January 21, 2010

Avalanche Education: Reluctance

Avalanche Education: Reluctance

One of the questions that occurred to me while taking an AIARE Level I avalanche class this past weekend was, "What took so long?" I actually think that's an intriguing enough question to warrant some attention. Why was I so reluctant to take an avalanche class? I've certainly been interested in avalanches for some time—and I've especially been interested in avoiding them.

I mention this because in the aftermath of the class, I'm really glad I did take it, and I hope I can encourage at least a few of you out there who are for whatever reason on the fence yourselves to consider taking a class as well. So, after a bit of reflection, let me list some of the things, real or imagined, that have served as barriers between me and a more formal avalanche education.

MONEY

We kind of have to start with this one, don't we? My 3-day class cost $335. Lodging at the best rate I could find was another $300. Gas to June Mountain and back was around $60. Food was expensive: another hundred easily. That's getting close to a thousand bucks to make the class happen—and that doesn't include time off from work, either.

My family and I are comfortably middle class, but I still have to consider each purchase when it comes to the very-expensive sport of skiing. And in the sense that an avalanche class is part of your ski budget, it competes directly with skiing itself. As in, Hey should I go ski fantastic powder in Mammoth this weekend...or should I spend a grand to sit in a classroom and learn some stuff instead?

Look, there are no easy answers here. I'm not going to give you the "invest in yourself" or the "small cost compared to getting killed" speeches. Money is tough. If this site hadn't made enough to cover most of the cost over the holiday season, I probably wouldn't have signed up for the class. Sad but true.

One thing I should clarify: we did get to go skiing. In fact, the entire third day of the class consisted of a group-organized backcountry skiing tour (we chose the location and objectives), which ended with us skiing bottomless untracked powder. It was actually really, really nice. Maybe this is something they should play up in the course description?

OPPORTUNITY

By this I mean not the ability to get off work and go, but rather the existence of avalanche classes themselves. The opportunity for anyone in the US to take a meaningful avalanche course sequence from qualified instructors is a relatively new phenomenon. Back in the day when I was first ducking ropes and heading into the backcountry, formal avalanche education programs didn't really exist (neither, really, did widespread climbing or mountaineering instruction either).

Also, public avalanche awareness and even snow science itself was quite a bit different then. Certainly our understanding of avalanches remains a work in progress, but there have been tremendous advances which offer us today a much more complete picture of the mechanism of snow metamorphosis, and of the complex interactions that take place to create dangerous avalanches.

A related fear would be that you end up with worse-than-nothing instructors who don't know what they're talking about. The bottom line here is that worries about finding a good class are no longer a valid excuse. The AIARE curriculum (about which I'll write more later) offers an excellent, standardized program that is widely available throughout the US.

EGO

Okay, the truth hurts, but here goes: when you've been doing something a long, long time time, and seemingly doing it very well on your own, thank you very much, it is not particularly pleasant to be told by "experts" that you don't know what the hell you're doing. Certainly it's not an experience most people are eager to pay for.

While I've never particularly believed I knew enough about avalanches already, the point remains. It's not easy to become a student again, and it's especially hard in any subject in which you've already accumulated a significant amount of real-world experience. Maybe another way to think of this is as a fine example of rigidity: as we get older we become set in our ways, and we don't like anyone telling us anything about how we need to change. Even when we do.

BOOTCAMP FEARS

You've heard the stories, right? The instructors wake you up at 4 a.m. screaming, "AVALANCHE!! AVALANCHE YOU MAGGOTS!!" Where's your beacon? Where's your gear? Hell, where's your clothes? People are running around screaming; there's chaos everywhere. Someone's got a tree branch coming out of their head. The horror! The horror!

It's the beacon drill from hell, sprung upon you when you least expect it, designed to turn your flabby baby belly into a hardened beacon-search machine, ready for war in an eyeblink. This to be honest was absolutely one of the things I was really, really dreading. Surprise: it didn't happen. In fact, beacon search drills play a relatively minor role in the AIARE classes. When we did do beacon searches and mock rescues, they were actually kind of low-key, allowing us time to think about what we were doing (and learn) rather than scrabble about like a bunch of headless chickens.

ELEVATED RISK

Last but certainly not least, the elephant in the room: the fear that taking an avalanche class might perversely make it more likely you get injured or killed in an avalanche. And there is statistical evidence to suggest that this is, in fact, the case. What is the point of an avalanche class, one wonders, if it worsens your odds of survival?

That's a complex question with no clear answer. Of all the concerns I've listed so far, I think this is the most troubling. If we're going to try to address it, I think we have to start by asking ourselves some hard questions. If you're currently traveling avalanche terrain, ignorance does not seem to me like a good survival strategy. It is human nature to think we can hide from something dangerous just by closing our eyes. But remember—the avalanche can see you even if you can't see it.

I have worried that I might use what I learned in an avalanche class to take bigger risks—to venture out in more challenging conditions; to ski less consolidated snowpacks. And I think, ultimately, this is the great challenge of the AIARE program: it has to provide its students with knowledge and humility. Otherwise, armed with a few tests and a lot of new-found confidence, a worse chance of survival is exactly what you'd expect the result to be.

