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The Avy Club Concept | 11/18/2010, by JDubUtah
I recently stumbled across something very special – a group of experienced backcountry enthusiasts that have set out to cooperatively teach one another safe practices for travel in avalanche terrain. An avy club.
We met on a cold Thursday night in a park in Sandy, UT. After some brief introductions and a discussion of the goals of the group, we split up and practiced beacon searches. It was an amazing experience to learn experientially within a group with no clear instructor or guide. Through this shared experience, I gained a much better understanding of efficient and effective beacon use than I have in previous, more formal settings. This seemed to be a shared experience of everyone in the group.
The premise of an avy club is simple. It is a group of skiers and snowboarders that are ready to take ownership of their backcountry knowledge, skills, and practices. It is not an avalanche awareness course or a level 1 course, nor does it replace the need for this education. In an avy club setting, the group works collectively to increase knowledge through classroom sessions in living rooms and basements taught by the members themselves. Skills are developed through dedicated practice sessions both in and out of the mountains.
In some respects the avy club is like a backcountry book club. Everyone in the group is encouraged to purchase the same avalanche text (our group chose Bruce Tremper’s “Staying Alive in Avalanche Terrain”), and over the course of the season, group members take turns mastering and teaching each other the key points of the book. These teaching sessions are accompanied by trips outside to practice and learn crucial skills for risk assessment, safe travel, rescue, etc.
The avy club should prove to be an excellent means to reduce fatalities in the mountains, as it is a mechanism to reinforce good decision-making within groups. One of the most difficult and frustrating aspects of mountain sports is finding safe and knowledgeable partners, and further, finding partners that make good decisions in the mountains. The avy club is a great way to meet safe partners and develop groups with consistent perceptions of dangerous conditions. The avy club offers a forum for partners to discuss and critique their individual definitions of safe conditions with the emotion of 20” of fresh powder removed from the equation. If everyone in a group enters the mountains with a commitment to assess risks and clear definitions of go and no-go conditions, most accidents could be avoided.
Another benefit of the avy club concept is an overall increase in preparation for an accident. In the event that you or someone in your group is caught in a slide, the difference between an accident and a fatality comes down to preparation, time and luck. Time to extract a buried partner can be minimized through preparation, knowledge and practice. If you and every member of your party have learned and practiced effective rescue techniques, you will greatly increase the odds of survival in the event of an accident. Simple, yet critical, concepts and skill deficiencies become very clear within the avy club context. For example, for those of you that prefer analog beacons, how well are you familiar with turning off multiple brands of beacons? This is a nuance of multiple burial searches that I had not considered until standing out in the dark, freezing my ass off, trying to turn off a Pieps DSP so I could search for the next beacon in the drill. I recognize that is touched on in avy courses and texts, but how many of us have actually taken the time to turn different brands of beacons on and off?
The best way to stay safe in the mountains is to study, learn and practice every aspect of safe travel and choose partners that do the same. If an entire group operates under this auspice, the knowledge, skills and safety of the group as a whole will increase exponentially. And therein lies the beauty of an avy club. It is a group of people that care about their safety and the safety of their partners. I would encourage all of you to start your own group. Pick a book and teach it to one another. Go in the mountains together. Dig pits. Practice beacon searches. Learn everything you can about safe travel in the mountains and then travel more safely together.