AST programs are an essential first step to safe backcountry use in the winter. Learning and practicing companion rescue skills gives you and your group the best chance of surviving an avalanche incident. You also need to learn how to read avalanche terrain to make safe and informed decisions about where to travel. There are many course providers in Whistler, all of whom follow a curriculum established by the Canadian Avalanche Centre. The AST courses provide a blend of indoor theory and practical field days to leave you feeling confident and knowledgeable in the backcountry.
AST 1 Providers in Whistler:
We took our course with the fabulous Jamie and Mitch from Extremely Canadian. The course starts off with a theory session which teaches you how to identify different avalanche types and formation (snowpack layering). It should also cover avalanche terrain, including factors such as slope angle, wind and sun exposure, anchors, elevation, trigger points, terrain traps and signs of previous avalanches.
On our first day up the hill, we sat together and looked at the Avalanche Bulletin, something that should be done every day before heading into the backcountry. It is important to read the danger ratings, problems and concerns. After assessing the bulletin, and looking at the days snow report and forecast, we then formulated a trip plan. We ended up doing Disease Ridge on Blackcomb mountain, where we found a nice spot to practice avalanche rescue and digging techniques. Turns out, digging is really hard work and there are certainly more and less efficient ways to dig your friend out. After discussing various scenarios, we then got some laps in and enjoyed the sunshine all the way down to Handlebar where we had some apres beers.
On day 2, again we sat and assessed the Avalanche Bulletin and planned our route. Route planning is essential and it is very important that everyone in the group understands and agrees to the plans, and that everyone feels comfortable voicing their concerns. After planning our route, we headed up Oboe off the back of Whistler's Flute Bowl and did some longer skinning. There was plenty to observe, especially lots of point releases from the rapid increase in temperature. We then buried some backpacks and did some practice burial scenarios and were tested on our rescue plans. It was a really great way to feel some (but not too much) pressure and get feedback on how we can be more efficient in a rescue situation. The debrief at the end was a good opportunity to ask questions, exchange photos and make some new friends in town.
At the end of your AST, you should feel more comfortable using your gear and more confidence in your ability to make good, informed choices and decisions. But don't forget - knowledge is power, and you need to keep on practising what you've learned and reading up about avalanches or you will lose your edge. Try to go out touring regularly, sometimes with people who are more experienced so that you can learn from them. Keep practising your shovelling technique and rescues - you can even make this into a fun drinking game by burying a six pack in the yard! There is a lot to consider in the event of a burial rescue, and the more you practice, the more likely you are to be able to save your friends.
Most AST providers will hook you up with a great deal on renting any of the above from Escape Route Alpine Demo Centre in Whistler Village. They have the latest DPS touring setups as well as the best touring boots and bindings on the market, and they really know their stuff. You can reserve your equipment with them online once you've booked your AST!
Check out ten things to know before your first day ski touring.