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How To Get Educated About Avalanches

Author: Paul Diegel

October 03, 2019

I’ve always wanted to try scuba diving. I’ve heard friends talk about it, seen videos and photos, and it sounds like something I’d like to try out. So a few weeks ago, a couple of buddies invited me to go diving with them to explore a cave they’d heard a lot about. I borrowed gear, they explained the basics on the boat ride out, and we had an awesome time—it was everything I’d imagined it would be.

Wait—what? You may be thinking something like, That isn’t how you get into scuba diving. And you’re right. That didn’t really happen. I made that up. Safe scuba diving begins with formal training, certification, and easy supervised dives. Diving doesn’t have to be dangerous, but there are a lot of inherent risks, your buddies can’t always get you out of trouble, and pretty much nobody dives without formal training.

Now let’s talk about winter backcountry travel and avalanches. According to Karl Birkeland, Director of the Forest Service National Avalanche Center, the average number of avalanche fatalities has remained flat since 1995 (and has actually decreased over the past four years).

In this time, backcountry use has increased a lot—estimates range from 12 to 36 times the users. Steeper and more remote terrain is getting regular traffic. How does that work? How do lots more people in riskier terrain lead to no increase in avalanche deaths?

The increase in avalanche education is key to saving lives in the backcountry. More avalanche learning opportunities are available than ever before. More backcountry users have learned to identify the red flag warning signs that tell us when it’s safe to go big and when to dial back our exposure and how to do companion rescues, allowing us to make smarter decisions in the backcountry.

At the Utah Avalanche Center, we’re excited about the range of avalanche education options backcountry users have at their fingertips. Whether you aspire to become an avalanche professional or simply want to get into the snow for fun with confidence that you are going to come home unscathed, you have education options that didn’t exist just a few years ago. If you haven’t yet gotten any avalanche training, your excuses for not taking a class are dwindling. If you’re an experienced backcountry user who hasn’t had any recent training, taking a class will fill you in on the latest thinking and sharpen your skills. Knowing something about avalanches makes you a better and more reliable partner. Here are some educational resources that have come into existence or undergone major updates in the last few years.

Know Before You Go Avalanche Awareness
This is where it starts for a lot of people. This free one-hour program introduces what avalanches are, why they’re a threat, and what we can do to avoid them. Contact your local avalanche center to find one nearby or go to www.kbyg.org 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, to 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. To find a class convenient for you, check www.avalanche.org, your local avalanche center, or a local guide service.

Avalanche Rescue Course (ARC): While it is far more effective to avoid getting caught than to rely on a rescue, 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. This is really physically and mentally difficult and you need to learn proper technique, carry and be familiar with rescue gear, and practice your skills frequently. Learn more about taking an ARC here or check in with your local avalanche center or guide service.

Recreation and Pro track multi-day classes and certification
Getting Level 1 and Level 2 certifications are the most common ways to get an avalanche education. A Level 1 provides 24 hours, mostly on-snow, learning about the snow, weather, terrain, and decision-making factors that can lead to avalanche accidents.  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 you need to make smart decisions in 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. In the US, learn more about a Level 1 class and beyond here or check in with your local avalanche center or guide service. In Canada, the class breakdown is a little different—check out the details here.

Snow and Avalanche Workshops
Every fall, avalanche professionals and recreationists get together at a handful of local 1 or 2 day avalanche workshops across the western US for presentations, panel discussions, and networking to share best practices and learn the latest thinking on a range of avalanche topics and deconstruct recent accidents to get valuable lessons from the misfortunes of others. Maybe 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.

Blogs and Podcasts
A number of avalanche professionals and centers use blogs and podcasts to share lessons they and others have learned, sometimes from years of experience and sometimes from moments of life-changing terror. This is also a great way to take a deep dive into specific avalanche topics, digging into the details of subjects that don’t always lend themselves to 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. Here are some of our favorites:

Online classes

Sitting in a classroom sounds so 2005. Taking interactive, self-paced, online avalanche lessons is a great 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 great background for your on-snow class, helping you avoid the drinking-from-a-firehose feeling most new users get in a multi-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. Check out the latest eLearning series produced by the Utah Avalanche Center, which includes links to other eLearning resources.

Video collections

It’s all in online videos now—cute puppies, how to fix your dishwasher, and, of coursee, how to assess avalanche conditions. Here are some good collections. Try searching; the options seem to change daily.

It’s not just about skiing

There are programs for snowboarders, snowmobilers, snowbikers, snowshoers, ultra runners and others. If you go into or near steep, snow-covered terrain, there’s a good chance you’re exposed to avalanche hazard and there is a program for you.

Winter backcountry is not about the danger—it’s about the snow, the weather, the friends, the challenges and the accomplishments. But we do need to deal with avalanche danger. Getting an avalanche education doesn’t just make you safer, it helps you understand more about your winter playground, increases your confidence, provides you with the skills to find the best conditions and makes you a better partner.

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 wise, informed decisions in the backcountry. Whether you are new to the backcountry or have been around a while, you can benefit from continued avalanche education.

Paul Diegel

Paul joined the Utah Avalanche Center in 2002, first as a volunteer and then as Executive Director. He is trying to retire but continues to develop avalanche education and awareness programs. Paul grew up skiing; racing, competing in the early days of freestyle, and speed skiing. He has engineering and business degrees and spent 30 years in technology development, while skiing at every opportunity and ski instructing and patrolling. He skis and splitboards in the backcountry, competes in Ski Mountaineering and spends summers trail running, biking, and exploring moving water. On rest days, he’s involved in open space preservation and environmental activism.