“I feel like I’ve been run over by a bulldozer” (Sofia Henriksson, Sunday January 24th, 1 pm).
After 4 twelve-hour-days of what in my world goes as nothing less than an avalanche boot camp, my brain is just about as spring loaded as oatmeal and my legs have as much energy as, well, the same pot of oatmeal. During the past 4 days, I’ve experienced the perfect mix of heaven and hell; I’ve felt nervous, tired and cold (and wet) beyond belief but also as enlightened and uplifted as a helium balloon. Even though I feel like a ton of metal just mangled my brain and limbs, I feel like flying.
I have just participated in DNT’s level 1 avalanche instructor course. The course focuses on expertise in snow science, methodology and human factors. My main motivation for applying to the course was to 1) learn more about snow in order to get better at separating my rational from irrational fears and thereby make myself safer and happier in the backcountry, and 2) to take one step towards doing what I ought to do; to use my experience of making mistakes in the backcountry to help others become both happier and safer in avalanche terrain.
It’s been a very long time since I was as nervous as I was the week before the start of the course. Participants qualify on experience, and are expected to come (very) well prepared. The main role of the course instructors is to create room for learning by asking the right questions and by giving feedback. It is we, the participants, who are in charge of teaching each other both in- and outdoors.
I think that the experience of teaching your fellow colleagues, and receiving feedback both from them and from your instructor, is perhaps best described as jumping from heat of the sauna into the ice cold water of the fjord (or like taking a big gulp of Ardbeg): at first, you almost choke, then it feels as if your head will explode, and then (after a while) a warm sprightly feeling starts to spread from your cheeks, via your tummy and down all the way to your toes.
For me, having to teach competent others put me on my toes and I think that the structure of the course maximized the potential to really extract and use all the resources available in the group.
Because the DNT avalanche instructor course is really all about the group. This is important, because risk reduction in avalanche terrain is also almost all about the group. Groups can create group think or wisdom of crowds. Within the bunch of people I met the past weekend, I found the the latter: there was definitely a lot of expertise (I can’t remember the last time I met so many competent people in the same spot), a variety of ideas, and freedom of speech.
With our instructors help, we developed an atmosphere where everyone was continuously given constructive feedback from each member of the group. I know that the comments and suggestions that I was given pushed me forward and I could see that the same thing happened to others.
I don’t think that I have ever learned so much in such short time, and I feel truly humble and very grateful for having had the opportunity to get to learn and learn from such great people as the ones I met during the course.
So what did we do during these bulldozer days except from giving each other feedback? Well, we discussed, discussed and discussed some more. We sweated like crazy as we dug up mountain sides to simulate avalanche scenarios and sweated even more as we tried to beat the clock finding buried transceivers. We struggled a lot and we laughed even more. But most of all, we learned.
We learned (or at least realized the importance of learning) how to systematize our analysis of snow – to see the past weather in the snowpack, to evaluate the generality of findings in a specific location and to make better guesses about probability and size of potential slides.
We learned how to shovel efficiently both individually and as a group, the ABC:s of avalanche first aid (Airways, Bleeding and Cold), and the importance of practicing search and rescue in realistic scenarios.
For me, practicing search and rescue with multiple burials not only taught me the importance of practice to beat the clock, but also that if you take a rough ride in the snow, you need to give your transceiver a thorough checkup. Because you really want your transceiver to work flawlessly when the shit hits the fan, and my apparently does not. The malfunctioning of it hasn’t shown during standard partner checks or during single search, but when we searched for multiple buried transceivers, my device missed things that was literally under my feet.
I also learned the importance of not only doing a simple group check with your transceiver but to also do a double partner check (to check that all transceivers work in send and search). Finally, I learned how to maximize the potential of getting a signal (very cool, if you rotate it back and forth and vertically by your ear, you can all of a sudden find, or hear, a signal that you at first didn’t find).
Concerning my rational and irrational fears, I learned that I on a theoretical level know quite a bit, but I need to work a whole lot on putting that knowledge into practice. I spend way too much time in the office … :). Risk reduction in the backcountry is not learned by just reading books, it is learned by going out and getting exposed do many different terrain types and snowpacks. So I need to get out a whole lot more and learn how to become both more pragmatic – to focus on the important stuff and discard the less important – and to become more sensitive. I need to focus less on what the books say and more on what the environment tells me (and how that story changes over time and geographic distance).
So what about using my experience of doing mistakes to help others? During the course, I gave a presentation of my analysis of incident in Kittefjäll back in 2014. The experience was enormously rewarding in several ways. Giving a lecture on human factors and relating those human factors to our accident allowed me to once again re-evaluate why we got into the situation that we did. That was really interesting. During and after the lecture I also got to hear how others started to think about their own decisions and situations when #nothingbadhappened but probably a whole lot of #badthingsCOULDhavehappened. That was nothing but fantastic.
4 days of avalanche boot camp doesn’t make anyone an avalanche expert. Rather, it makes you realize how much there is that you need to learn. But those 4 bulldozer days taught me more that I ever expected and as a side effect, I rediscovered a lot of my backcountry stoke. I owe big (huge) thanks for that.
So thank you Melanie and Camilla, for guiding us, challenging us and supporting us. Thank you Sofia, Marie, Linda, Karin, Anja, Kine and Edda, for intense discussions, productive feedback, wise thoughts, strong muscles and just in general for a really good time. You ladies rock!