Gaining Perspective

By Sean Zimmerman-Wall, FOW
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Lizard Range, BC. Photo: Eric Porter (@portermtb)

A two-foot powder storm blankets the central Wasatch in early March.  Skies clear, and the winds remain moderate as the winter that keeps on giving delivers yet again.   It’s curious that this is the time we choose to leave our Utah home and head north to Canada where the snowfall has been less than prolific. Getting out of the driveway is a chore at 7 AM, and the continuous stream of cars heading towards the ski areas is just a further reminder of the adage, “why leave good snow to find good snow?”

On this adventure however, we are hoping to gain new perspective on some well-worn skills.  The timeless art of avalanche rescue is fundamental to anyone who treads in the snowy mountains. We all likely remember holding a transceiver for the first time; the simple shape hiding the complexities of a technology most don’t understand, perhaps even take for granted. Coupled with a probe and shovel, an experienced user can perform life-saving feats in relatively short order.

Taking the time to reflect on our own practice and seeking new ways to challenge ourselves, fellow FOW Eric Porter and I enrolled in the Avalanche Search and Rescue Advanced Skills Course presented by the Canadian Avalanche Association. We elected to take the course in the mountain hamlet of Fernie, British Columbia, tucked behind the formidable Lizard Range.  750 miles through the Rocky Mountains lay an excursion we both spent the entirety of the season preparing for. 

Prologue 

Along our route we stop over in Whitefish, Montana to visit with some other avalanche professionals and ride the slopes of the fabled Big Mountain. The morning of our second day blooms bright and winds are nearly calm. Rare conditions for the Flathead Valley greet our arrival and we take full advantage.  The patrol at Whitefish rolls out the red carpet and enhances our visit with a full tour of the resort.  Cruising through the snow ghosts and conifers plastered with rime, we glide over a few centimeters of fresh crystalline powder.  Our liaison Jeremy Primer navigates us through the Hellroaring Basin and then over to Flower Point as we go wall to wall exploring every aspect. The slightly below-average snowpack and stable conditions make it a generally go-anywhere affair with featureful slopes that provide aesthetic lines through cliff bands, chutes, and vibrant sub-alpine forests. 

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Jeremy Primer leads us on our red carpet tour. Whitefish, MT. Photo: Sean Zimmerman-Wall

Exploring the in-bounds terrain sans backpack is a unique experience for a couple of guides accustomed to looking after a group of folks and carrying all the accoutrements of the job. Instead of focusing on others, we get a little personal time to rip pistes and narrow steeps alike. Porter is switch-hitting and riding on twin sticks rather than rocking a sideways stance. It’s amazing to see the athletic talents of a professional mountain biker transfer to yet another snow sport.  Carving through some of the tighter confines and variable conditions is the only way anyone would know that he’s slightly out of his element. Underfoot we have both chosen the Intention 108, which provides a stable platform in both camber profiles for our daily objectives. 

By our fifth lap we ride back to patrol HQ to check in with the team about their season overall. Keagan Zoellner, patrol manager, invites us in for a rich discussion on the challenges of using a small crew to run a large ski area that serves upwards of 9,000 visitors on a busy day. She also imparts on us her desire to support the team with the resources and training they need to successfully do the job. It is great to connect, and we exchange ideas and resources before taking one more lap through the snow ghosts on our way back to the base.

 
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Whitefish, MT. FOW: Eric Porter // Photo: Sean Zimmerman-Wall

Our opening salvo into the mountains culminates in a plate of local fare at a haunt known as Piggyback Barbeque.  The laid-back vibe and hearty dishes satiate our intense hunger and sets us right for the remaining push to the Border and beyond. Cruising out of town and into the rural communities of former logging and farming towns is relaxing as the late afternoon sunshine filters through our windows. Stand-up comedy and Malcom Gladwell are on the playlist. We engage in deep discussion about the intricacies of decision making in the mountains, as well as remind ourselves to not take things too seriously, it is just snow sliding after all.

Crossing the border is uneventful, thankfully, and we turn onto Route 3 under the shadow of Mt. Broadwood. The imposing avalanche paths looming above the highway catch the evening light and capture our imaginations as we wind our way along the Elk River corridor. Rounding the tail of the Lizard Range, the faces of Mt. Hosmer, Mt. Procter, Three Sisters, and Mt. Fernie come into view. Our spirits soar and we watch the alpine glow hues of mauve and fuchsia settle over the mountains, bathing the summits and revealing the supple textures of recent wind-effected snow. As any riders do, we immediately begin tracing lines down the hulking alpine ramps and discuss what conditions we would need to tag these incredible objectives. It’s almost too soon as we roll into the driveway of our accommodations for the week. Unpacking the rig and organizing ourselves for the task ahead consumes our newly found energy. A simple meal and some laughs cap the evening. The educational journey starts in the morning, and we are ready. 

