Avalanche Training How to Not be a Liability in the Backcountry

Avalanche Training

We’ve all been that guy at one point or another, the guy that’s the liability when you’re in the backcountry. The guy who forgets his beacon and doesn’t notice until the beacon check at the trailhead; or the guy leaving the inbounds gate to do a quick sidecountry lap without avy-gear because “it’s OK, I’ve done this run hundreds of times”; or the guy who stops in the middle of a steep powder field to take a picture of all his buddies behind him…

Most times, we get away with it, but an easy mistake, like ignoring group dynamics on the ascent, or not reading the avalanche forecast before heading out, can quickly turn into the most costly mistake of our lives. So that being said here’s the most important elements necessary to make sure you are not that guy.

Before reading any further, this is re-education and re-reading for anyone that has already completed an avalanche snow safety course or is planning to in the new feature.  We recommend starting with the book:  Staying Alive in Avalanche Terrain by Bruce Tremper

Avalanche Education

by Sarah Borup
Backcountry skiing is the winter sports industry’s fastest-growing segment. This growth in backcountry skiing has left many in the industry concerned. More people are leaving mountain boundaries in search of untracked turns. About 1 in every 5 skiers and snowboarders explored some sort of backcountry terrain last year (about 3.2 million people).

Unfortunately, not all skiers heading further off-piste are properly equipped or trained. And all the gear in the world can’t replace preparedness, knowledge and cautious decision-making. In 2013-2014 skiers spent $40 million on touring equipment – an 8% annual increase in units sold and dollars, and backcountry accessories sales – beacons, probes, shovels, etc. – are (thankfully) increasing at an even more rapid clip, up 12% in 2013-14

If you’re accessing (or plan to access) the backcountry, hopefully you’ve already taken an avalanche course. If not, I can count 41 reasons why you should: 35 U.S. avalanche fatalities last season and 6 already recorded this season including a snowboarder in Utah that died last week while riding in the backountry without an avalanche beacon.

Field portion of a Jackson Hole Mountain Guides AIARE Course Photo Mike Hardaker | Mountain Weekly News

Field portion of a Jackson Hole Mountain Guides AIARE Course Photo Mike Hardaker | Mountain Weekly News

What to Expect

The American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education (AIARE) offers Avalanche Awareness and Avalanche Safety courses appropriate for riders “frequenting avalanche terrain via lift access or easily accessible backcountry” or heading to “near country.” If you’re doing anything beyond that, you need the AIARE 1 Decision Making in Avalanche Terrain.

An introduction to avalanche hazard management course will run you about $350-$400. You’re worth it. It’s 3-days with a combined total of 24 hours in the classroom and field. Get the friends you often tour with and make a weekend out of it. You’ll walk away knowing how to: Plan and prepare for travel in avalanche terrain; Recognize avalanche terrain; Describe a basic framework for making decisions in avalanche terrain; Learn and apply effective companion rescue. It’s hands on. You’ll learn in the classroom and implement in the field. You’ll work as a team to make the right decisions depending on the conditions. It includes access to an avalanche beacon, shovel and probe, although you really should have these items if you are serious about getting into the backcountry. And if you’ve got a thirst for knowledge, you can continue your avalanche education with levels 2 and 3 (professional).

Avalanche Training Gets a Boost from Brands and Athletes

The accessibility of backcountry gear and the increasingly well-documented tours of pro skiers and riders are undoubtedly influencing the sport’s popularity. As they shine the spotlight on unspoiled terrain and put more backcountry products into the market, they have a growing responsibility to educate their customers. Brands and athletes are taking notice.

While it doesn’t seem to be operating now, Elyse Saugstad, Ingrid Backstrom, Michelle Parker, Jackie Paaso, Lel Tone and Sherry McConkey put together S.A.F.E. A.S. Women’s Introductory Clinic on Avalanche and Snow Safety to increase awareness and ensure women, too, have the right skills.

