The Avalanche Maze

Or, how to choose a course that meets your needs

Finding an avalanche course in the Pacific Northwest isn't too difficult. However, finding a course to satisfy your needs may be another story entirely. It seems every advertisement cites a different organization or institution-even the course titles differ, with Basic, Advanced, Level I, Level II, Level III, Awareness, professional, recreational and more. Why can't it be simpler?

Choose a course | North to Canada | In the USA | What's in a name? | A few questions? | Bottom line

North to Canada

Well, it is simple if you live in Canada. North of the border they enjoy a single organization with the responsibility and authority to oversee all avalanche operations and training, coast to coast. The organization is the Canadian Avalanche Organization (CAA) and it was formed in the 1980's with an infusion of government money. Since that time it has become self-sufficient and supports its operations through advertising, service fees, book royalties and course fees. The CAA offers courses to both professional and recreational audiences under a uniform set of titles and standards as follows:

Introductory Recreational Avalanche Awareness Course-This 2-3 day course is designed for the many, non-professional, outdoor enthusiasts currently heading into avalanche country. This course centers on the basics, to include weather, terrain, snowpack, route selection, human factors, self-rescue and rescue beacon techniques.

Advanced Recreational Avalanche Awareness Course-This 4-7 day course is directed at the same audience and covers the same subject areas, but in far greater detail. Students spend more time assessing avalanche hazards and learning to avoid them.

Level I Avalanche Safety for Ski Operations-This 7-day course is designed for entry-level avalanche professionals such as ski patrollers, transportation workers, etc. The course takes the same areas discussed in the recreational courses to the level of analysis. Basic hazard analysis and forecasting skills are developed and a significant time is spent on organizing and conducting organized search and rescues. This course is the minimum requirement for professionals in Canada.

Level II Avalanche Safety for Ski Operations-This multi week course is designed for the career avalanche professional. The course develops forecasters, which subsequently remain ìplugged-inî to the CAA network. Student selection is quite strict and limited to those already possessing extensive avalanche experience.

The CAA appoints instructors based upon experience and avalanche education, but does not monitor the conduct of their courses, or provide instructor training. Although the instructors are required to teach the same materials and use the same books, the quality of their courses may vary significantly.

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Back in the USA

Well, ìthat's not so complicatedî, you say! You're right, but now the fun begins. There is no single agency in the United States responsible for standards and conduct of avalanche training. We have a lot of agencies and organizations involved, but none holds sway over the others. Some principle players are:

The National Forest Service (USFS)-Provides avalanche forecasting services and instruction in many regions of the nation. Also provides instruction to its own members, and the general public upon request. The government does not robustly fund avalanche forecasting, so profits from instruction are applied directly to this function.

The American Association of Avalanche Professionals (AAAP)-A non-profit organization formed to facilitate information flow and provide some guidelines and support to the professional avalanche community. The organization provides general guidelines for Level I and Level II course content (whether this is professional or recreational remains unclear), but offers no minimum timelines or instructor certification requirements. The AAAP recommends the public only attend courses taught by its professional members.

The National Ski Patrol (NSPS)-Provides avalanche training to its 28,000 members worldwide. It features a fully developed instructor certification process and support network, to include continuing education, training materials and quality management. NSP offers two courses: Basic Avalanche at 2 days and Advanced Avalanche at 5-7 days. Emphasis is on hazard identification and analysis, route selection, self-rescue and organized rescue. These courses can also be made available to the general public.

American Mountain Guides Association-Avalanche is a component of their guide certification process, but they don't set standards for stand-alone courses. NOLS and Outward Bound are in similar circumstances.

Assorted non-profit forecasting and support centers - Some of these are under the auspices of educational institutions or state governments. The Colorado Avalanche Information Center is a good example. These centers function similarly to USFS centers, providing regional forecasting, instruction and technical advice.

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What's in a name?

As you can imagine, with a mixed bag of agencies such as this, uniform course titles, standards and instructor certifications are hard to establish. As you search for your first avalanche course you'll find numerous titles. Absent a single US governing agency, many instructors have gravitated toward the Canadian course descriptions and criteria. For the purpose of simplicity, we will place the courses in two general categories as follows:

Level I/Introductory/Basic/Awareness Courses-These courses are geared toward the first time student. Some are targeted at recreational customers, some are designed for ski patrollers, and some have a greater backcountry focus. All of the courses are 2-3 full days in duration with a significant classroom portion (30-50%). The better courses include weather, terrain, snowpack, avalanche dynamics, decision making/human factors, rescue beacon training, self-rescue and group rescue.

