First, a loud whumpf roars through the valley, slamming my entire body with the malicious ferocity of a kick drum beat at an underground club. Next, terrifying silence as the slope gives way underneath. The snowpack crumbles before it turns to a mushy gunk the consistency of hand-cranked cement as it pours down the face of the mountain. I didn’t even see it coming. It is 10:45am on Monday, April 2nd. I’m three-quarters of the way up Sherwin Ridge, and my climbing partner, Ryan, is about to be hit by 1,100 tons of sludge.
A month ago, if I had witnessed a skier getting swept up and buried in a big avalanche, I would have frozen, fumbled with my transceiver, and failed to get to her before the greedy claws of suffocation set in. It’s rough learning to navigate technical equipment in the wild and even more arduous when you are panicked with the fear that a loved one might die. Despite the statistics, many of the most enthusiastic mountaineers I know frequently go out into the wilderness without a beacon, probe, and shovel. They act as though death were some fatalistic worldview that cannot be escaped by good judgment or practice, instead bestowing godlike powers on snowpack and assuming that if an avalanche rips through the couloir, it’s their time to go.
This is why the AIARE Level 1 Avalanche Course is such a vital tool for anyone interested in winter travel in the mountains. It takes a sledgehammer to widely held misbeliefs and uses practical, in the field coaching to build a base level of knowledge for snowshoers, hikers, skiers, and climbers to access backcountry peaks more safely in treacherous conditions. Education is the surest road to self-empowerment, and for snow addicts like me, this class is a crucial step along that path.
The American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education (AIARE) was founded in 1998 as a nonprofit designed to empower outdoor professionals and recreationalists with the information and skills needed to prevent injuries and fatalities due to avalanches. They are the premier source for avalanche training and are recognized by the American Mountain Guides Association (AMGA) and the International Federation of Mountain Guides Associations (IFMGA), with classes taught around the world by over 100 different providers. Basically, they’re the only name you want to trust when it comes to getting an avalanche certification under your belt.
Over the course of a three-day weekend, my classmates and I were inundated with videos, lectures, slideshows, pamphlets, and interactive route-finding games. We spent the entirety of the day 1 in a classroom setting, watching videos of case studies where recreational skiers actually got swept away and then rescued, assessing terrain traps, and learning about the 7 different types of avalanches. This allowed us to build a solid framework of knowledge before ever dipping our toes into fresh powder.
AIARE’s course structure is self-aware enough to pair this academic learning with real world, boots-on-the-ground practice in which students get to make travel plans, dig snow pits, and shave minutes off of their search times with repeated avalanche rescue drills. This was how I found myself near the Sherwin Ridge, simulating a high-altitude rescue operation with a ticking clock allowing only 7 minutes to find my buried friend in the white muck of the debris field.
The first go-around, my team accidentally rescued a sapling that had contorted under the weight of the snow, probing and unearthing a young, sickled branch before redoing the entire process to find our human victim a mere 2 feet away. In total, our rescue time for that rotation was nearly 14 minutes, meaning that, yeah, he died.
Ever the eager student, I persisted, and by the end of round two, I had my beacon switching, snow sprinting, fine searching, probing, marking, and digging time down to just under 5 minutes, well within the parameters to preserve human life. It felt incredible (even if it was just a beacon buried inside a neon orange plastic box). I was finally beginning to understand how rescue systems and tools work together to prevent fatalities.
The hands-on techniques shared by our highly experienced instructor, Ryan, kept the nearly 24 hours of class time moving at an engaging pace. Even the course’s more scientific pursuits like discerning different types of snow granules or digging 4’ x 6’ trenches to examine deep snowpack layers were fascinating and peppered with important knowledge.
We used snow saws to carefully slice into the hard pack and shovels to “burp the baby” and see if any unstable layers slid away from the rest. We dug our gloved hands into the walls of our snow pits to test the strength of each successive layer of snow, ice, and hoarfrost, and when fingers were too thick, we used pencils. Finally, we learned how to record all the data we gathered into a comprehensive system of charts and acronyms so that we could effectively communicate the day’s field findings to our teammates in a clear and rational way.
Because climbing, skiing, and snowboarding are such emotional sports, it can be especially difficult to make sound judgment calls in the wilderness when the stoke is high. AIARE’s avalanche classes help people take their feelings out of the decision making process by providing a well-worn set of lists to create a linear plan of attack.
Our homework each evening was to check the weather and avalanche forecast for the area we would be traversing the following day and chart a possible route. If conditions changed while we were out, we were asked to have a lower-consequence plan B and plan C ready to go. An avalanche warning doesn’t mean you can’t go out and play in the snow, it simply means that your plan B might turn into your plan A, and a summit bid might turn into skiing low-angle laps along the apron.
The AIARE curriculum emphasizes careful strategizing before ever setting foot in the backcountry so that many big decisions get made before excited hearts can overturn logic. Students are expected to examine conditions in real time on the mountain and assess with their teammates. The group then chooses terrain that looks safe to travel, taking all the research and in the moment observations into account.
I cannot express how effective it is to have a seasoned professional looking over your shoulder as you plan your course in a rugged and perilous environment. The confidence I gained in my own route-finding and decision making skills is invaluable, and knowing that at any moment I could get the buzzer for making a wrong move kept me alert and on my toes.
I came out of the weekend motivated, inspired, and feeling a little terrified by my newfound knowledge. They say that taking an avalanche class is like watching Shark Week on the Discovery Channel – you don’t get in the water for a long time afterwards.
The AIARE Level 1 Avalanche Course isn’t designed to turn you into an expert in the span of one weekend, but it does provide important knowledge and a structure for how to plan safer winter travel in backcountry areas. Though they may seem utterly mysterious, avalanches aren’t some hocus-pocus or mountain voodoo, they are measurable, scientific occurrences that can be navigated safely with the right training, research and preparation.
Hiking through avalanche terrain may feel like playing Russian roulette with the forces of nature, but the tools acquired in an AIARE course will help you plan safer climbs and descents so that you don’t end up gambling with your life. It’s worth it if you wish to have a long and storied career in the wild. After all, any day in the mountains is better than a day spent sitting behind a desk.