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A practice scenario with recovering beacons.Darryl Leniuk

Avalanche survival course


Learn the basics of backcountry travel and how to avoid and survive an avalanche.


Each winter, deadly avalanches involving skiers and snowmobilers make headlines. To the layperson, it appears that the backcountry is an imminently perilous place; only the foolhardy are venture there. While there is always a risk trekking in steep snowy mountains, it can be greatly reduced and managed with the right training and equipment.

The number of people seeking avalanche-safety training has shot up 80 per cent in the past five years. A 2½-day AST 1 course combines classroom theory with mountaintop practice. You'll learn how avalanches form, how to interpret bulletins and how to test the stability of the snowpack. Emphasis is on route planning and recognizing dangerous terrain features such as convex rolls, gullies and wind-loaded slopes.

You'll also learn what to do you do if you're caught in an avalanche. Hint: You'll never outrun it. An avalanche can move at more than double the speed of the fastest Olympic skier. Your best hope is your companions, and their skill using a transceiver, probe and shovel. Timing is everything. The goal is to get the victim out in less than 15 minutes, when chances of survival are highest.

With an AST 1 course under your belt, you can go beyond the ski-area boundaries with other experienced skiers. Rent alpine touring skis and, if at Whistler, buy a backcountry ski pass (for about half the cost of a normal lift ticket) for a single ride to the top of either mountain and enter a serenely beautiful alpine world. In March and April, conditions are prime for the Spearhead Traverse, a popular four-day, 34-kilometre tour from the top of Blackcomb Mountain to the summit of Whistler, by way of the Spearhead and Fitzsimmons Ranges, across 13 glaciers and a handful of mountain passes all in the high alpine. You may never want to ski in-bounds again.


Skiers, snowboarders, snowshoers and sledders who venture into the backcountry. If you need another reason to take this course, go to the video-sharing website and do a search for "avalanche skier helmet cam."

The AST 1 course costs $220 with Whistler Alpine Guides Bureau ( Find various course providers across Canada and up-to-date avalanche bulletins at, the Canadian Avalanche Centre website.

Special to The Globe and Mail