ApexEx Avalanche Training–Day 1

Its not secret that we moved to Colorado for the mountains. If I never had the chance to flat out tell you that I’m thinking that the never ending photos and talk of the mountains may have been a bit of a give away. After a few foolish trips in the mountains {namely an afternoonor two…of bad weather in RMNP} we gained a real respect for the mountains.

During the summer months this meant we always had water with us, the weather was checked before we left and layers of clothing were tossed in the car, just in case. Come not-very-snowy months of winter things changed a bit. Snow is fun but it was also rather dangerous.

When the snow stayed in place on the mountain it was a blast and worth the money we blew on season passes while still unemployed. However, if the snow decided it didn’t want to be up on the mountain anymore things could get dicey. We wanted to get involved in backcountry boarding but didn’t want to be the noobs dying in an avalanche because we were stupid. Ignorance really wouldn’t have ended very blissfully in that situation…

I had mentioned this a few times to Heather and I’m glad I did…she is the one that sent me a link to the Groupon deal for avalanche training with ApexEx. She knew the guys who owned the company and highly recommended them. That, along with the fact the price tag was below the $300-400 we had been seeing, had me jumping all over the deal.

We booked our avalanche training for a weekend in late March. During a normal winter season this would have been no big deal. This year wasn’t normal {or so I’m told}. I mean, I got my first sunburn of the year less than a week into March, I should have expected 60+ temps for avalanche training!

The training course consisted of some online videos followed up by two days “in the field”. We were a little nervous about the “in the field” part of the deal. It involved snowshoeing…we’d never been on snowshoes before. It also required fancy gizmos we didn’t own – like shovels, probes and beacons. Yay for rentals!

Turns out snowshoeing wasn’t too bad although I am really glad we headed up to RMNP on our own a few weeks prior to give snowshoeing a shot on our own. I at least had confidence in my ability to walk on flat ground!

Our day started out at Bear Lake Trailhead with introductions, an orientation of the weekend and an overview of what we had gone over online on our own time. Before long we were off snowshoeing around the park.


The first toy we got to play with was the inclinometer – or the little do-dad that would tell you the degree of the slope. If the avalanche conditions are high you want to stay on slopes 25 degrees and lower – slopes that won’t avalanche and are safe, as long as the slopes above aren’t avlanching. The highest risk of avalanche happens on slopes that fall roughly between 30-45 degrees.

The “perfect” slope for an avalanche is a 38 degree slope. Our guide/instructor Paul told us to think of our favorite black diamond run on any ski resort. Chances are that slope is pretty darn close to 38 degrees. I think I’m going to put my handy dandy smartphone inclinometer to good use on “The Shock” at Breck to test that theory…

We made our way into the trees where we would have the chance to put our shovels to good use. One of the best ways to take a look at the snow conditions is to dig a pit. Basically, you’re digging a hole in the snow to scope out the layers and test the weakness of the snow.

Some people say you only need to dig 3 feet since those layers are most likely to avalanche. However, Paul pointed out that it is not uncommon for Colorado to have ground avalanches where all the snow slides. Digging to the ground or at least 6 feet down isn’t a bad idea. So dig we did!


There are a few different tests you can do when you dig a pit. Logically they go from the quickest to the most time consuming and the more time you put into the pit the more information you’ll gather. These are the tests we did:

Shovel Shear – “shear” off a chunk of snow the size of the shovel, take a look at the layers
Compression/Tap Test – isolate a column, set the shovel on top then progressively tap harder, note when layers shift
Rutschblock Test – isolate a column large enough for a skier/boarder to stand on it, have the skier/boarder stand on the column and jump with progressive force, note any weaknesses

Now, we did our training in March…on a very warm and sunny weekend…after many warm and sunny days. Needless to say the snow was not really going anywhere. The warmer weather had allowed the snow to really compact upon itself making it one solid slab with little to no risk of avalanching. That doesn’t mean we didn’t have fun with the Rutschblock Test!

One of the skiers doing the Rutschblock test in our pit.
{no, I don’t exactly remember his name, but if I had to guess it would be Collin…?}

To even get the Rutschblock test to move the snow at all we had to intentionally weaken the column of snow. After the legitimate Rutschblock test was complete it took about three people to actually break down the column…that snow wasn’t going anywhere!

After a stop for lunch we continued on our way into the park. I have no clue where we ended up but when we arrived we split into groups to dig more pits. Honestly, I had a blast digging pits! A cute little shovel? In snow? On a sunny day? Um, yes, please!


Let’s just say I was more than happy to dig out another Rutschblock column, this time for Paul to jump on. I’m thinking he was willing to take on on this column because it was clearly anchored by a rather angry pine tree {it pitched on me!}.


Even after some intentional weakening we couldn’t get this column to fail – the snow really wasn’t going anywhere! But I had a blast digging in the snow. I want my own avalanche/backcountry shovel…just so I can go out to the yard and dig in the snow for fun, maybe build a fort of sorts, you never know.

We finished off our day with the hike back to the car. By this time I was completely disoriented and had no clue where I was but Paul got us out to the main trail. I didn’t realize it but we had done quite a bit of uphill snowshoeing. This become quite obvious when we started our trek downhill on a fairly well packed trail {snowshoes really weren’t needed at this point}.

Being the graceful person that I am I managed to step on the top of my own snowshoe while booking it down a 20 degree slope {okay, fine, didn’t measure it but work with me!}. Yeah, when you step on your own snowshoe things get a little messy. I face planted down the hill then penguin slide for a bit before I managed to barrel roll myself right side up. Graceful.

I should also mention that I was in the front of the line and had a big ol’ day pack strapped on. I can only hope that most everyone else was busy focusing on their own snowshoes toes or taking in the scenery or something besides watching the show I was putting on! Although I did hear Kim behind me way something like “I hear laughing, she’s fine”. Very true!

We finished off our day with a drive back home and a pit stop at Dominos. Judge me all you want but there is something delicious about a $5 pizza after a day in the mountains. Many of the others met up at a local pub to chat but we bailed on that to make the 2 hour drive home.

Our second day of training was more strenuous and involved repeatedly digging my pack out of the snow while doing beacon searches but more on that later…

For now I’ll attempt to tide you over with more photos from our training weekend – these taken by other members of our group – and a rather informative website on avalanches.

{Just FYI – I’m not even kind of an avalanche expert, anything I say in these posts related to avalanche should definitely be taken as a grain of salt! I’m not even entirely confident taking myself into the backcountry let alone advising others!}


ApexEx Avalanche Training–Day 1 — 7 Comments

  1. It sounds like a very smart course to take for a Colorado resident! Hopefully you never deal with a serious avalanche, but being prepared is way better than not. I think Domino’s hits the spot sometimes too. :-)

  2. Pingback: Colorado: Wilderness Trekking School - Snow Day - lgsmash

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