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The Sky Is Falling!

The importance of avalanche education

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Pop quiz: You're in the mountains, snowshoeing in quiet state lands with your friends. Suddenly you hear a gurgling, feel some tremors and a cloud of snowpack comes plummeting from above. Is it an earthquake? No, it's an avalanche. What do you do?

One thing is learn from the experts before you go out into avalanche terrain. According to the Idaho State Parks and Recreation Department (ISPRD), to reduce the risk of encountering an avalanche, do some reading on avalanche basics, check out videos on avalanche safety and take an avalanche safety course.

Fortunately, since we are in a mountainous region, the library has a hearty selection of avalanche information. And now that it's avalanche season, several agencies are offering avalanche awareness classes.

Sawtooth Mountain Guides, a year-round mountain guide service based in Stanley, offers two different levels of avalanche classes during the winter season. The Level I Backcountry Skier and Snowboarder Avalanche Safety Course is designed to provide backcountry enthusiasts with practical techniques to practice stay safe backcountry.

The three-day class meets at the Stanley Ranger Station in December and January for three separate classes. Each class covers topics such as mountain weather history, observations of the early winter snowpack and avalanche activity, effect of elevation and slope aspect and the proper use of an Avalanche Transceiver.

Level II Tour Leadership and Avalanche Hazard is a more technical four-day course designed for aspiring guides, outdoor leaders or backcountry skiers and climbers who want a more comprehensive lesson in high-mountain terrain with avalanche hazard.

This course meets just once, in February, and covers the use and types of transceivers, search patterns for avalanche rescue response, mountain snowpack and weather events in the Sawtooths, daily avalanche forecasting, decision-making and risk assessment, ski guiding and avalanche hazard versus tour objectives.

All the SMG avalanche courses, by the way, are designed in accordance with guidelines established by the American Avalanche Association, an official group of professionals involved in the study, forecast, control and mitigation of snow avalanches.

These SMG courses aren't cheap: Level I is $395 (it includes instruction, lodging, food and course materials) and Level II is $475 (which gets you instruction, lodging, materials and a course completion card).

Of course, not all of us are leaders; some of us are content to make our way through the woods like lemmings (just hoping the leaders aren't cliff jumpers). And, for those who like to travel the backcountry by way of snowmobile, the ISPRD offers free indoor and outdoor class through January for them.

The classes, held at different locations all over southern Idaho, will cover all the avalanche fundamentals plus necessary trip-planning and safe-travel techniques. The instructors discuss the basics of hazard recognition, snow stability analysis, risk analysis and risk mitigation procedures and individual and small group self-rescue.

According to the ISPRD, avalanches are the No. 1 cause of snowmobile fatalities in the West. And because snowmobiling is such a popular pastime in the area, this class is very popular.

In fact, the ISPRD's program is a two-part series; the first session is a classroom discussion for all the technical stuff--and it's a prerequisite for the field session, which is one full day of outdoor work. Dress warmly.

Because these free classes are snowmobile-centric, participants have to bring a snowmobile to the field class--plus a shovel, beacon, probe and a lunch.

There are other local agencies providing classes around the state, and for backcountry enthusiasts, it's a pretty good plan to get your avalanche knowledge in check. Last season there were three avalanches in Idaho, and this year with el Nino kicking it to us in the teeth this season looks to be quite unpredictable.

In the meantime, if you must hit those snow-capped mountains for a little outdoor adventuring before you take an avalanche class, keep these avalanche awareness notes in mind:

Identify avalanche terrain, because the slides tend to run the same routes--most often on slopes 30-45 degrees; travel smart, which means that only one person should go on the slope, and not in the middle of it, or just stay on shallow slopes, and never ride solo; bring rescue gear just in case, which includes a shovel, probe and rescue beacon; and if you see someone get caught in an avalanche, go to the spot where you last saw him or her and search downhill for surface clues.

SMG Level I classes: December 8-10, 2006; January 5-7, 2007; January 12-14, 2007. Level II class: February 1-4, 2007. For more info, call (208) 774-3324. For info on the Idaho Parks and Rec classes in southern Idaho, call (208) 334-4199. Visit www.americanavalancheassociation.org and http://sawtoothguides.com for more information on avalanche education guidelines.