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.


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?


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.


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.


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.


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.

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When there is snow, SierraDescents is Andy Lewicky's California backcountry skiing and mountaineering website. Without snow, sierradescents becomes an ill-tempered hiking and climbing blog.

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