Time will tell, I think, as to what the real impact of avalanche education in this country will be. I will note that the AIARE curriculum is ever-evolving in its attempt to meet this challenge. And in the class I took, it was already evident that this issue is very much on the minds of the program's developers. Specifically: our instructors repeatedly emphasized that they were trying to get us to ask questions rather than provide us with answers.

Looking back at all I've written in this lengthy post, it sort of strikes me as a small miracle I ever did take the leap and sign up for a class. But I'm glad I did. And I hope by sharing some of the mental and actual barriers that held me back, I inspire you to think about your own reasons for avoiding an avalanche education—or even continuing or updating the education you already have.

Andy Lewicky

ANDY LEWICKY is a Los Angeles-based writer and photographer who enjoys good books, jasmine tea, long walks in the rain, and climbing and skiing the big peaks of the California Sierra. email | follow


9 thoughts on “Avalanche Education: Reluctance

  1. aDUB says:

    Great post, thanks for your honesty. I have taken a Level 1, but struggle to convince my friends and potential ski touring partners that it is worth it. Given the choice between going out with an uneducated partner vs paying the $80+ to ski at a resort, I have mostly gone with the former. But I don’t feel good about it. I’m going to pass this on to these guys and help it makes a difference.

    With regard to the increased risk, I think there is probably some validity to the argument that people take more chances if they are comfortable with their knowledge. But be careful about confusing correlation and causation. It may not be the case that people with education take more risks, but rather that people who take more risks are more likely to have some of the education…

  2. Chad says:

    Thanks Andy. I will most definitely take this very same course later in the year. I’ve plowed through the textbooks and watched the AIARE safety videos but some practical application experience and “how to” is always good to have. I think you have some valid points on the evolution and dynamic nature of snow science. I think it’s best left said that avalanches, at least for the time being, are unpredictable no matter what you know or how long you’ve been skiing in the backcountry. Evidence of this is omnipresent nearly every year with the best of them (the so called experts) falling victim. It’s scary stuff and testament that even the most informed can justify a “go” decision under false pretenses. There’s just too many factors that apply to snow metamorphism. We know that a melt-freeze can be just as catastrophic as load stress. And it’s still true that you really can’t make good decisions until you’ve had a lot of experience making bad ones. Unfortunately it only takes one bad decision to keep your from making any more decisions in the future. The good news is, as statistics show, men with families take less risk (although some dad’s I know swim with sharks). But if you find yourself skiing with a young buck running on adrenaline with nothing to loose…your decision making and control over your emotional intelligence will be more important than digging a snow pit.

  3. Chad says:

    One more thing, I thought SMC was supposed to help with arranging accomodations at the ESAC dorms for like $60 bucks a night? Surely they can’t be all that bad. You could have also practiced your digloo making and went for a snow camp.

  4. Scott says:

    Money and opportunity hit the nail on the head for me. I think the causality of the risk scenario is questionable and don’t really think it would actually put me more at risk. At least, I hope I’d still be just as cautious in the BC as I am now.

  5. chaz says:

    Andy could you please comment on your actions/decisions regarding avalanche safety prior, up to and during you’re Jan 23 San Jacinto descent? Did you apply “all” of your new found knowledge from your class. Tell us what you did besides digging a pit(s) As a former Avy I instructor (NSP) I’m curious. Also what percentage of your class was snow science related?

  6. Andy says:

    Chaz, specifically regarding the Jean Peak tour, I was interested in trying out some of the things I learned in class, such as digging a pit and running a compression test. However, I should emphasize that assessment was not formally a part of our Level I curriculum. The class was not intended to give us the skills to look at a pit and decide whether or not it was safe to ski.

    For my purposes, then, I was looking more out of curiosity, and I was looking for anything unexpected (which I did find). Our safety choices that day had already been made in choosing an aspect and angle that were both conservative, as well as monitoring existing conditions for any signs that might make us turn back (like shooting cracks or whoomphing).

    I’m sure Avy class designers have long discussions as to how much assessment and snow science is appropriate in the first-level course. It is likely many people never advance past level I, so you want to give them something, but at the same time, the subject is far too complex to master in one 3-day weekend.

  7. Chaz says:

    I should have said this before, congratulations on taking your first class. In your answer to my question I was hoping that you’d mention actions you took (and may have) before you left home that morning.
    Because this is So Cal there isn’t an avalanche report such as csac.org. However we are able to gain some important information about the conditions from the weather report from local news, internet and NOAA. Information such as rate of snowfall per hour, wind direction and speed, temps and rain/snow level.
    This is crucial information that is part of your available tools in assessing
    hazard.In reading the incident reports of avalanche victims its amazing the number of accounts where this simple act of information gathering wasn’t practiced. Rate of snowfall per hr. wind loading on lee slopes and rain are important clues in evaluating hazard, particularly immediately following a storm

  8. Andy says:

    Chaz, thanks for pointing out those valuable resources! Also in that category are snow reports from local ski areas. These tend to be the most accurate on-the-ground forecast/report, and I use them extensively in trip planning. Just be sure to match the resort as closely as possible to your intended area. SoCal mountains see striking differences in weather even in the same storm–and even in the same range.

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