Learn from legends and Mammut safety athletes Holly Walker, Elyse Saugstad, and Michelle Parker in this two-hour online event exploring snow safety, trip planning, and safe mountain travel. Jen Schmidt photo.
Snow is starting to pile up throughout much of the U.S.—woohoo! If you're like us, it's time to break out the skis and snowboards from the storage shed and get the garage waxing station going. But edges aren't the only things that are a bit rusty from the summertime. It never hurts to brush up on your avalanche safety skills each fall. As we prepare for the 2020/2021 winter season, it's a great time to start educating/re-educating ourselves on safe backcountry travel and avalanche safety. Lucky for all of us, we live in a digital world, and the amount of online resources is growing exponentially. While online courses will never replace traditional avy education, they're great for brushing up important skills.
Ladies, if that sounds appealing to you, then be sure to check out the Lady Alliance's Virtual Snow Safety Event with Mammut happening on November 13th through the 19th. It's a free online event aiming to bring more confidence, education, and conversation to womxn's avalanche education. Learn from legends and Mammut safety athletes Holly Walker, Elyse Saugstad, and Michelle Parker in this two-hour online event exploring snow safety, trip planning, and safe mountain travel. We sat down with one of the instructors Holly Walker to hear more about what to expect and her own experiences in the mountains. Here's what she had to say:
Can you start by telling me about who you are and your background?
Holly Walker: I went through the Association of Canadian Mountain Guides (ACMG) ski guide training program back in 2017. I passed my exams to become an apprentice ski guide, and this spring, I'll take my exams to become a full ski guide. I'm not as much of a rock climber as I am a skier, so I went and got my ACMG hiking ticket to guide people into the mountains through hiking. It's nice because even if there's no snow, I can still bring people into the mountains! I need to appreciate summer more, but I'm just a fiend for skiing.
What appealed to you about guiding?
HW: I grew up skiing and ski racing and eventually did some freeskiing competitions. At the time, I was basically ski bumming it and working restaurant jobs to support that lifestyle. I eventually transitioned to an office job and was trying to make that work, but I remember looking out the window at the mountains and thinking, "I need to get back into the mountains." After getting my Canadian Avalanche Association Operations Level 1 ticket, the Canadian equivalent of an Avy 1, and doing my first aid course, I got a job as a ski patroller at Whistler Blackcomb Ski Patrol. I loved it. It was so incredible to be working outside everyday. But I realized after a few years that my job was to control slopes and injuries. I found myself wanting to go further into the mountains and ski my heart out. My goals evolved into mitigating risk, planning safe travel in the backcountry, avoiding injuries altogether, and celebrating a good adventure with my clients with an apres-ski beer at the end of the day.
I ended up getting some invites to start guiding ski expeditions, and In 2017 I helped guide a trip to Mount Logan, which was incredible. I've done a few traverses in the Canadian Rockies. Once I had a taste of this, I felt like my whole world opened up. When you're a ski patroller, you're isolated to one mountain, but through my training to become a ski guide, it felt like all these mountain ranges were accessible to me now.
Holly Walker is excited to be sharing her knowledge at the Lady Alliance event. Mammut photo.
What are some big things you've learned over the years from guiding?
HW: Safety is always number one. I'd love to say that having fun is number one, but that's number two in my book. And I can’t stress that enough with how many new users wanting to get into the backcountry there are this year. I’m afraid that some are not realizing the inherent risks that come from being in the mountains.
I like to point out to backcountry groups that having a partner that's overanalyzing the risks for the day is an incredible partner to have. It would be best if you were weighing what could go wrong before leaving the trailhead. Obviously, we want folks off the couch and experiencing the outdoors, but they ultimately should be doing so with good decision making.
What have been some of your favorite expeditions over the years?
HW: I'm from the coast, so I've been trying to ski tour more in the Canadian Rockies. One cool trip I helped guide with a full ski guide was the Bow to Yoho traverse. It starts from the Bow hut, and the traverse takes you from Alberta to British Columbia. Once you're in Yoho National Park, the last hut you stay at is the Stanley Mitchell hut. It was an incredible learning experience for me; we were traveling in a full whiteout using a map and compass at points. The journey brought us over glaciated terrain, over big crevasses, and up ridges. Throughout the process, I saw where I needed to work on my skills.
