Notes From a Pro: Avalanche Course or Ski Touring Course?

Notes From a Pro: Avalanche Course or Ski Touring Course?

Martin Volken, Washington state’s resident snow sage, has raised an important question. In one of Volken’s Trip Reports on his site, his big, bold headline asks, “AIARE 1 Avalanche Course, or Ski Touring Course?” Obviously he knows both are incredibly valuable. But he goes on to suggest that too many backcountry skiers are defaulting toward the intro avalanche course and not signing up for the course that provides essentials to backcountry winter travel.

The Swiss-American guide, avalanche instructor, and author observes that as riders gain the skills to get themselves into backcountry terrain, many are “drawn to avalanche courses because they know how to ski and, of course, how to walk, and in their mind the missing link is understanding snow safety and avalanche hazard.”

Good thinking…right?

But Volken has observed a problem with this reasoning. He writes, “For many an aspiring backcountry skier, taking an avalanche course has now become the first logical step in the backcountry education process. But, regrettably, it’s also quite often where the education stops.” Volken has seen a dramatic increase in the popularity of avalanche courses and knows that the multi-level courses offered in the U.S. can advance knowledge of avalanche hazard in a “very short amount of time.” However he worries that participants spend up to 40 percent of their course time indoors learning the concepts of snow safety and then may consider themselves “done” once their level 1, 2, and avalanche rescue courses are complete. What they are missing, then, is time in the field learning how to deal with other mountain related accidents.

Volken states the universal goal is simply to make better decisions in mountain terrain, and that includes learning how to travel, navigate, and survive in wintery wildstopics that aren’t taught in a traditional avalanche course. (Volken grew up during an era when avalanche safety was often embedded into an introductory winter backcountry ski touring course.) These key skills include trip planning, time planning and pacing, navigating, route finding, setting an effective uptrack, choosing safety downhill lines, gear maintenance, and survival skills. Mountain hazard management includes strategies to manage fatigue and hypothermia, to avoid cliff and creek hazards, and to respond to snow-immersion and tree-well emergencies. Participants learn what to bring and how to survive in winter—including how to build snow shelters. And once the winter skill sets are gained, the goal is then to get educated on avalanche safety—which remains the No. 1 threat.

Volken says that while no one course will completely prepare students for backcountry winter travel, “the sum of the two course curriculums combined delivers amazing results for the backcountry skier.” I agree completely and echo his final words: “Believe me—it’s worth your time and money.”

Read Volken’s well-received article here.

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