 
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Moonrise over Fernie. Lizard Range, BC. Photo: Eric Porter (@portermtb)

Day 1

Class convenes at 0800 and the room is conversant and lively. Porter and I immediately realize we are the elders of the group, save the instructor team.  A sea of fresh faces, some bearded and some not, all carry the smiles of youth. A good mix of genders and backgrounds intersperse the crowd, and the vibe is casual and light.  Our instructors take center stage for intros, and we are immediately struck by the deep experience each brings to the table.  Lisa Paulson, Jock Richardson, and Jordy Shepherd give vibrant back stories that show they are in this game for the long haul, despite the stressors and tragedies they have seen and been party to.  As fellow educators, Porter and I instinctively cue into their stage presences.  We admire their humble attitudes and genuine desire to impart the knowledge and wisdom they’ve accrued over close to three decades of mountain work. The student intros reveal that these folks are also well-suited for the demands of the course.  As the only Americans in the room, we share our stories and feel accepted and welcomed by our Canadian brothers and sisters.

The delivery of the curriculum over the remainder of the morning focuses on setting a positive learning environment that allows space for discussion and a deep dive into core concepts of transceiver theory and search strategies. A short field session along the banks of the Elk River outside our classroom gives us a dose of sunshine and a look around at the mountains under full daylight. It is difficult to keep focused on the beeping box in my hand as I divide my attention between the instructor’s guidance and the steep mountain faces that beckon my soul. Rounding out the afternoon we engage with some more study materials and plan for the remaining three days of the course. Our venue will be the Fernie Alpine Resort and the in-bounds meadows atop the Timber Bowl Express. A suitable site to spread out and gain practical application of the core skills we are uncovering in the theoretical realm of the classroom. 

The tone is set for the week, and we are excited for what’s to come. Arriving at our lodging by sunset, we set up for a casual evening of study and carbo-loading. We also brush up on our Canadian culture with a few forays into episodes of Trailer Park Boys and Letterkenny. All that’s missing is a box of Tim Horton’s for dessert. The moments of laughter level out our tired minds as we prepare for deep slumber.

Day 2

Another glorious day ahead and we are grateful to break from the classroom before lunch and cruise to the resort. Nik Dunn, a Fernie Patroller taking the course, gives us the inside tip on parking adjacent to the ski patrol clubhouse and we boot up before heading to the base of Timber Bowl Express. By noon we are all standing attentively in a mid-elevation treed meadow as we listen to our instructors provide tips on multiple burials, deep burials, and using a few simple tools to solve complex scenarios. Dividing into small groups allows for some additional teamwork to manifest and we get to know our colleagues a bit more.  A handful come from patrolling and avalanche education, others from the realms of human-powered and mechanized guiding. We even have an operational forecaster from a gold mine along the Alaskan border in our midst. All have come to hone their skills and elevate their professional practice in their respective fields. 

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Lizard Range, BC. Photo: Sean Zimmerman-Wall

Gaining proficiency with the advanced features of our transceivers is a key learning outcome of the day. Between the beeps of the transceivers and the words of the instructors, we all pick up on some nuances of our machines that will help us in future iterations of practice.  Real-time trouble shooting of a loss of marking, when the transceiver drops a previously marked signal during a multiple burial situation, is perhaps one of the most profound skills I take from the day’s lesson. 

Speaking of profound, the ability to solve a deep burial, 4-8 meters beneath the snow surface, using an advanced technique called the “Diamond Method” adds a new tool to what I thought was an already stacked chest.  Watching Jordy explain this method, which he co-created, is a great experience and we all take away the intricacies of a situation where someone is buried fathoms beyond the probe’s depth.

With a full plate of new ideas swirling in our heads, we convert to downhill mode and slide to the base area.  The instructors invite us all to the Griz Bar and we gather around a table in the wood-framed structure to sip on cold beverages and chow on some crispy wings.  The conversations drift from the professional realm to the informal and it is a great way to build continued camaraderie with the group.  

Day 3

Staring up at the headwalls of the Fernie Alpine Resort from the doorstep of our accommodations, I gasp at the sheer scale of the terrain overlying the lessor slopes festooned with chairlifts and infrastructure.  It is quite amazing that a group of intrepid entrepreneurs and local land managers collaborated to build this place in the early 60’s.  To this day, legendary tales of the area can still be heard around quite firesides and raucous dancefloors alike. If you want a real dose of history, visit Tourism Fernie when you have some free time to kill. You shan’t be disappointed.

