Avalanche education is an integral part of any backcountry traveler’s tool kit who plans to engage with snowy mountainous environments.
It can be a somewhat mythical and nebulous topic with plenty of misinformation floating around. Recognizing avalanche danger and problematic terrain is the first step to being able to avoid it.
Developing a deeper understanding of the different avalanche problems and how to recognize them gives you the ability to limit exposure to the hazard, learning where to locate this information from the daily avalanche forecast bulletins published across the country.
In this article, we will outline some of the basic concepts included in avalanche education. Hopefully dispelling any misconceptions and giving you a path forward on your own journey.
The curriculum of Avalanche education can take many forms and is never really finished. Once started you’ll be a lifelong learner and student of decision-making in avalanche terrain. On a course you’ll learn a repeatable process or framework to use after the course is over.
This involves gathering fundamental information beforehand to prepare for your day, recognizing signs of instability on your tour, and debriefing your day. Your instructor/course provider will take you through this process so you become familiar with it.
Avalanche terrain is anywhere snow can start to move, slide over from somewhere else or come to rest. Recognizing this terrain based on slope angle and vegetative clues such as broken or non-existent trees helps us limit our exposure to the avalanche hazard.
There are nine different types of avalanches. Being able to pick up on the signs/symptoms of those problems helps us decide when to run away from a specific instability.
On an avalanche course, you’ll learn what climate conditions usually lead to those specific conditions and how to limit your exposure to the specific avalanche hazard of the day.
All that and much more goes into being an informed backcountry traveler. Taking an AIARE 1 American avalanche course is often the first step in the right direction (more details to be covered later).
Traveling in the backcountry in the winter can be a deeply rewarding experience.
But doing so safely is often a complicated and nuanced process. Unfortunately, people die every year from avalanches in the US.
Some accidents are more preventable than others and while every incident is unique you don’t want to become a statistic.
Getting hands-on training on how to limit your exposure to the avalanche hazard not only keeps you safer while recreating in the backcountry. It also prevents rescuers from unnecessarily exposing themselves to hazardous conditions if you need assistance from improper preparation.
You owe it to yourself, your recreation partners, and your loved ones to be as well-prepared and abreast of best practices as possible.
The higher you go up on a mountain the colder it gets. This means that climbing high peaks and even lower ones in the winter involves traveling over snow.
Mountaineering and alpinism are objective-based activities. This means that often our route crosses avalanche terrain and includes exposure to the avalanche hazard.
In order to decide when and how to safely complete a climb you’ll need to acquire the knowledge from an avalanche course.
Sliding downhill while backcountry skiing and snowboarding inherently require snow. Snow is the medium in which avalanches occur. People get avalanched while skiing and snowboarding because they go where the snow is.
Unfortunately, that is also where the avalanche problems are most likely to be. It is an oversimplification for sure; before going out you want to identify where in the landscape you think the avalanche problems exist, go somewhere else, and run away from signs of instability.
Because of the nature of snowmobiles and other winter mechanized methods of travel, you’ll have the ability to travel over vast distances that cannot be reasonably covered on foot or skis.
This means that you have the ability to expose yourself to much more hazards and with fewer observations or feedback from the landscape. Because of this getting the proper training beforehand becomes even more imperative so you can manage your risk.
Not all avalanche education courses are created equal. Look for a course with an independent and certified guide.
Additionally, you want to make sure that your course is an official course from the American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education (AIARE).
Some courses are cheaper than others and you often get what you pay for. An avalanche education course is only as good as the instructor(s) providing it. Make sure they have been teaching for a long time, have a wide breadth of knowledge/experience from which to draw from and are certified guides by the American Mountain Guide Association.
In order to get the most out of your avalanche course, show up knowledgeable with your equipment and at a reasonable level of physical fitness. As with any adult education the more you put into learning during your course the more you’ll ultimately get out of it.
The mountains are a harsh and unforgiving environment, they don’t care if you’ve taken a course or not. After your course, your experiences will be dictated by how well you implement the things you learned. So engage and ask lots of questions on your course!
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