Risk Reflection: Teaching avalanche education through Vermont’s pandemic restrictions

On a snowy January weekend, I took my AIARE Level 1 course with Petra Cliffs’ co-owner Steve Charest, who has been an AIARE course provider since 2009. Local Covid restrictions made this year’s courses different from any others Charest has taught over the past decade, and Charest’s Vermont-based courses were unlike others in the country. Throughout the winter, the state had some of the most restrictive regulations in the country, including a ban on multi-household gatherings for the holidays and a mandatory two-week quarantine for anyone who has traveled outside of the state. By the time Charest held his first AIARE course of the season, Governor Scott had loosened the restrictions to allow groups of less than ten people to gather outdoors as long as they maintained six feet of distance and always wore a mask, but maintained the two-week quarantine restrictions for out-of-state visitors.

In past years, Petra Cliffs’ AIARE courses consisted of twelve students and two instructors. The first day was spent in the classroom and the following two days were in the mountains. While this year the class had the same student-teacher ratio, courses consisted of only one instructor and six students due to Governor Scott’s restriction on group size. Upon reflection, Charest noted that he found the intimate group size in our January course to be more inclusive, but added, “I missed sharing some of the instructor responsibilities and having alternative teaching strengths and styles between instructors.”

A Petra Cliffs AIARE 2 student practicing social distancing before it was cool. [Photo] Petra Cliffs

Charest says that the changes made to accommodate for Covid were equally instituted by AIARE, the State of Vermont, and his own business. “AIARE has been great for helping create and distribute the materials and provide general ideas of how we can operate with lots of flexibility,” Charest explained in an interview after the course. “The pre-course web-based information for example has been greatly expanded and supported by AIARE. AIARE has not required eliminating classroom or limiting group size, but you must meet the state’s expectation.”

He further highlights how Petra Cliffs played with the idea of requiring participants to “pre-quarantine, pre-test negative, and bunk together as a ‘unit,’” but in the end chose to follow the state’s lead by taking an education over an enforcement posture. For the state of Vermont this approach meant that there was no policing or fines to ensure that the rules were being followed. Instead, there was a push to educate Vermonters so they would understand the restrictions and would want to follow the rules on their own accord, not for fear of punishment. Following this thinking, Charest had participants to do temperature checks at home and asked several Covid screening questions about recent travel outside the state and contact with anyone who was in quarantine. It was up to each individual to act responsibly and to answer the questions honestly.

Petra Cliffs’ AIARE 1 began on Saturday with a classroom day that had been modified to Zoom. The first order of business was a quick review of the pre-course packet provided by AIARE titled “Decision Making in Avalanche Terrain” which included a brief overview of the concepts we would cover and mini quizzes. We discussed the preliminary material and were encouraged to ask questions. Charest utilized Zoom’s breakout room function to split us up into small groups for more intimate discussions. One of these group activities was to discuss a topic that is often overlooked: recent avalanche accident reports that had occurred on the East Coast.

Sunday and Monday were spent outside at Smugglers’ Notch, a mountain pass with dramatic views located between two Vermont ski resorts: Stowe and Smugglers’ Notch Resort. We parked on the Smuggs’ side and made the easy two-mile skin up to the visitor center cabin. Here, the road expands creating an open field perfect for beacon practice and is the location of trailheads to several classic Vermont backcountry runs.

On day two we made the same trek up to the visitor’s cabin. Surrounded by the silence only found in the winter, we listened and watched Charest explain how to dig a pit before attempting our own pit tests with a partner. I tapped on the snow and looked for weak layers. Like the many AIARE students who had come before me, I felt some doubt about whether I was analyzing the conditions properly and my partner seemed equally dubious, making me realize that there are somethings that a pandemic will never change. Meanwhile, Charest bounced from snowpit to snowpit, trying to answer all of our questions, and I began to see the value of having more than one instructor for the group.

Finally, we gathered near Charest’s pit and watched as he did the final few tests and talked about what he saw. Being out on the snow, hearing the whoomph when a layer collapsed, and really seeing what was going on below the surface, was incredibly valuable. The lightbulb slowly turned on, and I began to connect the pre-course material and the Zoom training and discussions with what I was actually seeing on the snow.

There was a concentrated effort at practicing social distancing; however, it was difficult to achieve the required six feet of separation. In order to look at beacons, snow crystals, and most importantly in order to simply hear Charest’s instruction, the six-foot rule was routinely violated. However, the mask wearing was universally followed without question. While we hiked, dug pits, and worked on companion rescue, I barely noticed my mask. Instead of being an inconvenience, it kept me warm. I even added my buff over the mask after the skin up to help protect me from the frigid Vermont cold. Overall, the small class size and the fact we were outside made the class feel quite safe.

Stephen Charest practices his own risk and reward in Alaska. [Photo] Petra Cliffs

Now that the season has ended, Charest has had time to reflect on this unusual year. He reports that despite the pandemic, the enrollment numbers were fairly equal to past years. This made his job more difficult because the class size requirement meant that he had to run classes back-to-back and did not have the support of another instructor. “It was hard to not have a co-instructor to also share the information exchange, take a quick mental break, or prepare for the next lessons,” he says.

When asked if he planned on incorporating any of the changes that he instituted this season into non-pandemic years, Charest admitted, “This one is hard to commit to, but I really came to appreciate the new format. I have never been a fan of online or Zoom-style clinics, but by the end of the season I learned the value, flexibility, and pros and cons of the systems.” His favorite addition, and something that he plans to use in the future is the is the pre-course materials: “‘Seeding’ the information one-hundred percent lead to better group lead question and answer sessions…I could see using these systems for seasons to come,” says Charest.

This pandemic has caused many of us to re-evaluate our sense of risk. Charest finds a commonality between risk in the mountains with the risks of Covid. “Honestly we managed the risk of the pandemic much like we manage the risk of traveling in avalanche terrain. We evaluate and question what the likelihood is that this risk will occur, we measure and evaluate the consequences of it if it does and adjust our vulnerability and exposure.” Through this pandemic “we handled our avalanche education experience the same way,” by evaluating and minimizing risks and respecting individual opinions and comfort levels.

Charest’s way of connecting the risks in a pandemic to risks in avalanche terrain helped me wrap my brain more completely around how to evaluate these risks. We have spent the last year evaluating our behaviors, trying our best to make thoughtful and informed decisions, and this new awareness can be a useful skill in the mountains as well. Like mask wearing, taking an AIARE course is just one of the first steps. Continued learning, re-evaluating and questioning are important skills for both going out into the mountains and wading through this pandemic.

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