Level II/Advanced Courses-These courses are targeted at customers who already completed a Level I/Basic course, gained some experience, and are ready to expand their knowledge of avalanches. The course is normally 4-7 days in duration, includes the same components as the Level I course, but takes students to a higher level of thinking. Significant time is devoted to the analysis of weather and snowpack as they relate to the avalanche hazard. Level II courses directed at avalanche professionals are similar, but branch into forecasting and control work.

Level III - Some agencies offer Level III courses directed solely at avalanche professionals. These courses vary significantly and will not be discussed at this time.

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Excuse me, could I ask a few questions?

So you've found a course that seems to be the level you're looking for. It's nearby and the dates sound convenient. So far so good, but the only real way to make a smart choice is by asking the instructor some tough questions. Remember, the quality and fidelity of instruction can't be judged by the course title or agency name. Here are a few things you might want to know:

How long is the course and what percentage of the time will be spent in the field? A good Basic or Level I Awareness or Recreational Awareness course should be 2-3 full days in duration. Classroom time is essential to present the concepts which will solidified during the fieldwork. A good guideline is 8 hours in the classroom.

Does the course cost include any books? Any other materials? Most courses include a book for future reference. Lots of technical material is covered, even in the basic/awareness/recreational course. A book is useful for review and reflection at the start of subsequent seasons. Some courses also provide inclinometers and assorted checklists.

Does the instructor provide safety equipment to all students? Field time implies travel through potential avalanche terrain. Instructors try hard to avoid terrain that poses an actual hazard, but surprises do happen. Credible courses provide, or require the student to provide, beacons, shovels and probes. Search and rescue training is normally conducted before heading into the backcountry.

What is the maximum instructor:student ratio? The CAA recommends a maximum ratio of 1:8. Most credible schools follow these guidelines, or tougher ones. This is both a safety and quality issue. Larger ratios reduce the value of training, especially during the field portion.

What is the maximum class size? Class size matters, regardless what the instructor:student ratio is. Large groups move slowly in the field and dilute the classroom instruction. Courses larger than 15-20 students should be avoided.

What is the instructor's avalanche experience? As stated earlier, the AAAP recommends that Professional members teach all courses. AAAP has stringent criteria for professional membership, and this is a good guideline. However, there are some very knowledgeable folks out there who are not Professional AAAP members. Ask how many years and in what capacity the instructor has been working with avalanches. Ask about backcountry experience. A person who threw bombs at the same ski area for 10 years may not understand the nuances of terrain and snowpack evaluation. On the other hand, a person who never threw a bomb but has traveled the backcountry for years may have a wealth of relevant information to offer.

What formal avalanche education/training has the instructor received? There's more to avalanche knowledge than just playing in the snow. There is a scientific basis for everything related to avalanches and this is gained through formal education. That said, course credentials aren't the full package either-see the preceding question.

What sort of continuing education does the instructor pursue to ensure he/she is teaching the most current material? Believe it or not, the basis of avalanche knowledge is growing and changing. Many institutions are conducting research on an ongoing basis, equipment is changing, plus new data is coming in from the field daily. Some of this is disseminated through articles, but much more is shared at two specific fora. The National Avalanche School and the International Snow Science Workshop are each one-week long and occur on alternating years in the Fall. Most committed avalanche professionals attempt to attend these periodically.

What is the instructor's teaching experience? Do you remember your math or physics teacher who was brilliant, but couldn't teach you anything? OK, nobody could teach me physics either, but the point I'm making is that knowledge doesn't necessarily mean the ability to teach. Good teachers normally have some formal how-to-teach training, teach frequently and enjoy teaching.

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The Bottom line

Well, now that everything is as clear as mud, I recommend you go find a good course before venturing into the backcountry during the winter. Remember, it's just like buying a car-you must know what you want, what the various products offer and then search for the best value. Ask the tough questions and don't commit until you're sure. Let the buyer beware!

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