Salomon and Atomic announced a substantial initiative in this regard: Mountain Academy, an online backcountry education platform launching Fall 2015. According to Backcountry Magazine, it will feature “two online modules of 80 instructional videos” created in partnership with AIARE focused on backcountry terrain, avalanche scenarios, snowpack and gear. It’s free with the purchase of gear from either brand or around $40 with a portion of proceeds donated back to avalanche centers and educational programs. It’s no replacement for a course, but let’s you learn and brush up online. Another cool option that we have been digging on lately is the Avalanche Mastery series, its free, packed with tons of great knowledge about how to avoid avalanches and chock full of European humor..

If you already have ventured into the backcountry or are thinking about it, do yourself (and your friends a favor). Take an avalanche course. Soon.

Need more reason?
Did you know that avalanches kill more than 150 people every year? Nearly all of those deaths are preventable with proper education and safety practices. Even though avalanches seem like they happen without warning, there are many ways to tell if the area that you’re in is currently vulnerable to avalanches.

Anyone who spends time in the mountains in the winter is in danger of being in an avalanche, but those at the highest risk are backcountry skiers and snowboarders, snowmobilers, and climbers. These are the people who aren’t in ski areas, where there is professional avalanche control. Even if you’re in a ski area boundary, you could still be in danger if there has been a large amount of snowfall or if you’re very high, near the summit of a mountain.

Taking an avalanche safety course is the best way to make sure that you’re prepared to deal with the unexpected. In this type of course, you will learn about snow conditions and how to judge them, and how to make good decisions in the backcountry. If you take a higher-level course, you’ll also learn avalanche rescue techniques and risk mitigation. Most people won’t take a course higher than Level 1 (as defined by the Colorado Avalanche Information Center), but being more educated always means that you’re safer.

If you’re looking to take an avalanche safety course, you’re certainly in the right state.

For one list of courses, you can check here: the American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education. A simple online search will also give you many results for where to sign up for a class. Many classes are offered by guide services and mountain schools, two very reputable providers. When looking for class, make sure that the instructors are certified and experienced.

Whether you’re a big mountain backcountry skier, a recreational snowmobiler, or a first-time backcountry climber, make sure to be educated about avalanches before you head out into the field and insist that all of your companions are, too. The more we all know about avalanche safety, the safer we all are.

Avalanche gear

To attend a Level 1 class, you will need basic gear, which you can rent most likely from the same organization offering your class. But if you want to be serious about venturing into the backcountry, you should be ready to buy at least the basics.

Now what is considered basic gear? It used to be at least three items: beacon, shovel, and probe. However, recent advancements in technology have some arguing that an avalanche airbag should be added to this list. It’s hard to argue against the effectiveness of airbags, and the bottom line is, if you can afford one there’s no reason not to have one. There are several offerings for avalanche gear, with more coming out each season, which means that gear is not only getting better but cheaper.

Beacons: They started as clunky devices, with limited frequency and were so hard to use only French guides knew the esoteric nuisances of handling them appropriately. Today on the other hand, digital beacons are as easy to use as your smart phone; all you need to do is practice using it very often.

For example this year’s Mountain Weekly News “Editor’s Choice” for a beacon is the Link Avalanche Beacon from ARVA. This French company, in the market for 25 years, is just making a splash in the North American market, but with offerings like this, they should be here for a while. Priced at $450 USD, this beacon is fit for multiple burial searches with the mark/unmark feature, and with the crucial automatic switch to transmit mode.

Airbags: After several generations of these backpacks in the U.S. market, Black Diamond has come out this season with an iteration that is by far the most advanced and convenient. The Black Diamond Halo backpacks use the new JetForce technology that unlike previous airbags, which relied on compressed air, uses a powerful fan to inflate the airbag nearly as fast as a compressed air canister.

Besides the travel benefits of not having to deal with canisters in a plane, the most crucial aspect of this technology is that you can inflate the airbag as many times as the rechargeable lithium battery will allow, unlike canisters which required filling out the tank after every use.

