HOW TO PICK AN AVALANCHE EDUCATION COURSE

by Wagner Skis / Dec 05, 2019

Which Avalanche Course is Right for You?

There are a lot of avalanche courses out there, and it may be confusing for beginners to figure out where to start. To make matters more complicated, the American Avalanche Association embarked on a collaborative effort with major avalanche educators to roll out a new curriculum a few years ago, which separated the courses into two tracks, one for recreational users and one for professionals:

The Avalanche Education Course Structure

Regardless of whether you’re on the professional or recreational track, you start with the identical first steps, which are foundational to everything that follows: Avalanche Awareness and Level 1 units. 

AVALANCHE AWARENESS

These courses can take a few hours or a full day, and are often taught by local avalanche centers, nonprofits, or mountain-gear retailers. The major points are to:

1) Get the right gear
2) Understand where to find valid information and how to use it
3) Identify avalanche terrain
4) Find out where to take the next step

It is important to note: THIS IS NOT A LEVEL 1 COURSE!

LEVEL 1

This course should be no less than 24 hours and is generally taught over three days. This is the cornerstone course for anyone who intends to travel in snowy mountainous terrain. It introduces avalanche hazard assessment, decision-making, and rescue. You’ll understand decision-making about when to go or not to go, and how to conduct yourself in and around avalanche terrain. This course is appropriate for all current and aspiring backcountry travelers.

Student investigating a large intentionally triggered avalanche

AVALANCHE RESCUE FUNDAMENTALS

This one-day course (eight hours of instruction, with a combination of classroom and field time) focuses exclusively on how to be prepared for and respond to an avalanche incident. You will gain hands-on experience with techniques of companion rescue. Most avalanches that carry and/or bury a person are triggered by that person or someone in their party. An immediate response by the group involved is the best chance for survival. You should be ready to save a life, and always travel with someone you trust to save yours. This course is for everyone and should be a periodic refresher to keep pace with evolving technology and technique. We recommend getting your backcountry ski partners to take it with you.

LEVEL 2 AVALANCHE

This is where the two tracks split: Professionals go to the Professional Avalanche 1 unit, and recreationists go to Level 2 avalanche course. The prerequisites to the Level 2 are the Level 1 and Rescue Fundamentals—you should have prior avalanche training and experience. Are you a dedicated winter recreationist who yearns to explore more challenging and complex avalanche terrain? Gain a deeper understanding of the nuances and intricacies of avalanches? Further hone your hazard assessment and decision-making skills? Understand how to choose terrain to match the current avalanche conditions?   

Students perform a crown profile on a large natural avalanche 

PROFESSIONAL LEVEL 1 (PRO 1)

This entry-level avalanche course is aimed at professionals, those seeking employment in avalanche management, those newly employed, and seasoned avalanche professionals who wish to refresh their skills and learn current practices. The five-day Pro 1 course focuses on how to be a contributing member of an operational avalanche program and team. The student will learn to be a skilled observer who effectively collects and contributes information and opinions to risk-management discussions and operational decisions. Prerequisites for this course include a Level 1 course, Rescue Fundamentals course, and at least one full winter season of relevant experience.

Unintentional skier triggered slide in Days Fork, UT 

PROFESSIONAL LEVEL 2 (PRO 2)

This course is for developing avalanche professionals with several seasons of applied professional experience and/or seasoned professionals looking to develop skills applicable to leadership roles. The six-day Pro 2 course focuses on leadership skills within an operational avalanche program. The student will be taught, coached, and evaluated on operational risk management decision-making skills including forecasting, risk mitigation strategies, and professional communication. The prerequisites include a Pro 1 certificate, at least two full winter seasons of operational avalanche experience (verified by a letter of reference), and examples of professional documentation.

Patrollers perform spot probing and run dogs on a large, fatal avalanche in the Park City backcountry 

PROAVSAR

This stand-alone course supports professional SAR (search and rescue) operations. It covers the intricacies of organized rescue, including Incident Command System, tactical and medical triage, group risk management, and complex decision making. PROAVSAR students may or may not have taken another course in the Pro Training progression. This course was designed for ski patrol, search and rescue, EMS, and law enforcement. 

Hopefully this will help guide you to the proper avalanche course for you. Ready to continue your education progression? Use this tool to find course providers in your state.

Brushing up on all things avalanche education and awareness? Check out these articles:

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Article & Photos by Jake Hutchinson

Jake has spent more than 25 years working as an avalanche professional. He is currently a lead instructor for the American Avalanche Institute, an avalanche dog handler and trainer and an avalanche safety consultant to the resort and rescue communities. Off the snow, Hutchinson is a Certified Instructor and former Head of Instructor and Seminar Development for Gym Jones in Salt Lake City. He is currently involved in private personal training with an emphasis on high level functional fitness for mountain and military athletes.

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