What do you need to know to ride outside the resort gates? There are a lot of different avalanche classes and ways to learn, but where do you start? We all have different aspirations. Like keeping up with buddies in the sidecountry, spending weekends skinning and ripping the local backcountry lines, or maybe spending a week in British Columbia exploring from a hut. Maybe you want to grow into a job patrolling in a ski town. The avalanche community has put a lot of thought into this and has some suggestions.
The place to start is a Know Before You Go talk. Originally from Utah, the program is spreading across North America. Contact your local avalanche center or REI store to find one nearby or go to KBYG.org to watch the video and slide show. This is not required to move on to more advanced classes, but is a great starting point. Typically free and indoors, it lasts about an hour. The program shows why we’re concerned about avalanches, introduces simple practices you can adopt to boost your safety, and provides the framework for learning more. It also provides some stoke—after all, we go into the backcountry to have fun.
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You’ll need to take a rescue class to learn to use your rescue gear to save your partner’s life. Doing a rescue is easy in theory and really hard and scary in practice. The way to become competent and confident is to take a class, practice with your friends, and take a refresher class every few years, just as you would with First Aid and CPR. Which you are current on, right?
You have some options after that. If you have a local avalanche forecast and experienced partners and want a quick and effective lesson in recognizing avalanche terrain to get some turns and stay out of trouble, consider taking an Introduction to Avalanches (also called Backcountry 101) class. This is typically a one-evening/one-field day class that will introduce you to using an avalanche advisory, conditions to watch out for, avalanche terrain, safe snow travel practices and some of the factors that cause humans to make both brilliant and remarkably poor decisions. You’ll spend a day exploring the backcountry with a seasoned professional in a small group and see how they approach a day in the backcountry.
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The next step is to take a Level 1 class, traditionally the first step in a structured avalanche education. You’ll spend at least 24 hours in this class, mostly in the field. You’ll learn more details of avalanche anatomy, terrain evaluation and route selection, travel protocols and group communication, snowpack and weather, stability tests, use of snow study tools to understand snow types, decision-making tools, rescue mechanics, and the role of first aid and emergency response in avalanche rescues. Completion of a Level 1 class will leave you ready to make better-informed decisions on your own in avalanche terrain.
The Introduction and Level 1 classes have no prerequisites, but doing some reading and online video tutorials will give you a head start and increase your learning and retention. For any field session, you need to be comfortable using your backcountry ski or splitboard gear both uphill and down and have the fitness and riding skills to handle travelling up and down in variable ungroomed conditions. Many people skip the introductory class and go straight to a Level 1, but beginning with the optional introductory class will better prepare you for a Level 1 class and allow you to get more out of it. If you have never been in the backcountry, it would be best to spend a little time in the backcountry first with patient and experienced friends or a professional guide.
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After your Level 1, you have a choice to make. If you think an avalanche hazard mitigation job is in your future, like forecasting, ski patrolling or search and rescue, you should head to the newly-formed Professional Avalanche Education track where you’ll learn more about snow science, critical decision-making, weather forecasting and effects, protecting groups and infrastructure, stability assessment, communication, documentation and public interaction. If you are in the backcountry for recreation but aspire to travel to unfamiliar areas and snow and weather patterns, don’t have access to a local forecast center to summarize multiple factors into a concise advisory, or just want to geek out on the science and really be prepared for complex conditions, the Recreational Track Level 2 is your next step.
Outside of the formal education track, there is a lot you can do to hone your skills. You may be able to find special offerings locally, like a terrain management or rescue refresher or a KBYG presentation tailored to the needs of motorized users, fat-tire bikers or ultra-runners. There are several good books on avalanche safety. For example, I keep Staying Alive in Avalanche Terrain and Snow Sense beside my bed for periodic review. The Internet is full of online tutorials. Attending a regional fall Snow and Avalanche Workshop provides professional-level continuing education at a bargain price. Getting out with other trained and experienced users, paying attention to the terrain, snow, and weather, and talking about what you see helps create the effective habits that can keep you alive and allow you to probe more challenging terrain. Practicing using all your rescue gear under pressure is a no-brainer. Checking your local advisory daily along with observations will help you understand where your local snowpack has been, where it is headed, and what the pros are seeing and thinking.
For more information and to find course providers, check out:
- Local backcountry guide services
- And, of course, your local avalanche center
Images courtesy of the Utah Avalanche Center.