Senior Gear Editor
5 Things You Can Expect From Your First Avalanche Course

Taking an avalanche course is an investment in backcountry knowledge. Photo: WS

The Inertia

A couple weeks ago, I had the chance to take an AIARE 1 avalanche course with Alpenglow Expeditions in Lake Tahoe. I’ve spent time in the backcountry, but I’ve always followed friends. I trusted their knowledge and expertise to keep me safe, and relied on an old avalanche rescue course from years ago as my certification for being out there. The train of thought being: while I may not be able to help with the decision making or route-finding, in the case of an avalanche emergency, I would be able to conduct a proper search and rescue, and my lack of training wouldn’t hurt my ski partners’ odds of survival. 

A piecemeal approach at best, dangerous at worse, it was high time to get some more education. So I signed up for a class. I was looking forward to having my eyes opened wider to the world of backcountry skiing.

And the course lived up to my expectations, not only teaching me the nitty gritty of how and what to look for to stay safe, but showing me a very different perspective on avalanche safety than I’d had before. 

The intention with this article was not to share the core learnings of my AIARE 1 class so you can just read an article on the internet and get after it. But rather, to share a few key takeaways that I learned, those who are backcountry-curious may find useful, and maybe even an old head or two will find to be a good reminder.

5 Things You're Learn in an Avalanche Class

Route finding is key to safety out there. Photo: Alpenglow Expeditions

Avalanche education is about managing risk, not eliminating it. 

Don’t come in thinking you’re going to get some hard and fast rules that, as long as you abide by, will keep you safe. Those don’t exist. By venturing into the mountains, you put yourself at risk of avalanches, whether you’re skiing the resort or the backcountry. As we saw earlier this season here in Tahoe, despite the very best efforts of ski patrols and avalanche professionals, even the resort isn’t 100 percent safe. That said, in both cases there are things you can do to mitigate your risk (like wearing a beacon on resort powder days). 

What the course will teach you is how to manage these risks, and be aware of them so you can make decisions based on your own risk tolerance. The AIARE framework, basically a checklist of factors to consider, does a great job of making sure you have all the knowledge needed to make an informed decision about the terrain and snow you’re getting yourself into. AIARE1 will fill you in on the basics of this, but it’s going to be up to you to make the call of whether to go or not. 

If Avalanches are the problem, Terrain is the answer.

Out in the backcountry, not everything is avalanche terrain, or exposed to it. If you know where to look there are plenty of safe spots that can be explored without exposing yourself to danger. 

Thirty to 40-degree slopes are where the vast majority of human triggered avalanches happen, though they can happen on pitches as low as 20 degrees, (and even on low angle slopes, you have to be aware of what’s above of you!). That said, you can get out there very safely by sticking to low-angle terrain, and in fact, I’d highly recommend that you do before taking a class! 

You’ll get the most out of a class like this with some backcountry experience first. 

As I’ve mentioned previously, I came into this class with a bit of backcountry experience. Before the class, that was something I felt guilty about, being in the mindset of “you shouldn’t be out in the backcountry unless you’re avy certified.” 

Horseshit. I’m so glad I came in to this class able to perform a kick turn, knowing how to operate my gear, and with some backcountry endurance to boot. And there are safe ways to do this, going on flat-ground or super low-angle tours, just to get a feel for the gear you’ve got and how to move with it. AIARE 1 should not be the first time you’re putting on skins or turning on your beacon.

It can also be a great idea to (as I did) follow a friend out on safer tours when conditions are less dangerous. Just make sure they are aware of your lack of experience and are willing to spend time showing you the ropes. 

These guides know what they’re doing. But some experience beforehand is never a bad thing. Photo: Alpenglow Expeditions

This class is by no means a one-and-done “ok, you’re avvy certified go get gnarly” ticket to the big leagues. 

You’re not going to come in one end a total noob and come out the other ready to get after it in all conditions. Rather AIARE1 is a foundation of learning and experience that can, and should, be built upon with more education, sure, but most importantly, experience. You need to get out there and apply those skills, learn what stable and unstable snow feels like in the real world rather than just what it’s supposed to look like based on the few key descriptors offered up in your avalanche booklet. 

There are a lot of tools out there — use them. 

This was a key takeaway for me from the class, and something that I hadn’t been exposed to previously from following friends on routes they knew quite well. 

First of all, the avvy report. There’s a lot of great info in there, and a whole lot more than just the overall avalanche danger rating. It’s certainly worth getting to know the other aspects of the report and what they mean, so you’re aware of where, what type, and how big of an avalanche could occur. I’ve been following the Sierra Avalanche Center on Instagram for a couple years now, and I’ve found it to be a great way to casually stay up to date on the state of the snowpack, and get comfortable reading avy reports when I would otherwise just be doom-scrolling.  

Mapping software is also huge for planning routes, and knowing where avy terrain lies — we mostly used Caltopo in our class, but there are a lot of other mapping tools like Gaia GPS, OnX Backcountry, and more that can help you plan your route in advance. Especially for the uphill. One of the best ways to minimize your exposure to avalanche terrain is by plotting safe uphill routes and downhill descents that reflect your own personal risk-tolerance. 

Digging a pit is another great tool for understanding the conditions by seeing the layers hiding underneath the surface of the snow, but our guides made sure to remind us that digging a pit can only tell you the conditions in one location — a pit on a north-facing slope in the shade will show vastly different results from a pit facing south in the sun. With that in mind, if you’re going to dig a pit, it’s a good idea to try and match the slope aspect and other factors to the slopes you’re hoping to ski or ride.

And so much more. Things like the five red flags, different mountain climates and how they interact with the snowpack,  how the snowpack and weak layers within it form, different types of avalanches, what gear to bring, not just for the up and downhill, but to be ready if a binding breaks, skins aren’t sticking, or if you have to haul your ski buddy out after an injury or skin home in the dark. Also that three things need to happen for an avalanche to occur:  one needs to be in avy terrain, there needs to be a trigger, and the snow is unstable.

Backcountry skiing is much more of a dance, a give and take with the mountains, and it requires an awareness and ability to focus on much more than just the snow under your skis. 

“As you walk uphill,” our guide Trevor told us, “always be testing the snow, looking for clues.”

You need the gear, the training, and the fitness for the skin track, but the rewards are a whole new way of traveling in, and enjoying, the mountains. And of course, at the end of the day it’s about riding untouched powder. 


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