Mountain Passages: Avalanche Training and Millennials

Mountains can teach lessons, even to an old dog. Mountains can also drop huge things on the unaware, test your body in unexpected ways, and give you a taste of humility.

Avalanche Airbag

The Colorado Mountain Club classroom is filled with a mix of millennials and boomers. The course is Avalanche 1 and the Bryan Mountain Nordic Ski Patrol (BMNSP) instructors are scaring the shit out me.

I’m sort of paying attention as the power point flips over on the screen. Then the instructor says the majority of fatal avalanches are triggered by people.

Whoa, there have been avalanches of all sorts since before God. Steep, wind-loaded slopes naturally sluff-off new snow, weak layers collapse and create slab avalanches, and pieces of cornices break-off and send huge chunks of hardpack crashing downhill. I’m having trouble with the factoid but don’t raise my hand for fear of being thought of as the dumb old guy with an attitude.

But then I decided the instructor was right. Best guess is most avalanches go unreported. It is mostly when people are involved that an avalanche gets reported.

And then the instructor pops another factoid that leaves me sitting there with my mouth open.

“Avalanches can be triggered from below.”
“Say what?”

I don’t know about you, but I’ve always had the reasoned opinion that if something on the mountain looks like it can fall on me—there’s a chance it will fall on me. This reasoning has led me to detour below cracked or funky-looking or hollow-sounding pieces of snow thinking that once in the valley, I’d be pretty much bullet-proof.


What followed was 10 minutes of Snow Physics 101 that I won’t try to repeat. Yet again the instructor was right and I felt sort of sick.

Not only could I have set-off an avalanche from below but in many cases I found myself in a narrow drainage called a terrain trap. In other words, by dropping below a potential slide and into a tight V-shaped valley I set myself up to melt-out in June—a number of times.

So classes are classes and it’s not until I got into the practical fieldwork that the lectures started to do more than scare me shitless. The instructors hauled us up to St. Mary’s Glacier and then divided us up into small groups and set stations to teach some basic skills such as, beacon, shovel and probe use and how to use high tech equipment like avalanche airbags. The wind was blowing at about 400 knots so it was damned cold and hard to hear as my teeth chattered. A millennial pointed out that I had icicles hanging off my moustache…snotcicles he called them…nice.
I was already packed-up somewhere around scenario four so I started downhill in front of my two millennial compatriots. As I heard tromping behind me, I stepped out of the track and motioned for them to pass. And then the strangest thing happened. One of the millennials moved out in front of me and the other one stood around and waited for me to resume my route downhill.

As I started, the guy in front looked over his shoulder and slowed down to my pace. I turned and looked at the guy behind me and he just shrugged and continued to match my speed downhill.

There is a mountain tradition that the weakest person in the party is placed in the middle so the leader can set a reasonable pace and alert the middle person to difficult stretches. The person behind is “sweep.” His or her job is simply to make sure the person in the middle is doing okay.

Being put in the middle started two thoughts banging around my head. The first thought was self-centered and the second a tad more cosmic. For the first time in 35 years in these mountains I found myself in the middle. I had always lead or been sweep. I was annoyed these millennials felt they had to take care of me as the weakest member of the group and then I had to smile—this was a changing of the guard.

Alan Stark lives with a blue-eyed woman and her dog in Boulder and Breckenridge.