His steps were perfectly placed so I could easily follow without getting too winded. Again, these are skills that look easy when done by a master, but are actually difficult to achieve on your own.

Lots to consider for the terrain on the left and right.

Important lessons learned were to always be aware of the terrain, and the avalanche / overhead hazards, and to then plan the route to either avoid those hazards, or to minimize the group exposure time to them.

Young Buck Noah at our high point. We took measurements and noted conditions at this spot.

Near the base, we dug a snow pit and had a Master Class in snow science. It was obvious that Paddy did this a lot, and knew exactly what he was looking for. It was cool to see what got Paddy excited. He found a layer of faceted snow trying to round out about 70 cm down. He did a deep compression test, which I had never seen before.

Paddy in his element. Don’t fret @backcountry YYC, we filled in the hole 🙂

AST2 Course – Day Three

After two field sessions and three teaching sessions, Paddy was expecting a lot more from us. He wanted us to pick a trail that took into consideration all avalanche and overhead hazards, weather, terrain, current and forecasted conditions, group dynamics, etc. He then rejected both routes we selected and suggested Lookout Col.

It was my turn to lead again, and boy, what a mistake. It was easy enough to get to the base of the climb, but once there, I was surprised by the complexity of the terrain. Having only ever led once before in Simple terrain, to try and tackle this Complex terrain was above my pay grade.

Can you see the route? It’s easy to find from back here, but once I got up close and personal, I somehow lost the plot and couldn’t work my way over to the desired location.

I gave it my best shot, but I had issues. A lot of issues. First off was a lack of confidence. Despite leading tons of trips in the summer, I was not used to winter leading, and seeing that terrain was intense. Second, was the pressure I felt from those I was with. While the guys were indeed great, I felt the least qualified to be leading this section. I put a lot of pressure on myself, which didn’t help. Three, I was so nervous that I was close to having a panic attack. My mind just could not calm down enough to see the line I needed to take. In short, I completely lost the plot, and ended up getting us way off course. Paddy had to actually take over and get us out, because the terrain was now idiotically difficult.

Despite having a tough day, Paddy still found a way to make it fun. He never goes anywhere without a can of this mate. I’m now on a mission to get him sponsored by the company 🙂

Lessons learned? For me, I need to work on leading in Simple and Challenging terrain before tackling Complex. I also need to do a better job of Crew Resource Management. I knew I didn’t see the line to take, and asked for help, but should have been more insistent on getting that help. I realize now, looking back, that I was near panic, and wasn’t even able to property articulate my concerns. When you can’t speak properly, that’s a problem.

This photo gives an idea of the size of the terrain up close. Not so easy, especially with the snow conditions.

After Paddy got us out of the shite, and back on track, Noah took over leading. He did a great job of leading, but also of using his excess capacity to help the group. While Paddy was putting in the line, Noah would go behind him and really stomp in the trail. This was important because of a layer of wet, loose snow on top of crust. Without a solid track, we kept sliding down the side of the terrain. A real energy waster.

On our way back, we stopped at the avalanche beacon test site. We ran through several scenarios of one, two, three and then four burials. Paddy was lightening fast as he demonstrated the four person beacon search. Lesson learned? Practice practice practice! You can never do too much beacon practice, especially with multiple burials. Everyone’s transceiver worked a bit different, and getting to know your device can save time and lives.

Alisen doing the fine search. You need to work fast, yet go slow.

AST2 Course – Day Four

After my difficult day, I will admit to feeling terrible. I started out with the group heading to Balu Pass, only to bail. I was not feeling it, and I didn’t want to hold up the group. I would rather that Noah got to the objective than to hold up everyone. It turned out, the terrain this day was fairly straight-forward, straight up to the pass, however, there was intense avalanche paths on either side that needed to be managed.

Heading up to Balu Pass. What a day! Cloudy, wet, snow flurries, white out conditions, and cold. Sometimes, it’s just miserable.
Looking back down the valley from Balu Pass. Looks straight-forward? Not really. This is the site of the tragic school outing that claimed the lives of seven students in 2003.

Funny story – as I was taking off my skins, two Park Wardens skied up to me. The elder was rather gruff, and demanded to know if I was going into the closed areas. I knew we were not in the firing areas for the howitzer avalanche control guns, but his super gruff demeaner really threw me. I said “Uhhmmmm…. I’m here with Paddy Jerome???” The warden immediately smiled, told me to have an amazing day, and happily skied off to meet up with his old friend Paddy.

AST2 Course

This was just a synopsis of our field days, and doesn’t even touch on the intense amount of classroom learning. Truly, a whole lot more happened, both on the field days and in the classroom sessions. In fact, I learned so much, I need to just sit down and process it all. Just doing the advanced trip planning and the constant condition checks takes a lot of work, but is worth it to stay alive touring in avalanche terrain. My goal? To practice what I’ve learned. I’d like to go back to some of the same spots and see how conditions have changed, and what I need to do to adapt my route or choices based on conditions.

Will I take another AST2 course? Absolutely. I took several AST1 courses until I felt I was ready for the next step. I encourage anyone who travels in the mountains in the winter to join me and get yourself trained!

Alisen

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Posted in Adventures, Skiing
10 comments on “Avalanche Safety Training (AST) Level 2
  1. Diana says:

    Sounds really challenging but also a really good thing to know. Taking an avalanche course is on my to-do list as well. Sounds like I have even more to learn than I realized.

    • alisendopf says:

      Oh yes. Even an AST 1 will give you a lot to think about. I’ve taken it several times, and always learn more. Our avalanche forecasters are amazing. They list all the problems in the snowpack, what elevations, and how big a slide could be.

      Not all countries have this level of avalanche forecasting, as well as user generated MIN reports. If it’s not avalable, then doing your own avalanche forecasts is even more important.

  2. Hello there. On a very related subject: Have you seen the mountain-climbing doc called 14 Peaks, on Netflix? It’s very good.

    • alisendopf says:

      Yes! It is very good. Climbing movies are now “mainstream”. I think since Alex Honnold’s Free Solo won at the Oscar’s that climbing movies are seeing more airtime.

      I go to the Banff Film Festival almost every year. It’s a round-up of mountain films but also includes movies that deal with mountain culture, ethics, politics, etc. Anything to do with mountains can be seen. They also have great speakers, like Tommy Caldwell and the like.

  3. Widdershins says:

    I love reading about your passion. 😀

  4. Congrats on taking the next course in Avalanche Safety Training. Paddy sounds like an amazing instructor and that’s great that you knew him from before. The training sounds like tough work and I can see why something like this requires a lot of practice.

  5. How nice. How many levels are there?

    • alisendopf says:

      Great question! For recreational people like me, AST 2 is the highest level. After this, there are several levels that the Ski Guides must achieve, like the CAA (Cananadian Avalanche Associtaion) Operations Level 1 Certificate. Non-professionals can also take this course though.

      My guide Paddy was telling me that Canadian ACMG guides have the highest level of training anywhere in the world. Even full guides from Europe have to upgrade their training here before they can guide in Canada. We have lots of varied and complex terrain, and the advanced training reflects that.

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