 
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Lizard Range, BC. Photo: Sean Zimmerman-Wall

Back to the reality of the moment, my mind prepares itself for the day’s task. We rally to the resort and get a full serving of instructor wisdom.  Following their discourse is a series of practical dry runs of the exam and opportunities to flail, retool, and improve.  Watching my colleagues work the scenes and apply the swath of skills learned over the week is inspiring and the instructors only interject at key moments, letting each person survey the landscape and make appropriate choices. Beyond the tasks of excavating the burials, we must all make critical scene safety and triage decisions, as well as employ the basic tenants of the Incident Command System. After each repetition we are coached on how we performed and what we can do to make it even more solid on the next round. It is clear the instructors have our backs and want us to succeed. 

Jock, a tall and jovial man with a suite of stories worthy of their own adventure novel, stands back and regales us with a tale of his experiences on some of the original Canadian Avalanche Association courses. He recounts how during an Operations Level 2 Course, he was one of 15 participants, and by the conclusion of the first exam at lunch on the first day, the count had been reduced to 8. By the final day, he was the only person to ski a slope, which resulted in him being one of 2 successful graduates. His point being that although the rigor of the courses is still present, the instructors of the modern era hold the axiom of “demo, coach, and examine” very closely. We appreciate this approach immensely and the stress of the looming exam melts away.

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Megan and Phoenix. Lizard Range, BC. Photo: Sean Zimmerman-Wall

After the final round of practice, we get a special demonstration by the patrol’s assistant director, Megan Kelly, and her dog Phoenix. The site laid out is 100m x 100m and the young German Shepard makes quick and methodical movements across the “debris” in search of buried articles of clothing. She is so keen in fact, that she indicates on a dummy nearly 100m further away that we had buried for a separate scenario. Within a few more minutes following commands from Megan, Phoenix has uncovered all the articles and gets a big reward in the form of a game of Tug. Megan also shares the detailed and laborious process of certifying a search dog, both internally and nationally. The power of human-animal interaction is clear, and we all realize how fortunate the community is to have such a dedicated trainer and dog ready to assist in the event of an avalanche. 

Additional tools of the trade such as Recco and probe lines are also discussed throughout the afternoon session. All of which culminates in a deep burial excavation exercise using
“Strike-team Shoveling.”  Jordy and Lisa line us up in the appropriate configuration and we rotate through the order, making light work of a 2m burial.  This technique is a recent iteration on the previous conveyor method pioneered by Manuel Genswein and provides a bit more fluid movement and organization. Tired yet satisfied, we all retire to the base as the sun dips behind Polar Peak.  Now it is back to the classroom for a written exam. 

By 530 PM we are concluded, and Jock invites Porter and I to dinner, along with another student under Jock’s tutelage named Dylan. Sitting around the table at the hotel’s Indian-Nepali restaurant, we share momos and sip mango lassis.  Jock continues to provide endlessly entertaining stories that capture our weary imaginations and invoke deep belly laughs. We converse well into the evening and then send it back to the house to rest before the final exam.

 

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Lizard Range, BC. Photo: Sean Zimmerman-Wall

Day 4

A layer of gray clag envelopes the summits and the mood is different. We not only have an exam to complete, but we have received word from home that an avalanche claimed the life of a guided skier at one of the operations we are both close to.  

The gravity of that situation, a multiple with a deep burial in a terrain trap shakes me to the core. Suddenly, the entire week’s lessons land with intense impact. Porter and I try to make sense of the event and gather our composure before heading to class. Prior to making our way to the hill, the instructor team takes time to clarify lingering questions on all topics covered and assures us that we are all ready to perform. Jock also stands and gives a powerful soliloquy about the toll this profession can take on the rescuer. He illustrates his own experiences with PTSD following intense and sad scenes where the situation is more about recovery than rescue. Lisa chimes in and adds additional human feelings as she recounts some particularly notable events from her years of work with Parks Canada. They clearly have a grasp on the concept of protecting mental wellness and share resources we can contact to prepare ourselves for events we may encounter in the future. It is yet another reminder that the grim specter of death is ever present in this line of work. 

