Big thanks to Backcountry Access for sponsoring this avalanche education content. Check out the additional plethora of avalanche safety resources on their website.
Avalanche education resources from the Utah Avalanche Center
By Paul Diegel
The leaves are falling, halloween yard decorations are cropping up, and the Hunter’s Moon is waning. Momentum for the impending season rises as snow falls in the high country and ski-related blog posts focus on building fitness, choosing gear and which regions will get the deepest snow this year. How about taking advantage of this season to warm up our avalanche skills?
Whether you are or want to be an avalanche professional, are just starting out (or know someone who is), or somewhere in-between, education options exist for you that didn’t just a few years ago. If you haven’t yet had any avalanche training, your excuses for not taking a class are dwindling. If you’re an experienced backcountry user who hasn’t had recent training, taking a class will fill you in on the latest thinking and sharpen your skills.
Avalanche class providers are starting to post their offerings for the season. Signing up now will help to block out time and commit to taking a class, plus many classes fill up early. The following are some educational resources that have emerged or undergone major updates in the last few years. To find a class convenient for you, check www.avalanche.org, AIARE, American Avalanche Institute, your local avalanche center, or a local guide service. In Canada, the class breakdown is a little different – find details on the Avalanche Canada website.
Know Before You Go avalanche awareness
This is the starting point for those new to the sport, and is a pretty entertaining one-hour way to get your head back in the game. This free program introduces avalanches, why they’re a threat, and what we can do to avoid them. Contact your local avalanche center to find a live presentation nearby or go to the Know Before You Go website to watch the introductory video and a video of one of our top instructors presenting the program.
Introductory on-snow avalanche classes
Introduction to Avalanches, also called Backcountry 101 in some areas, is a one-evening (indoor) and one-day (on-snow) class that will introduce you face to face with the signs of avalanche hazard, safe and hazardous terrain, how to manage your exposure in avalanche terrain, how to use a local avalanche forecast, and how we make good and bad decisions in the mountains, all supervised by a pro instructor. This is a light version of a formal AIARE Level 1 class, with a lot less emphasis on snow structure and stability analysis.
Avalanche Rescue Course (ARC)
Avoiding getting caught in an avalanche is a lot more fun and effective than relying on a rescue, but avalanches happen and usually the only way you or your partners are going to survive a backcountry burial is to be found and dug out by partners using rescue gear. I’m guessing anyone reading this has the gear and knows how to use it, but a real rescue is really hard and the best way to save your partner’s life is to keep your equipment and skills up to date. If you are doing things right, you probably won’t get a chance to use your equipment and skills very often. To be on top of your rescue game, it’s important to practice beacon searching, probing, shoveling, and scene management. Taking a rescue course periodically as a refresher is something everyone going into the backcountry should consider.
Recreation and Pro track multi-day classes and certification
Level 1 and Level 2 certifications are the most common paths to an avalanche education. A Level 1 provides 24 hours of entry-level instruction, mostly on-snow, learning about the snow, weather, terrain, and decision-making factors. There is a lot to learn and a Level 1 class will teach you the language and the basics. To gain the confidence and skills to make smart decisions in more complicated situations, you’ll want to follow that up with some on-snow mentored experience and a Recreational Level 2 class. If you think working in an avalanche-related field is in your future, you’ll want to check out the Pro Level 1 and 2 classes.
Snow and Avalanche Workshops
Every October and November, avalanche professionals and recreationists get together at a handful of local one or two-day avalanche workshops across the western US for presentations, panel discussions, and networking to share best practices, learn the latest thinking on a range of avalanche topics, and deconstruct recent accidents to learn from the misfortunes of others. This could be the best bang for the buck for those that want to refresh or sharpen existing skills. Check your local avalanche center for information on a workshop near you. If you are a pro, consider these as near-mandatory continuing professional education.
Blogs and podcasts
A number of avalanche professionals and centers use blogs and podcasts to share lessons learned from years of experience and moments of life-changing terror (including WildSnow’s own archive of decades of avalanche content). This also provides a deep dive into specific avalanche topics, digging into the details of subjects that don’t always have simple explanations and responses. Following these regularly is a great way to learn from a wide range of experts from different regions, often with new and different perspectives. Some of our favorites at the Utah Avalanche Center include BCA’s Send and Return, the Utah Avalanche Center Podcast, the Avalanche Hour Podcast, and Slide: The Avalanche Podcast.
Taking interactive, self-paced, online avalanche lessons is an effective way to learn the basic language and skills at low or no cost on a flexible schedule. These classes won’t make you an expert, but they will get you started in the right direction, give you some actionable tips, and provide background for your on-snow class, helping you avoid the drinking-from-a-firehose feeling most new users get in a several day class. By doing some pre-learning from experts, you’ll enter a more advanced class much better prepared to understand, retain, and use the information that you invest your time and money learning. If it has been a few years since you took a class, these provide an easy way to update your skills with the latest best practices. Check out the latest eLearning series produced by the Utah Avalanche Center, which includes links to other eLearning resources.
It’s all in online videos now – cute puppies, how to change your brake pads, and how to assess avalanche conditions. Try searching YouTube – the options change daily. Here are some of our favorite, well-established collections: Utah Avalanche Center, BCA, AIARE, AvalancheGuys and Gallatin National Forest Avalanche Center.
We don’t all have the same educational goals and constraints. We all learn in different ways. Riding in the backcountry is a lot more fun when you understand how avalanches work and how to avoid them. New educational resources have made it a lot easier to learn how to make smart decisions. Whether you are new to the backcountry or have been around a while, you can benefit from avalanche education. Please share your favorite sources of avalanche education in the comments – we learn best from each other.
Paul Diegel has served the Utah Avalanche Center since 2002 as a board member, Executive Director, and Special Projects Director. His professional background is in technology and business development, frequently interrupted by backcountry skiing and snowboarding, ski instructing, and patrolling. Paul is currently retired. Sort of.