IN THIS NEW SERIES, MARTIN CHESTER PROFILES HIS OUT-AND-OUT HEROES IN THE WONDERFUL WORLD OF MOUNTAIN GUIDING. NEXT UP: MIKE AUSTIN. OVER TO MARTIN…
You may not have heard of Mike Austin, but you will probably have heard of his avalanche education alter-egos Rocket and Lucy: the stars of ‘Avalanche Avoiding Kung-Fu’. Now it is time to meet the man behind these lovable characters and find out how this passionate skier, ski-guide and avalanche forecaster came to have such an impact on the world of avalanche education.
Ripping a fresh line down the north face of Mont Joly, Mike is in his element. The slope is deep in cold snow, almost entirely untracked, and perched above a cliff band at a bullseye angle for slides. It is not the kind of place you expect an avalanche safety guru to go. But with a grin from ear to ear (and skiing a way longer pitch, closer to those cliffs, than I was prepared to go) I realised quickly that Mike is not your average avalanche guru.
Mike is a self-confessed avalanche geek. So much so, he started the company with that name nearly 10 years ago and has been sharing his passion for knowledge ever since. So how did this happen?
As a keen mountaineer and expedition climber, Mike had his first taste of skiing on the Antarctic Peninsula when he landed a job with the British Antarctic Survey. Working as a field assistant alongside Bruce Goodlad and Simon Abrahams (destined to become British Mountain Guides) they would blag the use of snowmobiles and go skiing after work. Making use of the 24hr daylight, they could ski until midnight, albeit on their lousy ski mountaineering kit. Where Mike had once viewed skiing as a “rich person’s sport and not for me” he was soon making a £4 per minute call to Braemar Mountain Sports to order some Scarpa Denali boots. That is some Deliveroo!
Many people struggle to settle after a season down south and, bitten by the ski bug, Mike went to work a season in Whistler. He would then combine an intense career in the police (including time on an Armed Response Unit) with sabbaticals to indulge his ski habit and make progress through the AMGA ski-guiding qualifications.
He soon realised that avalanche education in the US was way more structured than in Europe and became increasingly interested. Setting up Avalanche Geeks proved the perfect combination of all Mike’s skills and experiences. As a passionate skier, a trainee ski guide and an avalanche forecaster, with a background of high-pressure decision-making in the police, he brings a pragmatic approach and philosophy. “Assembling a shovel and probe is a simple task. Just like pulling a gun out of a holster is a simple task. But these things become tough under pressure and there are ways to learn how to handle that,” he says.
Mike (along with Bruce) at Avalanche Geeks make their courses as rewarding and enjoyable as they are practical. They build your skills along a pathway of knowledge. If they have a USP it’s to deliver their Level 2 American Avalanche Association syllabus course in a hands-on way. “What we do well is distill it down to the decision-making process,” he says. They are on a mission not just to “bang on about theory – but make it real and focus on solutions”.
Speaking first hand, after helping out on a course, I reckon this is where they really deliver. They emphasise that avalanche education is not just about playing it safe – it is about understanding snow. Knowledge is a means to an end: to find good terrain and the best snow. “The best feeling in the world is dropping into fresh powder, and avalanche knowledge is a tool to find the best snow on the mountain,” he says. For many clients and students, an Avi Geeks course will see them skiing the best terrain with the best snow of their season.
And in this doom-and-gloom world of HSE risk avoidance and safety nannies, I find that utterly refreshing.