Standing in the forest an hour later I am ready for the exam. Lisa comes over and briefs me on the scenario. A multiple burial has just been called in from the lead guide at our cat-skiing operation, and as tail-guide, I need to initiate a rescue and call for resources needed. This is strangely similar to the accident that just played out in Utah involving some of our close colleagues. A wave of emotion crashes into me and I take a moment to collect myself.  One or two deep breaths to focus on the importance of the task at hand and the clock starts.

I pause, look around, and switch to “Search”. After my radio call and a few passes approaching the debris, the device erupts in a cacophony of beeps. It’s clear I have multiple signals in close proximity.  Another radio call and some guidance to my remaining clients to prepare their shovels precedes my fine search. I pinpoint a buried subject in under two minutes and have the shovelers begin excavation of a shallow burial.  Switching to advanced features, I move to the next closely buried subject. Another strike in just a few stabs of the probe. By now the shovelers have uncovered the first subject, who is alert and oriented with a leg injury. A decision is made to leave the subject and begin excavating at my probe.  I move on and update my mental map of the scene while making a quick radio call to dispatch.  The third signal is more difficult to isolate and is very close to my second. I initiate a micro-box fine search and pinpoint the subject with a probe. The shovel team is within arm’s reach, and I see they have the second subject on the surface, uninjured but shaken.  They begin work on the third burial as I move forward to clear the remaining debris. Reaching the toe, I only have three subjects located. A brief flash of panic knowing I am still missing someone. Then another deep breath and a discussion with the clients. The third subject is uncovered and is unresponsive but breathing. I instruct them to move to the toe for a moment as I begin another signal search, ignoring the beacons on the surface until I find a signal in another lobe of the debris. I call a shoveler over once I have a confirmed strike. A brief radio call to dispatch alerting them to the situation and then we continue excavating. The subject is uncovered quickly and found to be not breathing with obvious signs of lethal trauma. Code black. Surveying the scene once more, I call it clear, and the time stops. Lisa comes over and asks a few questions about transport decisions, priority of extraction, and how to mark the scene for investigation. The total scene time of less than twelve minutes elapses in the blink of an eye and we move on to the next candidate’s scenario. 

Porter moves through his exam, playing the role of a snowmobile guide searching for members of a third party.  Moving through the scene he remains calm and collected, finding each subject and making the appropriate decisions around resource allocation. The last buried subject takes more time to find and he remains steady in his process while employing some advanced techniques to locate. Porter successfully completes the scenario and debriefs with Jordy.  

 
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Lizard Range, BC. Photo: Sean Zimmerman-Wall

We step away afterward and compare notes, both relieved to have completed the course. Bidding good day to our instructors and most of our classmates, we receive high-fives and handshakes before following another patroller from the course around the resort for an afternoon shred. Brett Robinson, a six-year patroller at Fernie, navigates our small group through the fog and we do an end-to-end tour of the resort, looking for pockets of soft wind driven snow among the forests. Visibility is nil and the variable conditions take a toll on our backs. We do find some nice stashes on the lower mountain that provide reliable turns, the Intention 108s swallowing up any chunder we encounter. By 4 PM we’ve exhausted ourselves and rally back to the car to prepare for the evening’s festivities of Curling with the patrol. 

An excited crowd gathers after dark at the Fernie Community Center for this once-a-season activity sponsored by the local Curling Club.  We all get a crash course in how to play this curious sport from a couple of keeners who are willing to get us oriented.  Everyone spreads out on the ice for a few hours of sliding in another context. After this affair, we have a newfound respect for the nuances of Canada’s 2nd national winter sport.

 
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Fernie, BC. Photo: Sean Zimmerman-Wall

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Lizard Range, BC. Photo: Eric Porter (@portermtb)

Epilogue

The hospitality we experience over the next 48 hours is immense. The patrol at Fernie treats us as part of the team and invites us to events and gatherings, provides us an inside look at their Avalanche Forecasting Program, and gives us endless beta on lift-access ski tours.  Tyler Carson, lead forecaster, provides us with a great overview of how Fernie manages the avalanche hazard and the ways they communicate with the public through timely messaging. He also lines us out on a couple of tours just outside the southern and northern boundaries of the resort.

We consume all the info the team has to offer and plan two back-to-back days of interesting backcountry tours. The first is a trip up an over into Mongolia Bowl. It’s a low commitment skin from the Lost Boys Pass exit point on the southern end of the resort. The prior day’s wind and 5-10cms of snow provide a fresh coat of paint with minimal increase in hazard. We poke and prod at the small wind slabs along the route, and simply avoid the obviously loaded pockets along the ridges. It is a bit of a mixed bag of crust and cream as we drop into Mongolia and find reasonable pitches to explore among the old growth Cedar and Pine. This day is more about stretching the legs and getting more snowpack intel.

