Perspective – Avalanche Awareness Course, Temple Basin Ski Field 15-16 July 2017

‘We have a saying in this business, that all avalanche experts are dead’.


And so began our two day avalanche awareness course at Temple Basin Ski Field. As I had recently invested in a split-board with the intention of getting into some back country adventures, I thought it was best to get some training before bounding off into the wilderness. Seeing as I have a healthy fear of avalanches, the course seemed a good place to start. My fears were immediately confirmed by the introduction from our instructor for the weekend, Ryan, a friendly Canadian who manages the avalanche risk for the ski field. Drawing on his many years of skiing, and working as an avalanche controller at a Canadian gold mine, he was full of useful information and first-hand accounts of the horrors that avalanches can inflict.


If the trauma from being tumbled around in an avalanche didn’t get you, or you weren’t thrown into a tree or a rock, then you have asphyxiation to look forward to. However, if you were lucky enough to dodge that, then it is just the small matter of hoping you are found and pulled from the snow before hypothermia kicks in – it appears avalanches have a lot of bases covered when it comes to calling your day short. And it was with cheery thought that we started learning about terrain assessment and companion rescue.


On a still, blue bird Saturday morning, with Mt. Rolleston looking over at us, we practised transceiver location, probing and shovelling, with each stage requiring more technique and proficiency than I was expecting. Another sober point to note is just because you’ve found your buddy, doesn’t mean they’re saved. That sweet pow-pow you were previously enjoying has now set like concrete, and can take far longer, and require far more effort to dig out than you might expect. You have about a ten minute window before survival odds, much like your companion’s body temperature, start to plummet.


With that fun fact in mind, we broke for a hearty lunch, served with excellently sized portions of cake, presumably done so to lighten the mood after a morning learning about the numerous ways to die on a mountain side. Refuelled and feeling more positive about life, we settled in for an afternoon’s lecture on all things avalanche-y. Presented by Ronan, a dry witted Irishman who also happens to be the Avalanche Technician at Mt. Hutt, and part of the back country forecast service for the New Zealand Mountain Safety Council, he was the ideal person to educate us on the fundamentals of avalanches.


As well as more obvious influences such as weather and terrain, heuristic aspects were also discussed, covering how decisions within the group can affect the day’s outcome. During the presentation we were introduced to terms such as ‘rotting snow’, ‘bait lines’ and ‘surface buried hoar’ (which isn’t spelt how I originally thought it was. So when a demonstration involving with two coke cans, a plank of wood, a student was set up, I thought I was going to go in a very different direction). The day ended with a review of the New Zealand Avalanche Advisory web site, a site that anyone who has an interest in the back country should be aware of.


The following day was kicked off with a brief morning presentation, before braving the elements outside. In the wind, rain and occasional snow flurry, we were shown how various measurements of the snow pack were taken, via the construction of a snow pit. Shuffling back inside to dry off and warm up, the afternoon was spent making the most of the terrible weather outside, by staying inside, and watching an avalanche documentary, followed by a final Q&A session with the instructors. This provided an opportunity to clarify anything we had covered during the weekend, or ask any burning questions.


‘Is it common to soil yourself when caught in an avalanche?’ was one such burning question, asked by someone who evidently had other priorities on their mind when being swept down the mountain side in an unstoppable torrent of snow, ice and general horribleness. But I guess in fairness, a bad situation can always be made worse.


I started the weekend terrified of avalanches, and finished the weekend more terrified of avalanches. However, I now have a new respect for the mountain slayers, and a much better awareness of route planning when out in the wilderness. Bring on the back country course.




Highly recommended for anyone with an interest in the back country, the course provides an excellent foundation for further learning. Also worth noting that we only touched on snow pack analysis i.e. snow pits, as this is covered in more detail in the advanced four day course.




Two day Avalanche Awareness Course, operated by the New Zealand Snow Safety Institute (NZSSI). Next course is on the 5-6 August:

Temple Basin Ski Field:

Other available NZSSI courses:

New Zealand Snow Safety Institute:

Author: Ian Middleton


Aug 09, 2017 | Category: Whats happening? | Comments: none