I got the opportunity to go back the next year and do it again, and within that year, I had improved a lot, and it was exciting to see my skills improving in the mountains. It just goes to show how you can evolve year after year. Another memorable expedition was a ski descent on Mount Logan, which is Canada's highest mountain, and it was frigid and windy, but exciting to stand on the top of Canada. With the pandemic keeping us closer to home, I've also been trying to learn more about the mountains in my backyard here in Squamish. One zone I'm particularly excited about is the Tantalus mountain range because, in a typical year, I would have probably overlooked it. I think that's the silver lining of 2020; it's pushing us to explore our backyard more intimately.
When did you become involved with the Lady Alliance?
HW: Mammut connected me with the event, and I've been a brand ambassador with the brand for the last five years or so. Now that I'm a certified guide, I can give back, which feels rewarding.
There's going to be such an influx of new backcountry skiers and snowboarders this year that I've been offering more courses and clinics than usual. I want to get the message out there about safe backcountry travel. Just because my friends and I are making smart decisions doesn't mean that people skiing above us are thinking the same way. There needs to be a bigger discussion on how we're treating other parties in the backcountry. There needs to be a level of respect for everyone, not just ourselves. This is a great opportunity to build a community of stewards.
On top of being a ripping skier, Elyse Saugstad is passionate about avalanche safety. Catch her at the virtual event tomorrow. Jen Schmidt photo.
You taught an in-person clinic last weekend with TLA; how was that experience?
HW: I appreciated the opportunity to take out a new group. Of that group, only three or four of them had backcountry skied before. The rest of the participants were hoping to get into backcountry skiing, and I was excited that they simply showed up for a course that taught them how to use a beacon, shovel, and probe. They also learned how to read terrain.
I encouraged them all to not treat the clinic as this all-encompassing lesson but rather a jumping-off point for many years of learning. I encouraged them to take more courses, hire a guide, and gain as much knowledge in a safe capacity as possible. It was also incredible that the Lady Alliance was able to bring women, men, and all kinds of multiracial Canadians together in an environment that felt inclusive and positive.
What's on the agenda for the Virtual Safety Tour?
HW: Essentially, the Lady Alliancefilmed all the in-person clinics to release as informational videos for the virtual clinic. The two-hour video will give snippets and highlights about skill-building and snow safety tips.
If you're a visual learner, this is a pretty phenomenal resource. I'm more of a kinetic learner, so I hope it will encourage participants to pursue more hands-on snow safety education. With the snow starting to fly, people should start getting outside and practicing the things they learned.
It seems like practicing never hurts, especially when you want to get used to your equipment.
HW: Practice. Practice. Practice. If my friend gets caught in an avalanche, I don't want to be thinking about how to rescue them; I want everything to feel like muscle memory. I want my students to be able to respond and move fast. And practicing doesn't have to be this big convoluted thing. Do you ever get snow in your driveway? If so, use that as an opportunity to practice your shoveling technique. Making your skills more efficient saves time, which could be the difference between life and death during an avalanche burial.
The survival rate for someone buried in an avalanche drops significantly after 15 minutes. If you aren't fast with your transceiver, efficient with your probing and digging, it could mean the difference between digging your friend out in 17 minutes rather than 14 minutes.
It's not everyday you can learn snow safety skills with the legend Michelle Parker. Sign up for the clinic today! Jen Schmidt photo.
What are some easy ways for folks to refresh their avalanche education?
HW: It's all dependent on where you live, but your local avalanche center's website is a great place to start. Avalanche Canada has many handy resources like the companion rescue protocol or the avalanche terrain exposure scale that you can dig into.
Courses are also a great tool, and for folks who already have their avy 1 or 2, I like to suggest taking the companion rescue course every year. Each year, the curriculum updates, and my technique for rescuing has changed over the last three years because different associations come out with faster strategies. For shoveling, the quickest method used to be the conveyor belt. Now it's the strike team method. It's not to say if you do the conveyor belt style that it's wrong, but I rather pick the slightly more efficient way to save a minute or two on my rescue time—every second matters at the end of the day.
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