Home, home at last. It’s been a long six weeks and three countries’ worth of travel. The theme was mostly “training,” as I was starting my helicopter ski guide training in earnest in Canada. But first, with winter, and my partner’s mother’s birthday, imminent, we hustled to Mexico for a few weeks of family time. Most people go to Mexico to lay on the beach, but we were non-stop. From family get-togethers to learning how to swim in real waves (I’m from ALASKA and my dad is a Coast Guard rescue pilot; I am not a water baby), to climbing at El Diente and riding Mexican show horses at a relative’s unbelievable sugar cane ranch, to paddleboarding [still boring, until I convinced my love to try to tandem paddleboard in the ocean swells of Melaque, which was unsuccessful but hilarious (to me)], we packed six weeks’ worth of activities into that trip alone. And I haven’t even gone into the Lucha Libre and sailing, and the trip to a Mexican ghost town guarded by Federalis.
That’ll have to be another post. Mexico is an incredible country and deserves its own spotlight. What I wanted to get down in pixels today are the surprising things I learned from twenty days of helicopter ski guide training. I don’t mean the obvious things that one would expect to learn in guide school, such as crevasse rescue, guiding techniques, avalanche response and searching, how to run a rescue tobaggan through the trees in the backcountry powder (SUPER fun, probably more fun than it should be), the fact that you are not nearly as good as you think you are when you start training, things like that. I did learn all those things and more, so much more that I now know that I know nothing at all.
I’m a fairly accomplished outdoorswoman, and I feel pretty on par with most of my peers when it comes to things like mountain sense and backcountry trips and skiing. Then I got a new set of peers who all happened to be senior heli skiing guides, and I realized that I’m pretty much a grom. I fumbled at everything, all of a sudden, under the watchful gazes of the best in the industry. They were so much better than me at pretty much everything we did. I felt I’d never be as good as they are. At first this was disheartening but then it was inspiring, as I slowly but surely crammed more information into my big-picture brain and started teaching it how to observe the details as well as the 10,000 foot view, and to get serious about getting better at the skills necessary to get into the ski guiding field. It’s been a while since I was in the presence of people whose command of their field is so truly awesome that their expertise is unquestionable, and, though I’ve very, very far to go, I am determined to be in that echelon someday.
So if you want to be a ski guide, I can tell you all about a tiny fraction of the things you will need to be good at to be successful in that industry. Most of you don’t want to be ski guides, though, but many of you want to live through your backcountry experience. So here is what I learned at helicopter ski guide school that I wanted to pass on to my recreationalist peers:
1. Your avalanche transceiver needs new batteries. Because we practiced many, many beacon searches every single day of training (EVERY SINGLE DAY. Remember that, we’ll come back to it), I skimped on my habit of changing batteries every time the the battery percentage dropped below 90, and let my transceiver battery drop down into the seventy percent range. I was stubbornly convinced that it probably was fine unless we really were going into avalanche terrain. No big deal, it’s working, right? Well, my transceiver search scores were okay (we’ll come back to that, too), well within the allowed time for the standard, but I was dismayed to watch as my times spiraled up and up with practice. Not down, as in getting faster, but up, as in getting slower. One final, horrifying practice before the test, I barely squeaked in under the time allowed, fully three minutes slower than I’d been at the start of the training. I’m not beacon-blaming, really, as there is a lot of human error involved with transceiver searching, but as I was pinpointing on a signal, my beacon abruptly dropped it and indicated a weaker signal 26 meters away. I stood there, literally ON the buried transceiver, and my transceiver couldn’t see it. I was suddenly slow to pinpoint and even a little (and, a few times, a lot) inaccurate. I was despondent, thinking I was a horrible loser who thought myself competent but in fact was a huge failure. One of my instructors, who’d watched many of my more successful searches and then witnessed my near-failure, asked about the battery in my transceiver. “It’s fine,” I said, disgusted with myself and my pitiful performance in front of all my peers, “seventy percent.” The instructor shrugged and said, “put new batteries in. You never know.”
So I put new batteries in and showed up for the final beacon exam with a fresh start. BOOM! Fastest time yet, 6:30 to find four beacons buried 60 cm deep in a 30m by 30m area. Probe strike on the first time, every time. HUGE difference in transceiver (and, ahem, human) performance. No dropped signals, no slow pinpointing. I am convinced. I will never again go in the mountains or even to transceiver practice without my transceiver battery at 90 percent or higher.
2. You’re not as good with your transceiver as you need to be. Remember what I said above? We practiced EVERY SINGLE DAY. I went into this training thinking I was adequate with transceiver searching. I think my first time was around 7:40 or something like that. Not like lightning, but not terrible. Then one of my fellow students put in a blazing time of 5:50. Holy cats. I needed to get faster. If 5:50 was possible, 7:40 was shameful. I ended up getting my times down, but even so, it’s not good enough. We had the advantage in our test of getting our unburied beacons turned off, making it easier to find the rest of the signals. In future tests, this option is taken away, and in the real world, you won’t have that option at all. People will be buried and it will take a long time to unbury them and turn their beacons to search so you can focus on the other signals. You better be able to find the other people while the first beacon is still transmitting away.
Even more horrifying, as individually we got better and better with our transceivers, but discovered that, as a group of seven, we were collectively four times SLOWER clearing an area together than we were clearing it alone. Did you read that closely? A GROUP of well-trained people was slower to find four beacons in an area than one single person doing the same thing. That was chilling beyond belief. Sure, you may end up searching for your friends alone, that’s what we teach people in avalanche companion rescue – you’re the help. It’s all you, baby.
