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Life Lessons from an Avalanche Education Course

There's a lot more to avalanche education than just digging snow pits.

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On the first day of my avalanche education course, my instructor asked the class, “what are you hoping to learn here?” At the time, I thought it was pretty obvious: I wanted to learn how to navigate avalanche terrain. 

Being a resort skier my whole life, I was eager to adventure beyond the boundaries into the backcountry, so I signed up for Irwin Guide’s Avalanche Rec 1 Course, a three-day-long introduction to avalanche hazard management.

I showed up eager to dive in with my beacon, shovel, and probe in tow. Reviewing the syllabus, I saw we would follow the American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education (AIARE) model, one of the most widely followed standards of avalanche education in the U.S. The AIARE framework covers how to interpret snowpacks, select routes, and practice rescue, but there is a lot more to navigating avalanche terrain than I originally thought.

Research has shown that—more often than not—mistakes made in the backcountry are tied to poor decision making. So, beyond just teaching students how to dig snowpits, organizations like Irwin Guides and AIARE incorporate methods to develop decision-making skills into their courses in order to help backcountry users further manage risk in avalanche terrain. 

Over the course of my three-day class, I was pleasantly surprised to learn some fundamental lessons that have become essential not only in my backcountry toolkit but also in life beyond avalanche terrain.

Every Team Member is an Asset

Four skiers touring near Crested Butte, Colo.
Because everyone has a valid opinion about what to eat at the end of the day, too.Photo courtesy of Irwin Guides / Braden Gunem

The first day of the course, my fellow classmates were mostly strangers. The group consisted of myself and 5 other students, plus our instructor Chris Martin from Irwin Guides. As Chris would impress upon us throughout the class, group dynamics play a huge role in decision making. 

Team decision making is a critical factor in backcountry risk mitigation. Not only is it important to be mindful about who you surround yourself with, but the team as a whole must also be able to communicate and respect individual opinions. The AIARE framework calls for teams to “decide together, listen to every voice, challenge assumptions, and respect any veto.”

Be Prepared, But Be Flexible

Skier makes a turn in the Crested Butte backcountry
This looks like a great plan B.Photo courtesy of Irwin Guides / Eleven Experience

As with anything in life, a successful ski tour takes preparation and careful consideration about what you want to achieve. In the backcountry, the goal is pretty straightforward: Don’t get caught in an avalanche. Just showing up and winging it generally doesn’t lead to great results.

Every morning during the course, our group would set an action plan following the “AIARE Backcountry Decision Making Guide” preparation checklist, which involved reading the local avalanche advisory and weather forecasts, identifying possible hazards, looking at terrain maps, and planning a route. But even with thorough preparation, not everything will always go as planned, which is why the last step on the checklist is to discuss an alternate route. 

The ability to be adaptable is just as important as the preparation itself. Even if you don’t attain your original goal, you can still be successful in having a great day skiing in the backcountry, especially if that means avoiding dangerous avalanche terrain.

Live in the Moment

Two skiers stand on a ridge near Crested Butte, Colo.
These two are in the moment, alright…Photo courtesy of Irwin Guides / Eleven Experience

Mindfulness, or the ability to be fully present, can improve overall well-being. And while being engaged in the moment during a ski tour is fantastic for embracing nature, it’s also important for another reason: avoiding avalanches. During the course, Chris would constantly remind us to slow down, monitor conditions, look for avalanche activity and reassess our plan along the way.

During day two of the class, we had planned a route down a southeast-facing slope at just above a 30-degree angle. When we reached the top of the skin track, we were eager to transition to ski mode. Before we made the descent, however, we dug a pit to determine if our plan was still safe. Sure enough, we found a persistent weak slab in the snowpack, prompting us to adjust the plan and seek lower angle terrain. Cliché or not, mindfulness is a safety essential.

There Is No One Right Answer

Three skiers with their skis on their backs on a ridge near Crested Butte
Can you repeat the question?Photo courtesy of Irwin Guides / Braden Gunem

As perplexing as it is to ponder many of life’s questions, it’s a good reminder that there is no one correct answer when choosing our paths through the world, or in the backcountry. No one can tell you for certain if a slope will slide or if a line is completely safe, but it’s helpful to follow some guiding principles to help us through the decision-making process to frame the best way forward. 

During the class, Chris taught us to navigate a scale of certainty and uncertainty about how we might be exposed to avalanches on different terrain. There is never a single right answer, but framing the risks can help us navigate our way. “This way we can weigh options for different degrees of likelihood against different ways to utilize the terrain based on exposure and vulnerability of the group.” 

The Perfect Day Does Not Exist

Amie Engerbresten skiing with Eleven Experience in Colorado
Maybe not a perfect day, but possibly a perfect turn.Photo courtesy of Irwin Guides / Eleven Experience

On the third and final day the course, we found ourselves in a whiteout blizzard. Chris took the opportunity to remind us that the odds of a perfect day ever existing are very rare. 

“Most of the time, you will have a few red flags, whether it’s an issue with the snowpack, terrain hazards, or group dynamics. And if you don’t, chances are you missed one.” A high-risk activity like backcountry skiing is prone to potential problems, and that’s OK because any time we experience a red flag is an opportunity to learn and grow and humble ourselves to forces larger than humanity. And sometimes, backing off is better than trying to up the ante.

As we made our way down the mountain through the blizzard after cutting the tour short, I thought about how lessons like this from the backcountry truly do parallel life in a fascinating way. I’m already anticipating taking my Level 2 Rec avalanche education course not just for the mountaineering skills, but also for more life lessons I’ll pick up along the way.