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Lizard Range, BC. FOW: Eric Porter // Photo: Sean Zimmerman-Wall

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Lizard Range, BC. Photo: Sean Zimmerman-Wall

On our last day of the trip, we set our plans to do what is locally known as the Four Bowls Traverse, moving from Fish Bowl to Orca Bowl beyond the north side of the resort boundary.  This excursion takes us across multiple alpine terrain features, large expanses of forest, and unique configurations of chutes and ramps.  A low ceiling rests just along the ridgetops and we have visibility of the starting zones. Our travel plan has us avoiding the starting zones and sticking to broad open features.  There was another 5-10cms overnight in this zone and it is well bonded to the prior snow surface.  We expect some lingering wind slab and loose dry issues in specific terrain features that would be sensitive to the weight of a rider. Stability is good in the ski area as we exit onto a ramp leading into Fishbowl. The upper entrance is rather aggressive and looks loaded, so we wrap in on a separate panel that provides more margin. Porter is on his BelleTour splitboard for this trip, and he lines me out on how to keep from getting too low in the drainage so we can avoid a flat traverse. Dropping in, the boot-top deep turns evoke a few moments of lightness before hitting the traverse across to Liverwurst Bowl.  Over the next few hours, we climb and descend, climb, and descend.
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Lizard Range, BC. FOW: Eric Porter // Photo: Sean Zimmerman-Wall

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Lizard Range, BC. FOW: Sean Zimmerman-Wall // Photo: Eric Porter (@portermtb)

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Lizard Range, BC. FOW: Eric Porter // Photo: Sean Zimmerman-Wall

By 4pm we have come to the top of the final pitch along the fringe of Orca Bowl. Looking to our west we see the fabled Island Lake Lodge in the distance. A place that has its own lore and is worthy of a specific trip if one has the means. The option before us is a 500m sustained fall line run into a small series of rolling sub-ridges, locally known as Hilda’s.  The snow is a bit deeper here and the run brings moments of pure Zen.  Turn after turn of consistent fall lines and shallow powder on a 2m base. Mid-run, Porter and I pull up short of a convexity and he throws his heel edge into the slope. Producing a dinner table sized piece of soft slab that instantly crumbles apart and entrains some loose snow, running only 10m down slope into a small depression. The first real sign of instability all day. It runs on a subtle crust on this more westerly aspect and is not enough to raise our hackles any further. Across the last 200m we follow in polite spacing and pull off riders right to make our exit track. This is the crux of the whole endeavor, a huge broken Cedar marking the portal to the Orca Road. The pump track exit leads us a full mile to the east and we cross the creek at a solid bridge. From here it is a skate/skin to the parking lot, where Tyler picks us up and shuttles us back to our car at the resort. A 6-hour adventure through the Fernie backcountry to cap off an incredible journey in a not-so-foreign land. The soul-enriching experience of being among these mountains, engaging with great people, and enhancing our professional craft will be with us forever. 

 
Phase Series, MiDori bioWick, Alpine touring, Backcountry skis, WNDR Alpine, algae, backcountry, microalgae, biomanufacturing, freeride, freetouring, skiing, bcorp, bcorporation, algaltech, biobased, skitouring, ski touring, freeskiing, mountaineering, outdoors, mountains, nature, natural, sustainable, freeride skis, Split Boarding, splitboarding, splitboard, Backcountry Snowboarding, Snowboarding, Snowboards, Ski Kit, Ski Package, Best freeride ski, freeride ski, alpine touring, ski for alpine touring, mountaineering skis, ski mountaineering skis, ski touring, skitouring, local ski brand

Lizard Range, BC. FOW: Eric Porter & Sean Zimmerman-Wall Photo: Sean Zimmerman-Wall

We’d like to thank the incredible teams at the Canadian Avalanche Association and Fernie Alpine Resort for playing host and delivering an unforgettable week of education, riding, and laughter. Thank you to Snowbird Mountain Guides and AIARE for assisting with some of the financial components of the course so we could increase our knowledge and continue our lifelong arc of learning. Thank you to the design teams at WNDR Alpine for producing stellar products that allow us to do our jobs with reliable equipment that inspires confidence and creativity. Thank you to the First Nations of Canada for being great stewards of the land and instilling a deep sense of gratitude for the natural world.

Sean Zimmerman-Wall is a skier, father, and Director of Professional Programs at AIARE. 

 

GET TO KNOW SEAN Z-W

GET TO KNOW ERIC PORTER

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