Chris Coulter spends his seasons guiding in Silverton, Colorado; Haines, Alaska; and Bariloche, Argentina. It’s a busy program, traveling the world from epic location to epic location, but even for a skilled guide like Coulter, one thing that never takes a backseat is the continuing education required to stay sharp where the avalanche dragons lurk. Coulter recently brushed up on his avy knowledge by retaking a Level 2 AAI course in the Wasatch, and he sent us this gallery of his working guide’s experience splitboarding through the coursework again. —LYA Editor
Images and Captions by Chris Coulter
Top: Trailhead to Grizzly Gulch in Little Cottonwood Canyon, Utah. It was a little bit nostalgic to be taking a class in the same canyon where avalanche forecasting in the West began. In Little CC at Alta, a man named Montgomery Atwater invented many techniques he would later employ to help him have many successful jobs as director of avalanche control. These would include the 1960 Winter Olympics in Squaw Valley, California, and the 1966 Alpine World Ski Championships in Portillo, Chile.
L to R: 1. The class is off to learn more about snow and safe travel in the backcountry. 2. The group ascends a treed ridge, with the town of Alta below. In 1855, the original town of Alta was mostly destroyed by an avalanche. By the 1930s, only one resident—George Watson—remained. He donated much of the land for Alta to the U.S. Forest Service. Watson stipulated that the Forest Service use the land to construct a ski area. In 1935, Alf Engen, a Norwegian skiing legend, was hired to help develop the area, and Alta opened to skiing in 1938. I have a feeling that George Watson would want snowboarders enjoying his vision for a recreational-mountain Alta, even though a longstanding ban keeps them off the slopes for now. 3. The stumps are cut high like this because the miners used the snowpack to transport the logs back down to Alta for construction. The first building in the town of Alta was a sawmill back in 1868—a steam-powered sawmill with attached boarding house.
Top: The group discusses possible route options for the tour home after our first run.
L to R: 1. Stump from a tree that was logged for the town of Alta. We have an impressive world-class team of snow scientists at the Utah Avalanche Center. Bruce Tremper, the director, is an amazing person to be able to learn from. The UAC web site and forecasting are cutting-edge. Those of us who recreate in the Wasatch are lucky to have such an amazing resource. A big thanks to the UAC for the forecasting and educational opportunities that you provide. 2. Dillon, one of our instructors, demonstrates how to prepare an Extended Column Test [ECT]. I really like this test because it helps to identify initiation and propagation propensity. 3. Dillon performs an informal test called burp-the-baby. This test is used to identify shear layers missed by the shovel shear test., such as a buried surface hoar or other weak layers that may have been missed during the shovel shear test.
Top: Oftentimes during an avalanche class, not much is found in the snowpack when looking for weak layers. The week of this class, the pack was active. While we were digging some test pits in the upper-left-hand corner of this photo, a skier-triggered avalanche occurred in the gully of Grizzly Gulch. It’s a terrain trap, so the snow piles up deeper there. A skier was caught in the avalanche and rescued by a third party who witnessed the failure of the snow from across the gully
L to R: 1. As always, I enjoy the company of fellow classmates during avalanche classes. Here are two new friends I made during the course. One is a ski patroller and the other is a backcountry enthusiast. Whether you’re a professional or recreational user, you can learn a lot from classes like this. 2. Crown of a skier-triggered avalanche that took place during our class. We almost had to be the rescue party. But in the Wasatch, there are many hands and eyes all around. 3.Practicing some rescue scenarios.
Top: Digging a quick ECT + snow pit, trying to decide if we should make a skin track in some exposed terrain. This track would have been a more direct way to gain the ridge to get back to Little Cottonwood Canyon (LCC). We did not like the structure of the snow or our test results here and decided to take a more conservative route back to LCC.
L to R: 1.The 40 hours of class were spent inside and outside. I really enjoyed some of the snow crystal photos. And human factor talks. This is a picture of hollow cups, a type of depth hoar that is buried in weak snow. 2. Touring back. We need to gain the ridge in the background to get back to Little Cottonwood Canyon, where we started our tour. Avalanches have recently been occurring. You can see some avalanches on the north-facing aspect in the photo, which presented a great exercise in decision making. 3. With recent avalanche activity and bad snowpack structure in general on the NE through NW facing slopes we needed to use extreme cautionto get back to LCC. We stopped again to assess the snow. It was great to dig six ECTs within 100 feet of each other and to see some examples of spatial variability. We felt good about our test pits here and generally about the stability of the slope. So we were able to gain the ridge and get back to LCC.
Top: Last switchbacks to the ridge of LCC.
L to R 1. I really enjoyed every aspect of this course. The pictures of the snow crystals were amazing. I was far more fascinated by the science side of the class this time around. Jake and Dillon did an amazing job both on and off the mountain with this class. 2. More beautiful snow crystal photos. Here are some near-surface facets that can help improve the skiing. Sometimes you might hear a skier/boarder say that the moisture got pulled out of the snow. In a snow scientist’s mind, that is a process known as near-surface faceting. It’s driven by strong temperature gradients at the surface of the snow. 3. Tools of the trade. Here I am using the shady wall of the pit for temps and hand hardness. Digging in the snow is fun, and interesting. 4. Jake demonstrates his quick snow pit test.
Above: Knowledge is powder! Get some of both, and see you in the hills! Cheers, Chris.
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