It’s fair to say that Winter Hazards is like no other class at Quest. Rather than learning in the classroom like a traditional class, the majority of our learning took place in the mountains.
Let me back up a bit and explain what the class actually is. Winter Hazards is essentially a month long avalanche/snow science class. This basic description hardly does justice to the amount of learning that occurs though. The class stresses the importance of communication, group dynamics, and smart decision making. These skills are not only integral in the backcountry, but also in life.
Week 1: Intro to Snow Science and Winter Camping
The first week of class was essentially an intro to the field. Snow science is an incredibly deep topic so learning the basics of weather and snow pack structure is key before going into the field. After this was accomplished we romped up into the backcountry behind Quest to look at the snow first hand (Google Red Heather for more info on the area). Looking back and writing about this first day in the field three weeks later is an experience in itself as I realize how much I’ve learned. Like the amateur snow scientists we were, we cut crude pits into the snow and tried out various stability tests that our teacher described.
Later this week we embarked on one of the more adventurous things I’ve done, sleeping in a snow cave. While this may seem insane and frigid, by building a good snow cave the inside temperature can actually reach a balmy 0 degrees Celsius. Sleeping in a cave for fourteen straight hours was quite the experience and on top of that I’m pretty confident of my snow cave building skills in case I ever get stuck in a bad situation in the backcountry.
Week 2: Wendy Thompson Hut
Week two of class involved an incredible amount of growth as a class and as an individual. Monday morning we trekked up over 5 kilometers with heavy backpacks to stay in the Wendy Thompson Hut near Duffy Lake, BC. The entirety of this week was spent in a tiny cabin with fourteen people cut off from the outside world. Every day we would wake up early, put our gear on, and prepare for another day of exploring and learning.
One thing repeatedly stressed over the course was the saying “just another piece of the puzzle”, in regards to any weather observations or the results of a snow stability test. The surface meaning of this phrase is easily translated to “don’t rely on only one piece of information when making decisions”. Truly comprehending this phrase though turned out to be anything but easy. Synthesizing so much information about weather, temperature, slope angle, snow structure, and more, was very difficult when presented with one simple thing such the results of one stability test on one slope. Being isolated in the mountains for five days learning nonstop forced us to think about all these things 24/7 and in the process helped all of us cultivate our “mountain sense” as one student put it. By the end of the week I felt much more confident in my decision making abilities, or put another way, putting together these puzzle pieces.
Another things we focused on was developing systems and routines that are highly flexible and adaptive. This is skill that I believe is useful in all aspects of life. In a small cabin with lots of people and no basic amenities, nothing was taken for granted and efficiency and planning were critical to success. A small example of this planning can be seen in how we used water. Every day we collected buckets of water from a river nearby but in order to be safe to drink, it had to be boiled. Planning when to boil water and how much at a time (with limited fuel) became an art form. As the week progressed I watched our group change their habits from boiling water last minute during breakfast to boiling it at night to save time the following morning. Small things like this may not seem like much in themselves but as I said before the principle behind them is important. I’ve already noticed a dramatic change in how I plan my time to be more efficient after the conclusion of this hut trip.
Week 3: Leadership
Week three largely functioned as a way for us to implement and take charge of the skills we learned at the Wendy Thompson Hut. Our class was split into partner groups with each group being in charge of a different day and a different location. We were tasked with the job of “leading” that day, meaning we would have to plan the trip from start to finish. This involved things like intimately learning about the weather, snow pack, terrain, and road conditions of that day. In addition we were in charge of planning our route up the mountain. Using technology such as Google Earth this became a fun and somewhat easy endeavor. This week was a great chance to truly experience what makes a good leader by learning from your mistakes in a supportive setting. Though we were given a lot of responsibility, our teacher and another mountain guide was with us all day to answer questions and to warn us about risky terrain if need be. The rest of the class also did an amazing job supporting the leaders, cheering them on and offering advice in situations where the leaders may have been unsure.
At a practical level this class will help me make decisions in the backcountry for the rest of my life. In addition it cannot be emphasized enough that not all learning occurs in the classroom. I have no doubt that the skills I learned in this class will translate to my life as a whole and to future classes at Quest. I’d also be remiss if I didn’t mention how much fun I had skiing throughout the class.