When you were just getting into backcountry skiing or snowboarding, you probably heard it a million times: “Know before you go.” Learning about how to avoid avalanche danger, and how to use the tools needed for rescue, is critical.
Many used to think that you would take your avalanche education, get to the top and be done. That is not how it works. Education changes, practices change, technology changes, and our skills are perishable goods. Continuing education and development beyond the basic level are crucial steps in the everlasting quest to stay on top (literally). No matter your path, education is the cornerstone of enjoying a long life of backcountry recreation.
If you’ve taken a Level 1 course in the past five years, you probably heard mention that a massive paradigm shift was going to take place in the avalanche education world with regard to continuing education. This revolution would bring our standards closer to those of our neighbors in the north (Canada) and keep our avalanche education more in step with our global counterparts. This shift refers to a split in the Level 2 avalanche curriculum.
Instead of one track that everyone pools into, now there are two distinct tracks: a Recreational track and a Professional track.
All will enter through the same door of an Avalanche Rescue Course which is a single-day, eight-hour course that focuses on companion rescue (i.e what to do when there is an avalanche) and a Recreation Level 1 course. These two courses can be taken in any order; as long as you complete them, you can move on.
From there you can decide which path is right for you: Rec or Pro track?
AIARE 2 Students probing for consistent depth to determine good snow pit site selection.
Avalanche education is not a closed circuit. It is a lifelong pursuit and one that should never end. With the split comes the opportunity to further choose what it is you want to do with your education. Are you a backcountry user who spends a majority of your time in the backcountry? There is a track for you. Are you a ski patroler or an avalanche forecaster that wants to get caught up to date on industry best practices? Got you covered. By separating the curriculum, providers are able to give you a better product and one that is more relevant to you.
In the past, recreational users were unsure as to why they would feel the desire to move forward in the track. While they learned a lot of valuable information, they also learned a lot of information that was specific to operations or patrollers. While professionals learned a lot of relevant info, they too were taught extraneous info that may not be specific to their day-to-day tasks.
Bottom line: Better product, better aimed at what your end goal, whether it’s recreational or professional.
At its most basic level; do you get paid to go work in and around snow or do you do it for fun? If you get paid (or want to become someone who gets paid) you should follow the professional track, if you do it for your own enjoyment, then the recreational track. That may sound too blunt or simple, but it is, and here is why. If you are into going out with your buddies on the weekend or a pow day, there is just some stuff you don’t need to know. For example, everyone rolls their eyes—pros included—when they have to dig a pit. It’s time-consuming, cold, and requires a lot of skill to be done well. But as a recreational skier, you don’t need to know subclass grain identification and you don’t need to know how to do a full temperature gradient. Furthermore, if I am not getting PAID to dig a FULL pit, I don’t dig one.
Craftsmanship is key to relevant snow pit test results. Here instructor Shaun explains how to “clean” the snow pit test wall.
That being said, when I am out on my days off, with my friends I still may suspect a weak layer and do some stability indicators (tests). A Level 1 course will teach you how to do a standardized Column Test and an Extended Column Test so that when you are out ski touring, snowshoeing, or snowmobiling, you can make educated, targeted observations that are relevant to your day on the snow. Basically, it’s all the information you need to get out, find the best snow to ride on, and make it home safe at the end of the day.
Level 2 Rec students will be taught how to make relevant avalanche observations to their local forecast center. A level 2 Pro course will teach you how to do a full temperature profile, more detailed grain identification, standardized recording of findings to SWAG standards, operational protocol, risk management, decision making, and more.
Bottom line: Want to maximize your day and get out and ride? Rec track. Looking to become a guide or a patroller and get paid to work on the snow? Pro track.
Is this all complicated and a touch messy? Absolutely. Growing pains are not called growing joys, because they hurt a little bit. Despite initial confusion, we, as avalanche educators and guides, feel that this is a tremendous step forward for our industry/community and will only make us safer and better.
Recording observations: AIARE Instructor Shaun explains how to annotate different layers within the snowpack.
The American Avalanche Association (A3) is the governing body on all things avalanche education in the US. It’s in charge of setting the learning outcome standards for providers. The two main certified providers in the US are the American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education (AIARE) and the American Avalanche Institute (AAI). Both run courses all over the country, follow the A3 guidelines, and track course completion for continuing education and potential certification.
Certified A3 courses in the US:
These are easy to use right out of the box. They have three antennas (the new standard) and don’t have a bunch of extra bells and whistles that might confuse you in the heat of the moment. If you are looking for a more advanced rec beacon that is simple but does have a flagging function for multiple burials, then you will want to go with the Pieps DPS Sport.
These beacons have some more features, such as inclinometers, compass, and big picture graphics for multiple burials and extra functions.
When picking out a shovel and probe you want to consider how strong it’s going be when you really need it. Lightweight is nice, but if your carbon probe deflects or breaks when you go to plug it in the debris while looking for your buddy, that’s not gonna fly. If your tiny lightweight shovel takes three times as long to move the one ton of snow that your friend is buried under, that’s no good either. So for those reasons, you will not see us recommending the uber lightweight probes and shovels here.
Your everyday tools and should be as durable as they are efficient.
These are tools that will help you confirm the day’s forecast and track trends without taking up a whole lot of space in your pack.
These are what you will need to have in your kit to identify the weak layer, forecast trends, and make observations to SWAG standard.
Backcountry Ambassador Shaun Raskin is a guide and avalanche educator with Park City Powder Cats & White Pine Touring, runs Inspired Summit Adventures, and is an athlete & co-founder of The Life Unbound. Follow her adventures on @shaunraskin