Skiing and riding in the backcountry is a bit like driving on the freeway: when you know the rules and have some skills and experience, it has some risk, but it tends to work out OK. When you lack those ingredients, it’s confusing, embarrassing, and dangerous at best, and nobody wants to ride with you. When you understand how to match your decisions to the current conditions, you can get out and safely have a great time on any day, regardless of the conditions. So how do you learn to make good decisions in the backcountry?
Groups offering avalanche safety training are plentiful in the West; you can find a comprehensive list at Avalanche.org. In Utah, along with the Greatest Snow on Earthtm, we have some of the greatest avalanche education available anywhere. Opportunities to learn about travel in avalanche terrain for all budgets, schedules, ambition levels, and learning styles exist. Here’s a summary of where to go in Utah to get avy-savvy:
Attend a free one-hour Know Before You Go avalanche awareness talk. The Utah Avalanche Center (UAC) presents this program several times per week around Utah, with many sessions open to the public. Like an avalanche, this program is loud, scary, and in your face, and it will grab your attention.
These are the two best and most current books available. You can find them locally and online.
Staying Alive in Avalanche Terrain, by Bruce Tremper
Snow Sense: A Guide to Evaluating Snow Avalanche Hazard, by Jill Fredston
Utah Mountain Adventures will teach you what you need to know to get started in the sport; they’ll address equipment, dressing properly, efficient travel techniques, uphill/downhill transitions, and avalanche considerations.
Check out a Backcountry 101 class from the Utah Avalanche Center. You will get an evening classroom session and a field day to introduce and practice the basics of avalanche characteristics, clues to instability, terrain selection, using the avalanche advisory, rescue, and human factors. We offer motorized and non-motorized versions of this class, classes for women only, and classes in the Wasatch, Uinta, and Logan mountains.
The Utah Avalanche Center offers an Advanced Avalanche Skills class, with a classroom evening and a field day with an avalanche pro and other like-minded students. We will dig into whatever stability issues are present at the time of the class and challenge our stability-testing, route-finding, and decision-making skills and assumptions. This is your opportunity to pick the brains of forecasters, guides, and other avalanche professionals.
Take an AIARE or AAI (American Avalanche Institute) Level 1, 2, or 3 multi-day course starting with the basics and providing professional-level theory and practice. Available all over the western U.S., this is where most avalanche pros begin their study. Class schedules are listed here.
For a map with state-by-state listings, you can also check the Avalanche.org website.
Contact Utah Mountain Adventures about a custom guided avalanche class from one of their experts. Your ski or split-snowboard instructor can show and teach you how to make informed stability route-finding decisions, from the basic to expert level, in the process of leading you on a backcountry ski tour.
Riding when you don’t understand the hazard isn’t much fun. Nobody wants to be the partner that can’t be counted on to make good decisions or make an effective rescue. The pros understand that the safest and highest-quality riding, day after day, comes from making terrain choices to match current conditions. It’s easy to learn about avalanches. Check out the Utah Avalanche Center’s education page for a complete listing of avalanche learning opportunities in Utah—including beacon clinics, training parks and workshops—from the UAC and other local providers.
For some basic avalanche statistics and warning signs, and to find an avalanche course near you, visit Backcountry.com’s Avalanche Safety 101.