Previously, if you got trigger happy, and released the airbag after hearing a dreadful whoompf in the snowpack, this meant that your bag was useless until you made it back and refilled your canister. With BD’s JetForce, just take your backpack off, deflate the bag, fold it in, and you’re set to go again.

Shovel and probes: The workhorse of avalanche gear, they’re offered by dozens of companies, most are solid offerings, but something to keep in mind is this: make sure your shovel has a metal scoop, its easy and fast to assemble, and lets you move a lot of snow in little time. For probes, experts prefer them at least 200cm tall, and with measuring marks alongside, that way they’ll also be useful to measure snow depth.

Finding good mentors is important, Trevor Campbell showing our editor Mike Hardaker the way in Nelson, BC

Finding good mentors is important, Trevor Campbell showing our editor Mike Hardaker the way in Nelson, BC

Be a Good Partner

All your fancy avalanche gear will be as good as an anchor tied to your neck if you do get buried and there’s no one to dig you out. This is why it’s crucial to find a good partner(s) and mentor(s) before heading out. If you are lucky enough to find an avalanche professional as a BC-ski mentor, who can show you the ropes of proper safe travel, be sure to offer them plentiful beer as they’re worth their weight in carbon fiber racing randonee boots.

Just 1.5% of avalanche fatalities in the US in the last 15 years have involved avalanche professionals , which just goes to show you how crucial proper education and skills are when venturing out. Most of us are not lucky enough to have Lou Dawson as a ski partner, but being a good partner is bound to make sure you get the 5am call on a powder day from the right people. Being a good partner includes: having adequate gear, knowledge, and good communication skills on the mountain, understanding your limits, and most important a humble attitude towards the mountain and your group’s decision-making process.

Even if you checked out everything on this list before venturing out, there’s no guarantee that you wont be a liability among your group; it’s just part of human nature, or as it’s know in avalanche forecasting “The Human Factor”.

But what you can do is be conscious of your limits, and use this state of consciousness to reduce the risk you’re putting your self and your group in. Just by doing that, you can be a manageable liability, someone who follows, defers, shares opinions, as opposed to a loose cannon that has blood shot eyes and is zombie speeding to get the next powder turn, endangering everyone around them while they’re at it. Remember the most important aspect of venturing into the backcountry is coming back in one piece.

For more info checkout avalanche.org

Avalanche Avoidance

by Nick Sirianno
You can take every precaution to prevent an avalanche from occurring but the only true guarantee of survival is to turn around, take the safest route home, and live to ski another day.

You’re the judge, it isn’t the avalanche report, it isn’t snow pit conditions, it isn’t the expert powder addict who tells you everything will be fine, it is you! So if you want to live a long life in the mountains play is safe, be confident in your decisions, and know that turning around might just save you life.

Training Avalanche Avoidance

Avalanche Training is probably the most important for understanding snow conditions but regardless of an avalanche, you should also know CPR, how to stop wounds from bleeding, how to treat breaks, strains, and fractures, and how to prevent hypothermia.  These skills can be learned in Wilderness First Aid.

Avalanche Gear

The big three are beacon, shovel and probe. If you don’t know what these are then you need to take an avalanche-training course. Technology today brings incredibly light and strong equipment. Carrying a more than necessary amount of gear is now possible because of the lightness of everything.

Here is a list of best avalanche probes.  The shovel is your best friend in the event of an avalanche.  Here is a link to how to use one.  Finally, the beacon.  There is a long list of amazing beacons out there but here is a list of our favorite avalanche beacons.

Once you have the above three items then you can start getting into more advanced gear.  A snow saw, slope meter, 10x magnifying lens, crystal aluminum card, and a calibratible thermometer.  All of these items are designed for experts but if your getting into snow science and want to become an expert then this kit from BCA will get you started.


You could have all the gear in the world but without practice it don’t mean diddley. Training is great but you still need to practice what you’ve learned.  Strap your buddies beacon to a backpack and hide it in the snow.

