Before the Backcountry Shots: Tom Murphy Talks Avalanche Education

When Tom Murphy, co-founder of the American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education (AIARE), isn’t enjoying bluebird turns in his home state of Colorado, he’s checking snow conditions and teaching the next generation of backcountry travelers how to stay safe. We caught up with Murph in between laps in the Anthracites Mountains and talked about A-frames, the next generation and, of course, avalanches.

And if Murph could tell every skier and rider heading into the backcountry one thing, he wouldn’t waste a breath talking about metamorphic processes in the snowpack.

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Tom Murphy always knows where to find the good snow. [Photo] Don Svela

 “A lot of times when you head into the backcountry, you’re hanging out with friends,” he says. “It’s an exciting, fun time, and often, we don’t want to think that we’re operating in a hazardous environment and that someone can get injured or killed. What we need to say is, ‘Hey, we’re heading into a hazardous environment and we need to make better decisions to manage our risk.’ If that’s the common thread throughout the day, I think we’ll see a lot fewer avalanche accidents.”

It’s this paradigm that has motivated Murph to spend the last 15 years building AIARE, the largest avalanche education system in America.

Murph first dipped his toes into the waters of avy safety much like we all have—through his love for the backcountry. “I first got involved in avalanche safety when I became a backcountry skier back in the early ’70s,” he says. “At that point, I knew nothing about traveling in the backcountry and avalanche danger and all that. Over time, I became interested in becoming a better manager of my own risk.”

In 1975, the budding young avy expert moved to Hatcher Pass, Alaska, where he controlled avalanches for a mining operation and worked as an observer for the Alaska Avalanche Warning Center. In his spare time, Murph built a badass A-frame (now the home of Hatcher Pass Lodge), which he would call home for the next 15 years.

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Program Director Ben Pritchett (left) and Operations Director Tom Murphy. [Photo] Don Svela

In 1990, Murph moved to Crested Butte, Colorado. Along with Karl Klassen and Jean Pavillard, he began to see a need for a unified approach to avalanche education that would combine the different education styles used by the U.S., Canada and Europe. It was this hybrid approach that inspired the three to found AIARE in 1999. “We started looking less at theoretical aspects of avalanches, less of the science, and we started to look at what it was that was actually getting people killed in the backcountry,” he says. “What we found was that it’s less about knowing what metamorphic processes are occurring and more about understanding human dynamics and terrain selection.”

Now, more than ever before, AIARE is working hard to reach out to the exponentially expanding next generation of backcountry enthusiasts. “We have a new generation that’s embracing the backcountry and they learn differently,” Murph says. “We’re attempting to take this new generation into consideration and accommodate that in the next round of education, what we call Version 3.0.” The group is also working on encouraging the backcountry community to embrace more than just the ever-classic stoke powder shot. “What we’re attempting to do is to begin to let folks share some of what they do in order to prepare,” he says of their Know The Snow video campaign (visit knowthesnow.com to learn more).

“What we’re really attempting to do is to provide our students with the tools that they need so they can make better decisions after they leave the course,” Murph says. As AIARE continues to grow, keep an eye out for new online courses (bonus: they’ll likely be free) and visit avtraining.org for more basics on backcountry travel.

The Backcountry Basecamp, a nationwide, multi-resort tour brought to you by GORE-TEX, is heading to Crested Butte Mountain Resort, Colo. on March 15-16. Join the editors of Backcountry Magazine for a weekend of education, safety and the newest backcountry equipment and technical apparel. For more information and an event schedule visit backcountrymagazine.com/basecamp.

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