Instructor and guide Rob Vickers shows the group how to identify weak layers in the snow.
CANMORE, AB – “At no point in time is your objective more important than you.”
These were the words of AST Level 1 instructor Rob Vickers. A veteran of backcountry terrain and safety, Vickers is aware of the potential dangers – he’s had to find buried friends – and knows how close every one of us is to complete and utter devastation when riding, skiing, or sledding in the backcountry.
“The goal at the end of the day is lots of ‘vert’, but ultimately you need to take this course in order to be safe. You want to go out and have a great day; there's so many places in the backcountry to go skiing or boarding or snowshoeing or sledding ¬– whatever your vice is – and the main goal is to have fun, but also to come home at the end of the day.”
Day 2 of the AST Level 1 course is a completely hands-on experience. Where the first day was an eight-hour classroom session, the second involves strapping on a pair of snowshoes and hitting Fortress Mountain (about 30 min. from Nakiska Alpine Resort). It’s there that you’ll experience the practical application of everything you learned in the classroom, from using beacons and probes to planning ascent and descent routes.
“The day starts off with an intro of understanding what it's like to go out for the day. What would you do at home? What do you do in the parking lot? What info do we need to gather?”
Any safe day in the backcountry starts well before you hit the snow. I like to refer to AST Level 1 as a decision-making course, because a lot of what you’re doing on the hill is learning how to make safe, educated decisions about what terrain is negotiable and what terrain will kill you in the blink of an eye.
“Decision-making is really important. Looking at terrain and deciding if it's safe or not safe, managing that terrain so that you don't get in an accident, knowing what’s above you, what's below you, and is it going to kill you? With AST1 we get people thinking about safe zones and hazards, looking at how the layers of snow interact with one another, and how different snow can be from one area to another.”
Although the resort is no longer operational, Fortress is a well-loved space.
Fortress Mountain is a terrific grounds for learning and exploration, as it gives you the opportunity to look at slopes and analyze slopes without actually having to be in those slopes. Its proximity to Calgary is also a huge bonus, as it makes a weekend course like this so much more accessible.
“Make sure you spend the time to research the places you want to visit before you go. Get the avalanche reports, read them, familiarize yourself with the information. Go to the website for the parks, which are always getting more information to help people be aware. Check your gear, organize your group, get to know your group. Don't be afraid to question the people you’re riding with. Communication's huge.”
Navigating the backcountry takes extraordinary self-reliance. If something bad happens and you need to get out of there, help might be two to three hours, or even a day away. A fellow student of ours in the course, a Calgarian sledder named Dale Perry, has had a few scares himself, which prompted him to take the course.
“Some scares put the fear of God in me,” Perry said. “AST1 is definitely worth the time. It never hurts to know too much. You can never know enough about what you're doing. It's good to be informed and everyone you're riding with to be informed as well. It's probably a good thing to refresh your knowledge every few years, as well.
It’s well worth the money and the time spent, for sure.”
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