The Outsider: Debating the direction of continuing avalanche education

As more people get educated about avalanche safety, the direction people should take for their next step towards greater backcountry knowledge remains a polarizing issue.

One of the biggest takeaways of the Avalanche Skills Training (AST) Level 1 is that it’s not a free ticket into the backcountry.

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There’s only so much theory and practical knowledge you can jam into a two-day course. You learn the basics of how snow slabs form, how these layers of snow are triggered and how to locate and rescue your buried friend. Instructors also touch on trip planning, decision making and interpreting resources such as the daily Avalanche Canada bulletin. That may sound like a lot, but it really isn’t when you only have people’s attention for two days.

A lot of folks ask me when it’s the right time to take the AST 2 course, which takes four days and costs over $600. My answer is always the same: get some backcountry experience with people more experienced than you, preferably for one season or more.

That way you can go into the AST 2 course with questions, rather than getting bamboozled with too much information that doesn’t make sense right away. I finally took this course last winter and I learned a great deal.

There is an alternative to the AST 2 that requires an even greater commitment of time and money. The Avalanche Operations 1 course — which according to the Canadian Avalanche Association (CAA) —is “the first professional level training course for persons seeking employment with avalanche risk management operations.”  

It takes eight days to complete, costs between $1,500 and $3,000 (depending on the accommodation and hut fees) and courses are often filled months in advance. You learn the intricacies of snow science and how to meticulously dig and assess snow pits — far more than in the AST courses. You learn how to describe, collect and record weather and avalanche data. You also learn the basics of risk control methods and how to apply them towards a commercial backcountry operation such as a cat or heliskiing lodge. I haven’t taken this course yet because:

a) I’m not planning on becoming an avalanche industry professional
b) I haven’t been able to commit to the time and money required

There’s a debate in the backcountry community as to which course (AST 2 or Operations 1) is more appropriate after taking the AST 1. Some think (or for better or worse, were told by their AST 1 instructors) that it’s better to skip the AST 2 entirely and enrol in Operations 1.

I believe this to be a misnomer for recreational skiers. If you are considering a career in avalanche operations or are a recreationist with many years of experience and mentorship under your belt, then the Ops 1 is a good choice. However, if you have exceeded the teachings of AST 1 and ski tour strictly for your own enjoyment, the AST 2 gives you plenty of useful knowledge such as route finding, interpreting avalanche data and advanced rescue scenarios that are more practical for your day-to-day ski touring needs. If you feel after a couple years that you need more education, the Ops 1 is always there. But discarding the AST 2 as a redundant stepping stone isn’t just false, it’s dangerous. People who need more avalanche education aren’t necessarily able to commit to Ops 1, and if they think the alternative is a waste of time they’ll continue to venture out into the backcountry with the bare minimum amount of education.

The piece of the puzzle that most people are missing in their backcountry repertoire is mentorship. The Ops 1 is geared for exactly that; working under an Avalanche Operations Level 2-qualified forecaster for continuous education throughout the candidate’s career. AST 1 and AST 2 graduates should look for a suitable mentor to ski with who can help steer good decisions in the backcountry.

There’s no right or wrong for your next step in avalanche education, just make sure you do what’s practical for your needs.
AST 2 courses are available locally from Extremely Canadian and Mountain Skills Academy & Adventures. For more information on Avalanche Operations 1 go to avalancheassociation.ca.

Vince Shuley is hoping for a stable snowpack this year. For questions, comments or suggestions to The Outsider email vince@vinceshuley.com or Twitter @vinceshuley.

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