Choosing an Avalanche Course

on Nov 24, 2010

November has shown all the exciting signs that another snowy winter is underway. Down in the valleys the once vivid foliage has fallen to the ground, the daylight hours have decreasing and the temperatures have cooled off. Winter has already made an appearance in the valleys over the last few weeks with a welcome dump of snow in town and arctic temperatures. With all the natural elements aligned, the human excitement is slowly building with anticipation of another great winter in the mountains.

Why Take an Avalanche Course

The mountain environment is rightfully praised and cherished by backcountry enthusiasts. It is an amazing place to connect with nature while exercising. The snow-covered winter landscape, full of contrasts, offers tremendous outdoor recreation opportunities.  As much as the winter mountain environment can be a rewarding place, it can also be a dangerous place. One of the main hazards facing winter recreationists in the mountains are avalanches. Statistics speak for themselves, every year there is an average of 14 avalanche fatalities in Canada. To put the odds in your favor, learn to make better decisions in avalanche terrain and to raise your avalanche awareness level, some avalanche training is highly recommended.  See avalanche training, backcountry skills courses and guided ski tours for more information on backcountry programs in Nelson, Rogers Pass and in the Rockies.

When it comes to avalanche training and education, the Canadian Avalanche Association (CAA) is a world leader. In recent years, the CAA has done a tremendous amount of work to standardize and simplify courses and curriculums. They have set high standards to help guides and educators provide the public with some highly effective avalanche awareness skills. 

Generally speaking, avalanche training is either recreational or professional. The recreational avalanche courses are for the general public and people interested in gaining avalanche awareness skills for their personal backcountry adventures. The professional avalanche courses are intended for people who aspire to or already work in the avalanche industry. Both categories offer various levels of courses depending on your skills and goals. 

Recreational Avalanche Courses

Recreational avalanche courses are for anyone interested in learning avalanche skills for personal interest.  Whether you or your kids are just getting into backcountry skiing, you want to deepen your knowledge base or simply refresh your skills you could start here.  Recreational courses vary in length; generally the longer the course, the more skills and experiential practice. Depending on your background and interests, courses to consider are: the 1 day “Avalanche Awareness Courses”, the 2 day “Avalanche skills Level 1 (AST 1)” and the 4 day “Avalanche Skills Level 2 (AST 2)” courses. 

The one day avalanche awareness course is entry level training. This course covers some of the skills required to head into the backcountry including:  backcountry safety, etiquette and resources, how to recognize and avoid avalanche terrain as well as basic avalanche safety gear use (beacon, probe & shovel). Many organizations offer this course throughout western Canada. In the Kootenay region, Avalanche Awareness Beyond the Boundaries is a non-profit society that provides free Avalanche Courses to youth aged 13– 18.
The Avalanche Skills Training series (AST 1 & 2) are more in depth programs for backcountry skiers, boarders and snowmobilers. AST courses, formerly known as Recreational Avalanche Courses have become the accepted recreational model since 2006. They have been developed by the CAA in an effort to improve avalanche safety in Canada. One of the main goals of the AST courses is to provide a decision making framework for recreationists based on the most advanced knowledge available. The curriculum has been streamlined to represent the changing techniques and bring awareness to recourses available so the public can make better decisions when planning a trip or while in avalanche terrain.

The AST 1 course involves about 8 hours of classroom and at least one day in the field.  It is ideal for people interested in learning the decision making process and what resources are available and necessary to increase safety when planning a trip or while in avalanche terrain. This is a great course whether you are just starting up or want to refresh your skills with current techniques and up to date resources. The price for this course varies greatly depending on length, instructor skills and training and location of the program.  The AST level 1 is a steeping stone for further industry training (i.e. AST 2 and Professional Avalanche Courses). 

