It seems longer than two weeks ago that I was over in the French alps, bouncing about on snowshoes through thick forests and reaching sunny peaks on a winter training course with Plas y Brenin.
This wasn’t just a jolly, I was attending a week long International Mountain Leader course in order to take steps towards my accompagnateur or IML qualification. About two and a half years ago whilst trekking the Tour du Mont Blanc I met a lady who held the IML qualification and was leading walking groups in the alps. After speaking to her at length over dinner in the Bonati hut one evening I became inspired by her chosen profession and the intimacy she has with the outdoors. This was what I had been looking for. I set about working towards my goal. After a few years of gaining further experience with groups in the mountains, various training and assessment courses, weeks of voluntary guiding, weekends away from home camping in Snowdonia, the Lakes and Scotland and much listening to and learning from other guides I eventually arrive in Le Grand-Bornand, Aravis, France for the IML winter training course.
The aim of this week was to get a basic understanding of the level of competency required to lead groups in winter conditions in relatively flat snow covered terrain, or rolling Nordique terrain. This was to be done mainly on snowshoes with the expertise of two IFMGA guides to teach and us new skills such as:
– Snowshoes techniques and “putting tracks in for clients”
– Avalanche awareness, search procedures and organising a rescue
– Snowpack analysis and looking at the different layers of snow and spotting weaknesses
The adage that if you can walk then you can snowshoe may be true but making a track for your clients to follow behind you in dry powder snow then its hard work. Sometimes it feels like you taking one step forward and two steps back. It is a tiring process where the physical aspect initially surprised me.
We were all soon well adapted to traveling on snowshoes and the course moved on to avalanche awareness and using a transceiver to locate a buried victim. Having never used a transceiver before this was completely new to myself. I have spent a couple of winter’s mountaineering in Scotland and was aware of the risk of avalanches and had a basic understanding of the dangers but I had never been involved in locating and digging out a buried victim. Our guides taught us the basics of transceiver use and how to search an area quickly and efficiently. We would pick a partner and one member would bury a rucksack over fifty meters away with a transceiver inside whilst the other member would use the transceiver to locate it and mark the rough area where they though the burial was. Once marked we would when use an avalanche probe to exactly pin point the burial and proceed to dig it out as fast as possible. You really need to practice this procedure a lot in order to get slick at it. It can be very stressful to think that a person is starved of oxygen underneath the surface of the snow reliant on your actions to save them. We practiced repetitively during the week even going to the point of timing ourselves to see how effective and efficiently we could locate and dig out a victim.
As an international leader in winter we need to have a basic understanding of the snowpack, or the different layers of snow that developed throughout the season. More digging involved here folks. By looking at the different layers of snow we could identify potential weaknesses in the snowpack such as unbonded facets which given the correct slope aspect (angle) and an appropriate trigger (a snowshoe group, skier or snowmobile) could start an avalanche.
Understanding the terminology used in snowpack analysis takes a bit of getting used to. I would recommend doing some previous reading around the subject as there are plenty of books available such as Snow sense, A chance in a million and Avalanche Awareness. You can get these pretty easily from the internet.
We were shown techniques on how to find different layers. One of which by using our fingers to poke the snow to see how hard or soft it was at different depths. It was explained how sudden temperature changes in the snowpack effect each layers. We found a potential weak layer quite near the bottom of the snow pack which has lead to many avalanches being triggered this winter in the alps.
We practised these techniques throughout the week in France. Gradually drip feeding us the information for which we were getting more confident handling. On the last day we simulated a mass burial of seven victims and, in a group, we had to efficiently locate and dig out all of the burials. I found it interesting to see how different people react under stressful conditions and how the role of leader is crucial in creating a safe and enjoyable day for their clients.
I have my fingers crossed that I will get a place on the assessment course next year but before then there is plenty of honing of skills to be done. It would be great to pass my summer and winter assessments and be able to take my own clients over to the alps or the pyrenees to experience snowshoeing. I have my goal and i will keep you all posted on how I progress.