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AAA Course Write Up

Consider 6 members of Aberdeen Mountain Rescue team looking forward to a weekend of avalanche training in the Cairngorms. Pre course reading – check, ice axe – check, crampons – check, shovel, probe and beacon – check, check, check. Now fast forward to the 25th and 26th March, the weekend of our Avalanche Geeks AAA Level 1 course. Good practice is to check the weather forecast and avalanche forecasts in the run up to the course. The Met Office were forecasting clear skies, sunshine and 16 degrees Celsius. Yep that’s right 16 degrees above the point at which snow and ice form and the SAIS forecast looked like centre court at Wimbledon (i.e very green).

According to Wikipedia, avalanches are a rapid flow of snow down a sloping surface and are typically triggered in a starting zone from a mechanical failure in the snowpack . The key words being ‘snow’ and ‘snowpack’. Unfortunately the Met Office weren’t forecasting the former and SAIS didn’t expect much of the latter.

The American Avalanche Association (AAA) level 1 is a 2 day course with classroom sessions in the morning followed by practical training in the afternoon. Day one started with theory of avalanches and avalanche rescue. The afternoon started with a trip up the Cairngorm Mountain Raliway and a short stroll to one of the remaining white patches on the hill. The practical involved one to one coaching on the use of avalanche beacons and the introduction to the mantra ‘slow is smooth, smooth is fast’ was made by our instructor Mike. After that a variety of pits were dug to ssess the strength of the snowpack. Following this a walk back to the Cairngorm Mountain carpark followed with assessment of the limited snow packs en route.

Day two started with another classroom session including how human factors are a vital consideration in avalanche companion rescue. In the afternoon, it was back to our favourite patch of snow for some scenarios. The first scenario involved working in pairs to assess a casualty and search for their partner who had been caught in an avalanche, the search included the use of a avalanche transceiver to locate the casualty, a probe to detect the casualty under the snow followed by some hardcore digging. All the time, the instructor had his stopwatch running. Was it a competition, I hear you ask? Of course not, the successful rescue of the casualty was of paramount importance. It absolutely did not matter that Scott and Ali managed it in 6 mins 30 secs, Alex and Pete in 8 mins 30 secs and the two Mikes in 9 mins!

The final exercise was a multiple burial search conducted as a team, this was conducted under observation from a passing Glenmore Lodge instructor and their group of ski tourers – no pressure then! The exercise involved searching with multiple beacons and the team leader quickly had assigned the required roles. Two casualties were located using beacons. The third casualty was discovered due to visual clues and was not wearing a beacon. This was a valuable lesson as it reminded the team that not all avalanche victims may be wearing beacons. It’s important to keep your eyes open and look for clues.

After that it was back to Glenmore Lodge for tea, cake and certificates. Overall a great weekend was had by all members of AMRT and a big thanks to Avalanche Geeks for running the course. Next year the team have organised a level 2 course, there may need to be a gladiator style competition for the 12 places.


Words by Alex Spencer

Picture by Scott Stevens