Why You Should Take an Avalanche Training Course
Written by Lukas Eddy
Photos by Scott R. Tomlinson
You’re asking yourself why you should take an avalanche training course. Perhaps it’s the cost that’s holding you back, or the distance you’ll have to drive to attend it. Or the assumption that you aren’t at risk because you “don’t ride in avalanche country” or you’re already skilled and informed.
Even if you only ride trails in the mountains, there are countless examples of avalanches blasting out sections of trail. Until the riders get swept off the trail, they don’t even realize they’re at risk.
The reason you should take a course is easy. You simply don’t know what you don’t know. In fact, you might as well stop reading now and go sign up for an avalanche course.
Over the last decade, avalanches in the United States claim an average of 26 lives per year. Eager snowmobilers getting themselves into situations they don’t recognize as dangerous – or don’t care – make up a significant portion of that number. Everyone tends to have the “it won’t happen to me” attitude. It can. Or it can happen to your best buddy. Or it can happen to strangers and you’ll find the debris pile, wishing you could help – or even knew how to help.
Taking a course from certified instructors will present you with a knowledge level that would be virtually impossible to find elsewhere. The instructors, at least at Next Level Clinics, have an excellent background of experience to share with you. They have the skills and knowledge to properly explain what your goals in an avalanche situation are, how to work towards them, and why you follow the procedures that you do. They’re not just telling you what someone told them, they’ve got significant personal experience in the matter and are passionate about sharing it.
You start by learning about the basics. Avalanche statistics, conditions and other classroom-based concepts that you continue building upon as the day goes on. You learn about equipment and the many considerations that go into what you bring. How quick can you put your shovel together? How smooth are you at deploying your poles? Do you bring a radio or is shouting the only way you communicate? Does your radio interfere with the beacon antennas? What’s the range where your beacon consistently picks up a signal? Have you actually tested the range or are you reading what it says on the box? How hard do you have to pull on your airbag release trigger? These questions hardly begin to scrape the surface of what you cover in an avalanche safety course.
Then comes the field experience. A team of people can get tired just digging through a few feet of spring hardpack snow, and that’s without a 100-meter hike through avalanche debris beforehand. Avalanche debris is as hard as concrete and is nothing like shoveling your driveway, and you don’t have the luxury of taking breaks when a heart is beating under the snow. Most humans have a maximum of 15-18 minutes after burial to hope for rescue before they die of carbon dioxide poisoning, but the victim will likely lose consciousness within 5 minutes. Every second counts, and this goes back to your skill level and familiarity with your tools. Also, having CPR training and a Wilderness First Aid or, even better, a Wilderness First Responder certification is something any responsible backcountry athlete should have, but that’s a discussion for another time.
Here’s the thing, and you’ve probably heard this before, your avy safety equipment is the people you ride with. Everything besides an avalanche airbag is a passive form of rescue, you are reliant on the skills and knowledge of your riding partners. You might be the expert on avalanche rescue and have all the latest recovery equipment, but if you’re the one buried under the snow it’s not going to help.
Just like you spend thousands of dollars on a sled, riding gear, tools and other equipment, your avalanche safety skills are another tool to be equipped with. You should build these skills into a finely tuned machine for backcountry safety. Avalanche response skills are not just for you, either. They’re for all your riding buddies and their families, they’re for your family and friends. And with proper maintenance (practice) these tools will last you a lifetime, so every time you ride you can ride again another day.
Contrary to many things we do, an avalanche course offers you nothing to lose and everything to gain.
Below's a list of resources for Avalanche Training Courses.