I had the great opportunity to teach an AIARE 1 Course (American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education) while down in Chile this fall. I’ve been going to South America for four years now, working at a small gold mine in the central Andes Mountains and doing avalanche forecasting and control. Diego Allolio and my colleague at the mine, Colin Mitchell, had been hard at work translating the materials for the past two years. Diego invited me to work with him and his company, Aprendica, on an avalanche awareness course run out of Santiago/La Parva. I believe this was the first AIARE course in the Central Andes region.
The Challenges of Avalanche Training in South America
With a full roster of 14 students, I showed up at the Patagonia store in Santiago ready to roll. I feel fairly dialed when I teach avalanche training in the U.S. I know how to say things, and how I want to teach, where to show students this, where to do that. In Chile, however, teaching in Español, I faced a true challenge. It’s not only the language that makes it difficult, but the culture and the mountains themselves. In central Chile, it’s uncommon to live where the snow falls. The majority of the populations live down in the valley, the heart of a highly agricultural nation. If you don’t get to ponder the intricacies of snow and ice as a young one, it is much more difficult to break into this world of snow and mountains.
On top of this challenge, the mountains are quite large. The terrain is on a Mondo scale comparable to the mountains of the lower 48, so teaching decision making in avalanche terrain becomes infinitely more complex. There exists only a very narrow elevation band of scrub forest before entering the alpine, and it almost never has enough of a snowpack to ski through. So, no forest, huge vertical relief, and…oh yea, fierce Andean storms like no other. But they are few and far between, meaning lots of weak snow layers.
I tried to focus on bringing my students up to a high level of terrain awareness. At the end of the day, no matter what part of the world you are in terrain selection is still one of the most paramount steps in the avalanche safety process.
The Focus of an AIARE 1 Course
It was great to see students connecting the dots and asking great questions. We practiced Moverse Sabiamente (traveling wisely), dug some calicutas (snow profiles), and always kept our eyes and ears open for luz roja (red flags). Perhaps my favorite translation is the Testeo de columna extendida (extended column test.) Avalanche education, on a general scale, is just starting to make its way down to South America, and it’s exciting to see students instilled with a solid knowledge background and to be part of the change and awareness that result.
Colin and Diego taught an AIARE 2 the next week, while I was up at the mine camp battling four loose snow avalanche cycles in as many days. The problem with fixed work locations is that they’re just that, fixed. I did say that terrain selection is paramount, but when the terrain is predefined and you have to deal with the hand you are given (we do have a number of avalaunchers to help with this) my main job at the mine is to do just that. Needless to say, during the long days and nights of observations, control, avalanches, and eating the monotonous food at the mine cafeteria, I was jealous that Colin and Diego were down in the real Chile. Eating good fresh food, drinking good wine, and teaching an excellent AIARE 2 course!
Matt Primomo, Jans Team Member & AIARE Certified Avalanche Instructor