The AST 2 is a longer course involving about 8 hours of classroom and a minimum of 3 days in the field. It is geared for experienced recreationists interested in refining their decision making skills. Unlike the AST 1, one of the goals of the AST 2 course is to learn how to adapt personal exposure based on the changing avalanche conditions. This is where recreationists will learn about the subtleties in the snowpack, the avalanche bulletins, the terrain variations, and changing weather patterns and their impact on terrain choices in avalanche terrain.  AST 2 is the highest level of recreational training available in Canada. To do this course it is recommended that you have completed the AST 1 course as the material is a continuum and a basis for further training. 

There are various levels of instructor experience; for recreational courses instructors have usually completed at least one of the professional avalanche courses.  They may also be tied to a particular aspect of the avalanche industry: mountain guiding, avalanche control, avalanche risk management programs. As avalanche training is highly experiential, when choosing a company or school, consider the professional experience of the instructor. Instructors teaching a 1 or 2 day courses are required to have completed the professional Level 1 course while AST 2 instructors will have completed the Level 2 course and are a professional member of the CAA.  For a list of the current avalanche courses in your location, visit the CAA website.  In Nelson avalanche training programs are offered each month by ski and mountain guides, for more information visit AST 1 and AST 2 course pages.

Professional Avalanche Courses

The CAA has developed a thorough and chronological training program for avalanche workers called the Industry Training Program, which includes the “Avalanche Operations Level 1, 2 & 3 courses”. The “Avalanche Operations Courses” provide the academic and practical foundation for avalanche professionals in Canada.  These courses are intended for people who aspire to or already work in the avalanche industry such as in snow safety evaluation, avalanche control, avalanche research, avalanche education, mountain guiding and winter search & rescue operations. Each of these course is much more expensive and time consuming (vary in length from 1 to 2 weeks) than a recreational course.  Students develop a wide range of skills, build a resume of practical field experience, and learn from some of the most experienced instructors in the the avalanche risk management industry.

The CAA “Avalanche Operations Level 1” course is the entry level course for professionals and the basis for further industry training. It is the logical 1st step for those interested in working in the avalanche industry.  Participants must be advanced skiers or split-boarders and should have considerable backcountry travel experience to comply with rising industry standards. Participants must have completed a minimum of one recreational AST courses (preferably both). This intensive 7 to 8 day technical training course comprised of approximately 40% theory and 60% practical field work regarding the formation and nature of avalanches, personal and group safety measures, significant properties of the mountain snowpack, organized search & rescue, recognizing avalanche terrain, operational risk management and decision making as well as the collection & recording of weather, snowpack and avalanche occurrence.  To better represent the various aspects of the industry, this course is available in different specific formats geared to skiers, snowmobilers, search and rescue personnel or educators.  Upon successful completion, participants will have the necessary skills to begin a career in the avalanche industry.

“Avalanche Operations Level 2” course is an advanced 14 day program for people who work full time with avalanche safety, control operations and guiding. Participants must have at least 100 days of operational field experience making and collecting weather data, snowpack information, and avalanche activity observations before applying. This generally requires at least two years of active operational field work and experience under the mentorship of more experienced CAA Professional Members. “Avalanche Operations Level 3” course is very new 5 day course intended for senior position avalanche workers employed in forecasting, risk management, and/or planning positions.  For more information on curriculum and prerequisites for these advanced levels, contact CAA

Backcountry Skiing

Mountain recreation in a winter environment is rewarding and exhilarating. It teaches us a great deal about ourselves and our environment. In those moments of bliss, it is often easy to forget about common sense.  Through avalanche education, it is possible to gain a proper knowledge base for better decision making in avalanche terrain.  The process for better knowledge and experience is lengthy and a journey in itself. Most of the courses offered in Canada target a broad audience and offer a great learning progression.

As in many things, knowledge teaches us the rules and experience teaches us the exceptions. The avalanche world is no exception, in fact it seems like the more we know, the more there is to know. Through this process we gain a better risk awareness perception. Since the level of risk associated with backcountry skiing is high, being humble and adapting to the constantly changing surroundings is key to survival. A good dose of avalanche training will surely play in your favor too!

Have fun learning and enjoy a safe winter!

 

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