Why I Drove 800 miles to Canada for an Avalanche Class

 

My CAA Ops 1 class stops for a photo at the end of a long and rewarding week in BC – Photo: Matt Standal

Two bighorn rams stood peacefully in the icy roadway while semi trucks and Subarus swerved around them.

Welcome to British Columbia in November.

I was driving in third gear down Kootenai pass in a snowstorm, headed to the Monashee Mountains to study snow. A nearby sign read “Avalanche Area, No Stopping.”

I slowed down just enough to snap a photo of the beautiful animals, then hit the gas and high-tailed it out of there. The irony of the situation did not escape me.

I’d started driving the day before, motoring from the frosty Tetons, up through Bozeman, Montana, then back over to Idaho for Thanksgiving. It was the longest distance I’d ever traveled to dig holes in the cold under the supervision of crusty old mountain guides.

The Monashee Range at dawn – Photo: Matt Standal

More specifically, I was signed up for the Canadian Avalanche Operations Level 1 Class. This is not your entry-level safety talk that includes a scary/sobering avalanche video followed by probing for some avalanche beacons stuffed in backpacks near the parking lot.

Rather, it’s a week-long, classroom and field experience designed to teach avalanche science to those who require it for their jobs. My fellow students included young ski patrollers, aspiring backcountry guides, a few professional skiers, and me – the lone outdoor photographer from the USA.

Monashee Powder Snowcats is tucked into a remote valley 2.5 hours from the rural community of Cherryville, BC. To call it a small town is exaggerating things. The only road into the place snakes along a narrow grade that branches off into a few spooky hunting camps and old mining claims.

I met Dave the bus driver at our pickup spot, the local golf course. The place also happened to be the only bar in Cherryville. Here, about two dozen students were busy chucking skis and boot bags into the back of an old yellow school bus with rusty chains on the wheels and “Monashee Powder” painted on the side.

Thor the snowcat motors through the MPS terrain – Photo: Matt Standal

We hit the snow line an hour into the drive. That’s when Dave slammed the bus into reverse for better traction and charged backwards up a muddy, snow-covered hill. Parked at the top were Thor and Freya, the two snowcats waiting to complete our journey into the mountains.

The main spine of the Monashees towers above the cluster of modern buildings that shares its name. At least five heli ski operators fly here. There’s four cat ski lodges, and several backcountry touring huts. Revelstoke Mountain Resort, just 21 miles across the Blanket Glacier, marks the beginning of the next major mountain range, the Selkirks.

Touring through the Monashees in late November – Photo: Matt Standal

It was only November 28, but almost two meters of high-quality, consolidated, British Columbia storm snow had stacked up at the lodge. Whistler pros Matty Richard and Stan Rey had signed up for the same class, and they were chomping at the bit to let loose. Utah ripper Caroline Gleich showed up the next morning to film a segment for Gore-Tex. Armada legend Riley Leboe was there for guide training.

Imagine you had journeyed for 14 hours to the holy grail of Canada’s mechanized skiing, but could only watch as smiling mountain guides unloaded from snowcats after ripping the best early season turns on the planet during “preseason training.” Imagine the pangs of jealousy you might feel.

This was my reality during the first 48 hours of the CAA Ops 1 class.

Instead of skiing, our ragtag band of aspiring snow explorers settled in for hours of scientific lectures combined with constant shoveling and precise weather observations. The idea of recreational pow turns was replaced by the reality of course instructors telling me to shovel faster and better observe my surroundings.

Did I dig my pit in an area representative of the slope I wished to ski? How many distinct layers could I identify in the snowpack? What type of stability tests would be appropriate to perform? How would this form an overall picture of avalanche safety? Was it recorded correctly in my handy-dandy weatherproof notebook?

By week’s end, I had woken every day before dawn to check morning temps and overnight snowfall. I had successfully found two mock avalanche victims in a debris field within 5 minutes at night using a headlamp. I had also dug approximately 15 avalanche test pits and analyzed myriad snowpack layers like I was training for the Siberian special forces.

Most people don’t realize the value of practicing scientific observations until you collapse with exhaustion. I’ll tell you who does realize that – the good folks at the Canadian Avalanche Association.

Digging holes in Canada – Photo: Matt Standal

All jokes aside, if still you’re wondering why I drove to British Columbia to dig holes in perfectly amazing snow, the CAA is the biggest reason. The organization has been around since the 1981, and is regarded as the world’s leading authority on avalanche education.

Likewise, I soon learned our “crusty” CAA instructors were legendary figures in outdoor education. Most had been mountain guides since before I was born. Each could have received an award for being some type of unique wilderness badass.

There was stocky James Blench, who sported a beret and walrus mustache. He was an original founder of the Yamnuska Mountaineering School, Canada’s first professional guide training program that started back in the 1970s.

Course instructor James Blench waits for students to join him on a ski touring exercise – Photo: Matt Standal

There was gruff and rangy Scott Davis, former president of the Association of Canadian Mountain Guides (ACMG). He led ski touring expeditions across the globe, and served as lead guide for the nearby Mustang Powder cat skiing operation.

They were accompanied by Brendan Martland, former lead avalanche forecaster for Sunshine Village ski resort in Banff. Martland is currently a professional avalanche safety consultant and rescue technician who works near Rogers Pass, B.C.

Joining the trio was Ph.D civil engineer Mike Conlan, an academic who traveled across Canada studying the aftermath of deep slab avalanches. His research involved precise identification of the weak layers involved in these avalanches, along with analysis of accompanying weather conditions.

Leading the team of instructors was Rick Schroeder, somewhat reserved, and bushy-bearded. He looked like an old woodsman or a Boy Scout troop leader. I wondered if he made leather handicrafts. Schroeder was a mountain guide who started his career in the late 70s with Canadian Mountain Holidays (CMH), the world’s biggest heli ski operator. He had been skiing in Canada’s high mountains for nearly 40 years.

Course instructor Brendan Martland demonstrates a deep tap test for layer stability greater than 100cm. Photo: Matt Standal

Here’s where you think I’m going to say these giants of men inspired me to levels of greatness beyond my wildest avalanche safety dreams. But, I’m no hero worshiper.

I knew it wasn’t by luck these old farts had managed to avoid disaster while guiding in the backcountry for decades. Hell, some of them even had great stories about surviving major avalanches.

I looked at the sheer amount of time each had spent outdoors, and understood those countless hours cultivated a unique intuition made possible only by experience.

By week’s end, I had come to realize the real value of this course was exposure to the industry, learning the language of snow professionals, and seeing just how the old pros got that way.

At that point, I knew my own personal journey into the mountains had only just begun.

 

The lodge at Monashee Powder Snowcats – Photo: Matt Standal

 

The giant, 4-meter pit dug by our team of students while others went skiing on the last day. Our course leader said we needed the “extra practice” – Photo: Matt Standal

 

Course leader Rick Schroeder conducts a terrain evaluation quiz – Photo: Matt Standal

 

Bighorn rams on Kootenai Pass – Photo: Matt Standal