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Going Deep: In Seattle, a little avalanche education in the evenings

If you’re like most experienced backcountry skiers it’s been more than 50 backcountry days and a few years since your last avalanche course. According to Scott Schell, the program director for the Northwest Avalanche Center (NWAC), that’s not cool. So, in an effort to fill the avy education gap, Schell developed an affordable way for Seattle skiers to keep up on their avy training.

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A 2013 Going Deep session at Second Ascent, a Seattle second-hand retailer. [Photo] Nick Rustigan

The program, called Going Deep, takes place four to six times a winter on weekday evenings at REI in downtown Seattle. The three-hour evening sessions are designed to update and refresh knowledge around decision-making—minimizing human error in high-risk environments, managing group dynamics—and topics not covered in great detail in Avy 1 courses like managing conditions on multiday tours. Classes cost $10 and include free beer.

After teaching Level 1 and 2 avy courses, Schell realized there was a better way to disseminate information. “The only feedback you get that your decision was 100 percent good or bad is if you find yourself in an avalanche. And at that point you have very good feedback that what you did was wrong,” Schell says. “We came up with a three-hour, interactive workshop in which we would spend a lot of time on a very narrow topic that’s relevant to recreation.” Workshops often start with a presentation, and then attendees break into small groups to discuss and formulate hypothetical plans given the information they’ve just learned.

Whereas efforts like Project Zero are an industry-wide approach to revamping avy safety, Going Deep focuses on specific skills and knowledge. “Going Deep is catered to this audience who’s out in the backcountry a lot, and they’ve taken their Avy 1 but aren’t really looking to geek out on the Avy 2,” notes Nicholas Rustigian, a NWAC Program Assistant who frequents the workshops. “That’s how it fills the void for me and my friends.”

“They’re very popular here in Seattle,” says Chris Solomon, who’s attended two workshops. “You can really get a bunch of different slices of education throughout the winter without dedicating four days to a course.”

Schell has high expectations for reaching broader audiences in years to come. “I think growth in the next few years will be by region, so maybe we’ll expand the series into northern Oregon or into Tacoma,” he says. “I don’t know of anyone else who’s doing classes quite like this.”

For more information and a schedule of classes, visit nwac.us.

This story first appeared in the October 2014 issue. To read more stories like it, subscribe here.

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