Last weekend we completed our AST-1 avalanche course in Canmore & the field day in Kananaskis. This course is designed to provide an introduction to understanding the numerous factors that can cause avalanches. Being an AST1 level course, it’s designed for people [like us] without much backcountry touring experience.

The two day course begun with an inside theory day to learn about the many different types of snow that fall, the weather phenomena that affects snow & what we can do to avoid triggering avalanches. From cornices and facets to deep hoars, we learnt all the lingo to understand the different issues that weather can cause after snow has fallen.

When backcountry touring the minimum equipment you travel with is a avalanche transceiver, shovel & probe. More high tech gear for serious travel in avalanche terrain can include avalung backpacks (to increase the accessible oxygen once buried), and airbag backpacks (to increase your floatation (inverse segregation) and hopefully bring you closer to the surface once caught in an avalanche). A surprising insight during the theory day was that 25% of avalanche deaths in Canada were due to trauma caused by being carried through wooded areas by the avalanche rather than asphyxia due to being burried.

Splitboard split into touring mode

The second day gave us the opportunity to head out of town into the backcountry to test our new skills in a practical sense. First off was just setting up our splitboards into the tour mode. Removing the bindings, splitting the two halves into separate skis, fitting the bindings into the tour mode and sticking on the skins to allow the skis to travel uphill.

Sticking on the skins

Prior to venturing out into the backcountry, the avalanche bulletin is one of the several pieces of information required to understand what & where the risks are. Combine this with the weather, ATES rating and recent mountain conditions reports and you’ve got a fairly good understanding of the broader scale conditions.

Avalanche bulletin ratings.

Once the group was setup and moving around, we ventured off to an area to practice using our transcievers, probes & shovels to locate avalanche victims.

Getting used to splitboarding

We did this in pairs by burying backpacks with our transceivers inside to simulate an avalanche burial and sent someone off with their transceiver to locate the backpacks. As with most of winter in Canada, it was pretty warm and the snow was pretty soft - digging pits to bury packs meant mainly sinking to your waist as soon as you step off your skis.

Digging pits for burying bags

After countless pits were dug and bags buried and successfully rescued, we begun our tour uphill on our skis. After easily skinning uphill with an end goal at the forefront of your mind (shredding it downhill!), cross country skiing on flat ground seems like a meaningless effort.

Skinning up Chester Lake

Enjoying the conditions

Once we climbed up the highest we were going to venture in our course, which was well into a dense forest we stopped to test the snowpack. This typically involves digging a snow pit to understanding the different layers in the snow and to hopefully correlate the warnings found in the avalanche bulletin.

Skis off, time to investigate

This involves digging a snow pit to understand the layering that has occurred as the snow has fallen and been affected by the weather and additional snow that has fallen on top of previous layers. Once dug, some layers are clearly visible, while others can be detected only by dragging your hand from surface to the bottom of the pit through the different layers.

The main test to carry out is the compression test on a 30x30x100 cm block of snow in the snowpit. It’s a rather strange to see hear about but it’s relevance once seen is really relevant to riding or skiing on the various layers in the snowpack. The test involves putting your shovel on the block of snow and progressively hitting the shovel harder with your hand to see what the effects are on the snowpack layers.

Compression testing

After our snow pit testing was over, we were ready to ride down the hill on our boards back in one piece.

Time to shred

By the time we finished for the day the snow was soft and isothermal, meaning it was soft & wet throughout the entire snowpack. All this means as you sunk straight to waist deep as soon as you tried to go anywhere not on a board or skis.

A really fun weekend and great introduction to backcountry riding.


Today Simon and I visited an outdoor forest play program in Canmore, Canada and were blessed with incredibly blue skies, mild spring weather and breathtaking surroundings.

We arrived at the Canmore Alpine Club, the meeting spot, where we wandered down a slippery snow covered path to the ‘tipi’ where we were told the children would shortly be arriving to.

We then heard the sound of excitement and laughter as the children ran down the snowy path past the campsite and into the tipi. We were welcomed by Dave and Corey, the instructors of this program, both parents of young children and passionate outdoor enthusiasts. The day at forest play begins at lunch time, where the children finish at their Waldorf Kindergarten or school and come to the forest for the afternoon.

The children eagerly tucked into their lunches, shared stories of their day, while Dave and Corey spoke to the group about lighting the fires. There were a few keen helpers who started collecting wood and a bag full of lint from a dryer to use to start the fire. The children had complete control of this process and were seen testing the sticks for kindling against their cheek to see if they were wet or dry. After arranging the fire inside the tipi Dave asked for an assistant to light the fire, demonstrating and reminding them of the safest way to strike, hold and light the match. It was amazing to see how skilled and capable this group of 4-6 year olds were in understanding fire making and the reasons it may or may not be lighting, discussing blowing on it and that maybe it needed more lint as a starter.

I wandered outside to see how that fire was coming along, witnessing a child cutting wood with a hatchet and another using a long pine branch to stoke the fire. All of which happens under trusted supervision and confidence in the children’s capabilities and awareness of the risks and safety involved in lighting fires. At this stage it was clear to me already how authentic and special this program really is for the children.

With a small group of children warming up inside the tipi Dave begins to tell a story, involving the children in the flow of his storytelling. Corey is outside being chased by a T-Rex who was asleep in its den. This unrestricted and open play continued for sometime with snowball fights, slides and hide and seek all unfolding.

Once the fires were roaring, play had slowed a little and bellies full, it was then time to officially begin the day. We were treated with an enchanting welcome song where the children used sticks and hands to create sounds of an African drum.

Dave asked what the children felt like doing for the remainder of the session and a majority of excited children all requested carving camp. A leader was selected, in charge of leading the way and making sure everyone was together and safe. Bags were placed on backs, jackets collected and we headed off to craving camp, a short walk along a hillside track to a sunny and open space surrounded by picturesque Rocky Mountain views.

It was incredible to see how quickly each child settled into an area and activity they wished to do, from carving, to climbing, to hiding, some still eating. I observed the children sit, pull out their wood and knife or peeler and contently work on their carvings. I overheard a child telling another “be careful, your in my blood bubble” with an explanation from another telling me that it is the area around you where you might get hurt from a stick or a sharp knife. Boats were being created by the children with a lot of experience carving, with long sticks being sharpened by the younger ones who are using peelers to begin practising the foundation skills of carving in a safer manner.

After observing the remarkable carving skills for sometime we were taken away by two boys to play hide and seek past a fallen tree and in an open area of the forest. While we were playing I was stopped by one who told me to try this berry. He explained to me that “you need to pick the blue ones, not the white ones they have too many seeds in them”. I questioned what they were and if it was safe to eat them and he told me they were Juniper berries and you need to suck on them until they were gone. I could see Dave in the background, proud to see him explaining with confidence some of the forest foods available to us. Actually, earlier in the day another child told me about the pine needles and that if you are in the forest with no water and you need it, you can chew the pine needles and they have water inside them. Remarkable stuff.

We explored this space for hours with the children before our day came to an end, with requests from the children to stay and play more because 4 hours had only felt like 13 minutes..

An experience like no other, and one I look forward to sharing back home next year.