But what if it’s not? What if, now that there’s eleventy billion schmucks out there in the backcountry, tracking up the powder and dropping in on you, you end up searching for your buried friends with thirty other people running around doing the same thing? Go read that last link, right now, and think about the fact that despite the dozens of people “helping” to search and the unusual proximity of an entire mountain rescue team complete with helicopter on the next ridge over (searching for other dead avalanche victims from a slide a few days prior, before several feet of snow obscured the search area in the days before the bluebird day of the Sunburst incident, HELLO people, is that a good time to go skiing??), the buried man was saved by the fact that a highly trained and very skilled rescuer (local avalanche forecaster and beacon badass Matt Murphy) happened to be within striking distance to get the signal, pinpoint and find the buried man within a few minutes of arriving. There is no question in my mind that Matt saved the life of that man by being as good with a transceiver as possible. Without Matt, that man would be DEAD. Even with dozens of people equipped with transceivers looking for him.
You need to get better with your beacon. Practice. Every day. Hard. Practice shoveling and finding deep burials and doing it right. Practice sorting out multiple signals. Time yourself and get better. Practice searching with a bunch of other people doing the same thing. Practice.
3. Having your phone or camera on when you’re in the backcountry could kill your friends and maybe even yourself. I’ll keep this one short, as it’s simple. Phones, even those on airplane mode, interfere with transceiver signals. We saw it time and time again in transceiver search practice. POV cameras, when powered on, interfere with transceiver signals. “I’ll just turn it off if I need to search,” people say. OK, well, when your best friend or spouse has just been swept away by an avalanche and has minutes to live, with only you and your inadequate transceiver skills as a hope, do you really want to add “turn camera off” to the many steps you already have to know to perform the rescue? Turn your electronics off in the backcountry.
3. Everyone makes mistakes, especially with transceivers. A few weeks ago we helicoptered into the Monashees to perform a bunch of training stations, one of which was transceiver searching. We all were in a safe spot so we turned our transceivers off so that we could take turns searching for the buried ones. When I left the station, I skinned to another station, turning my transceiver to transmit as I went. When I got there, another person was doing a transceiver search at that station, and the instructor told me to turn my beacon off again. I did. And I didn’t remember to turn it back on. We then helicoptered up the mountain, did some rope rescue work, and skied back down in the trees, my beacon off the entire time. Sure, I was surrounded by capable people and the snowpack was thin and tree wells weren’t really a serious concern that early in the season, but seriously? *I* skied all day with my transceiver off. Me, the one sitting here preaching to you about transceiver skills. Idiot move. Check yourself. Check your friends – often. DO A TRANSCEIVER CHECK BEFORE YOU SKI. EVERY TIME.
4. If you are serious about the backcountry, you need better clothes. I probably have more gear than 90% of the people reading this article because of all the gear reviewing I’ve done. I thought I had my pick of everything I’d likely ever need to do the job as a ski guide. I showed up to training with what I thought would be more than adequate gear. OK, so the temperature dropped to -29 and I had to borrow another jacket because Alaska Airlines screwed me over and I had to pare down my gear to get to the training in the first place, but even so, over the course of a few weeks’ training I watched the senior guides and realized that my beloved, time-tested stuff was not good enough. My carabiners were old and heavy, my harness didn’t fit well (“oh, it’s good enough,” I’ve thought, all these years) and was too heavy, I didn’t have enough pockets in my pants (dammit, industry, make women’s pants with good pockets already!), I wasn’t warm enough, I wasn’t familiar enough with the pack I had to get my avalanche tools out quickly (thanks TSA for making it a pain in the ass to travel with my usual pack that is much faster to use), none of my ski pants have kneepads, which are mandatory for any hard work in the hills, etc. etc. I had been thinking that maybe I should slow down on the reviews, as there’s nothing new under the sun, really, but I’ve renewed my determination to find women’s gear that works for serious stuff. I’m sort of gear-blaming here, but it’s also, again, human error, as I should have realized that my beloved pair of simple softshell ski pants with no workable pockets would not be adequate for professional work in the mountains. I was lucky to have brought a shell jacket with an interior pocket, which saved my bacon in transceiver searching because I had a pocket to stick the beacon in when I was shoveling (don’t just let it dangle; in the words of one instructor, “one shovel smack and that thing is DONE”), but ultimately I’ll reject that jacket for something more utilitarian. What that is, I don’t know yet. Watch the reviews section.
5. Gear isn’t that important. What? Didn’t I just say that….I know, I know, I just went on about how gear needs to be better. It’s true, it needs to be better. But it’s also true that you can get the job done with what you have. You just have to be GOOD with what you have. So I had old, heavy carabiners that got laughed at a few times for being “well-loved.” I didn’t sport a fancy uber lightweight harness or glittery gold featherweight wire gates. I was still using the same prussiks I’ve had tied to my harness for years (“Cordelette is cheap,” commented on instructor tactfully after running his hands over the overly-fuzzy prussik cord I was using), but I got the job done and hauled my subject (classmate) out of our simulated crevasse after pulling my brain down from its big-picture, 30,000 foot view tendencies and forcing it to learn details with good old fashioned hard work and practice. So I’m gonna go buy some sparkly featherweight biners and new cordelette now, but I used what I had available at the time, which was inadequate, and yet still met with success. If you can’t afford the best and newest, get good at using what you have (as long as it’s safe. Cordelette is cheap, after all).
There you go – my best words of wisdom, the ones I still feel qualified to issue. For most other topics backcountry-related, I’ll defer to the professionals, but sadly they are all out there ski guiding and not blogging. I’ll do my best to be a conduit, but disclaimer: I know nothing.