Practice shoveling as hard as you can for as long as you can. This is not a time to practice laly-gagging around. If you find an old debris field, take a look at that the snow is like. It might be icier and harder than immediately post avalanche but debris fields aren’t usually nice fluffy snow, they are usually big heavy chunks—the hardest to shovel.

“What If Gear”

What if an emergency does occur? You need to be prepared. If you know the feeling of “Holy Sh*#, we’re out here,” then you know that in an event of an emergency you would want to be prepared.

Basic First Aid Kit– make sure it contains aspirin.

SAM Splint– for treating sprains, breaks, and fractures.

Food –Clif bars, or anything that is light and high in calories

Water– a good thermos will stop your water from freezing

Space blanket– light and incredibly ward

Layers– fleece, wool, synthetic blends, but NO COTTON

Tarp– If you need to carry out an injured person, tarps make dragging and carrying much easier than trying to grip a victim’s jacket and pants. A 6×8 should be more than enough.

Rope or Parachute cord– for building shelters, securing broken limbs, and being MacGyver.

-Pocket Knife, whistle, reflective mirror, matches

Trustworthy Partners

Know whom your going with and what their experience levels are. Trust them with your life.

In conclusion, remember that you are the judge of every situation in the backcountry. Be confident in your training and never fail to speak your opinion and understanding of the situation.  If you ever need to call for help, the number is 911!  If you can’t call, try texting; seriously it is sometimes better if you’re in a choppy service zone.

Talk over your rescue plan in the event of an emergency, stay calm, and call for help immediately! Have an amazing season, and stay safe!

Last But Not Least

by Mike Hardaker
Backcountry! It’s all the rage these days, however anytime you leave the resort boundaries or head out into the wilderness on your own, a few simple steps will help to keep you alive. And actually there is really only one skill and couple tools you need…

Step 1

Take an Avalanche class, you really want to start here. Stop geeking out on new Airbags, beacons, and other gear that will only get you way over you head. Speaking of head this brings us to the most important tool you will ever need for skiing or riding in the backcountry, are you ready for it. It’s called your brain and we all have one. Now start using it..

My recommendation is to signup for a basic Avalanche Level I class through an AIRE provider. If you live in a mountain town, odds are there is a class near you this winter. Pay attention in the classroom and take notes!

AIARE Avalanche course with Jackson Hole Mountain Guides, Photo Mike Hardaker | Mountain Weekly News

AIARE Avalanche course with Jackson Hole Mountain Guides, Photo Mike Hardaker | Mountain Weekly News

Step 2

Learn how to read terrain and slope angles, its the easiest way to avoid putting yourself or your partners in avalanche terrain. There is a MAJOR difference between skiing and riding in the backcountry and going out into avalanche terrain. I spent 90% of my time in the backcountry these days and of that at most maybe 10% of my season has me exposed to avalanche terrain. Learn to enjoy ripping low angle chest deep blower pow turns, and live to ride another day… Do you really want to die in the mountains, there’s nothing glamorous about it, grow up!


Most Important Tool #2

Without fail every time I head into the backcountry I never leave home without a simple slope inclinometer. (yes it’s hard to pronounce). BCA has one in there Snow Study Kit that I reviewed back in 2013. However another tool which I started using and is worth every penny is the $12 PoleClinometer for Snowwander LLC. Whats rad about this system that was designed by backcountry skier Grayson King is all you have to do is place the slope reader sticker on your ski pole and the PoleClinometer will show you the slope angle you’re interested in riding within about 1-2º.

There you have it, it’s that simple. Don’t believe the industry hype surrounding airbags unless you dig false positives.. Just remember all these stats about survival come from people that made a clear mistake in reading the terrain they were riding. Now if you are working as a ski guide, patroller and find yourself routinely in terrain that can slide, then perhaps at that point consider the other tools. For the other 99.9% of us, stay safe with your brain and the ability to read terrain.

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