Why I’m so glad I took my Level II

I got a D in 7th grade science. How was that possible? All I remember from that year was feeding mice to the class snake, which seems pretty hard to screw up. Snakes love mice. Anyway, beyond that, my career in science was a downward spiral that came to a screeching halt when I somehow passed high school chemistry (actually, “passed” is a loose term because I went to a ski academy & we did not get grades. TG).

Moral of the story, I’m right brained to a fault.  Snow science and avalanche classes have always scared me away because the second someone mentions “diurnal recrystalization” or throws a bunch of numbers and letters together (CT14Q2), I turn back into an angsy 7th grade D-student who JUST WANTS TO GO SKIING.

But… I really like to ski in the backcountry. It’s pretty much my favorite thing to do.  And after living in a small ski town for four years, I’ve become all too familiar with the fatal consequences of one misstep in the mountains. So, I decided to buck up and continue my avalanche education with AAI  (made possible through a JH Babeforce scholarship, yewww!), and I’m so, so glad I did. 

There are some numbers and letters to remember (which, if you’re a normal person who can retain this type of simple information, you already have stored in your brain from level 1).  Alternately, you can do some googling and take a sharpee to the top side of your hand before class starts on the first day, just in case you get called on. I know someone who did the latter. 

And sure, we talked about snow metamorphism and  gasp - diurnal recrystalization, because that stuff is really important. But I found that, overall, Level II is much more about being out in the field and making observations based on what’s going on around you. Which is something that the fat right side of my brain can handle just fine.

I grew up sailing on the coast of Maine (enough with the childhood stories Ilka!), which is where I learned all about avalanches. No, no it is not, but bear with me.

Aside from being the definitive most-beautiful-place-in-the-world, tied with Jackson, Wyoming, the coast of Maine is kind of gnarly. People say that if you can sail there, you can sail anywhere (I challenge those people to sail across Jackson Lake in 16’ boat full of ski gear, but that’s another story). Maine is home to the largest range of tidal elevations on the planet. The rocks on the bottom look somewhat like the Tetons with an occasional crash of surf over the Grand (ie you don’t want to sail into them). The state has more coastline than California, just bunched into a bazillion harbors, peninsulas, and islands. So the wind is prone to bouncing around and changing directions faster than you can say “Ayuh.” 

So, when you’re on the water, you have to be contastly aware of your surroundings and make decisions, especially in a sailboat, based on where the wind is coming from, what the tide is doing, and where those rocks are. When you’re setting the anchor for the night, you better be sure there’s gonna be water under the boat when you wake up.  You also better be sure that the wind’s not going to change directions and leave you “In the lee of  ****ing Portugal!,” as my pops likes to say. 

I have fond memories of waking up every morning to NOAA weather radio (and bacon grease splattering into my bunk next to the galley), and for weeks at a time, knowing exactly when low tide was, and where the wind was coming from. These things were important to me because I had a hit list of favorite harbors based on chocolate milkshake quality, and I wanted to make sure we made it to all of them. They were important to my parents because they wanted to keep us all safe and not “hahhhhd aground” or drifting out to sea because we anchored in the “lee of Portugal.” But also, milkshakes.

The more I learn about traveling in avalanche terrain, the more I compare it to navigating the coast of Maine. In a literal sense, you’re dealing with wind, water, and temperature. Combine the three and you get a characteristically unpredicatable thing called weather.

In a larger sense,  you’re making decisions based on an ongoing, personalized equation that allows you to have a pleasant sail to a safe anchorage / ski good pow without getting ‘lanched. Like my old man, NOAA weather (on my iphone, rather than a lunchbox-sized marine radio) has become a morning companion.

I still have a hitlist, but it’s things I’d like to ski and not chocolate milkshakes.  And, like those coveted milkshake destinations, the conditions have to be right to get there. And that doesn’t always happen. 

I started thinking about this analogy going up Glory with Zahan, who’s a badass instructor/guide (and also a master of analogies). 

Heading up the bootpack with Z, he’s asking questions. How come those trees don’t have snow on them? How come those trees do? What does that say about the wind direction? Does it usually come out of the Northwest? What’s that doing to the snow? Look at the snow’s surface. Where is there surface hoar? Is it too windy for surface hoar? It’s warming up. What aspect is getting the most sun? Was it sunny yesterday? Where is there a crust? Do you think it’s only on this aspect? Do you think this same thing is happening in the park? How about the resort?

Which reminded me of being on a boat as a kid & having my dad ask me a billion questions about the anchorage I wanted to go to & whether or not it was a good choice. I hated it at the time, ‘cause all I wanted was a damn milkshake, but I really appreciate it now. And I’m thakful that I can translate that observation/decision making to something entirely different.

At it’s very core, snow science (and really science in general, right?) is about being curious and making observations. If someone had told me that in 7th grade, I might have slipped by with a C-. 

So, a huge thanks to my instructors Zahan, Christian, & John for spending more time in the snow than in a textbook. To the JHBF that made this course possible for me. And to my dad, for instilling those observation-making skills some twenty years ago on the avalanche-prone coast of Maine. 

I’ve got a lifetime of learning left to do, but man, this is one sweet classroom.