Subscribe to Backcountry for just $24.95 and we'll send you this limited-edition t-shirt. PLUS you'll be entered into our 2017 Subscriber giveaway for a chance to win a pair of Editors' Choice Dynastar skis and Lange boots!

Mountain Skills: Why Take Avy Two?

While most backcountry users end their formal avalanche training after Avy One, snow safety requires constant education.

Going around the room at the Avalanche Level Two course, we offered our names, backgrounds and why we had chosen to enroll. In the room sat three ski patrollers, five recreationalists (myself included), a businessman with a snow-safety company, one guide and two aspiring guides. And everyone’s answer varied.

AIARE instructor Matt Primono gets pitted. [Photo] James Roh

AIARE instructor Matt Primomo gets pitted. [Photo] James Roh

For the professionals, their reasons for continuing their education in snow science were fairly obvious—the safety of their clients, guests, coworkers and even the general public lies in their hands. But for those with nothing but their own wellbeing and enjoyment at stake, the reasons weren’t so focused. I explained to the group that I was there because an avalanche in Alaska left me wanting to know more—I want to replace luck with knowledge. And until that point, I’d long wondered, Isn’t the Level One course enough?

WHAT’S THE DIFFERENCE?

“Level One is just giving fundamentals to make decisions, mostly by using an avalanche forecast,” explains Matt Primomo, lead course instructor and an avalanche forecaster for the Utah Department of Transportation. “It gives you basic tools to process that information.”

In other words, Level One is often regarded as a requisite to entering avalanche terrain, a minimum credential on a tourer’s résumé. So, for those looking to keep their snow-science skills in line with their desire to ski more committing terrain, Level Two is often the logical next step.

“The Level Two curriculum focuses mainly on teaching avalanche recreationalists and professionals about how to be safe in the backcountry with an increased emphasis on actually looking into the snowpack for clues on snowpack structure and how to perform snowpack tests,” says Sean Zimmerman-Wall, a snow-science educator, guide and ski patroller at Snowbird Ski and Summer Resort.

This means an advanced understanding of avalanche terrain, stability analysis, rescue skills, snowpack development over time and space and standardized observation guidelines and formats. Recreationalists essentially become their own forecasters by relying on their own observations and interpretations—necessary skills on a remote glacier in, say, the heart of the Tordrillo Mountains.

Yet, only a small fraction of recreationalists opt for continued education in the classroom. Shaun Raskin, an AIARE educator and owner of Inspired Summit Adventures, attributes this to several factors, including cost, time commitment and contentment with Level One courses.

Both AIARE and Raskin urge recreationalists to spend, at minimum, a full season touring after their Level One before enrolling in the Level Two to practice safe travel techniques and witness changes in the snowpack over the course of a season.

“There’s something to be said about having a really solid foundation,” Raskin says. “The goal is to have a baseline Level One backcountry community and the secondary goal is to have continued education opportunities for each user group.”

Once recreationalists begin to formulate advanced questions regarding snow science, however, Raskin strongly encourages them to take a Level Two.

“People think Level Two is just for pros,” she says, refuting that misconception. “Everybody comes in on the same playing field. The only difference is what people do with their Level Two after the course.”

Primono takes a closer look at snowpack. [Photo] James Roh

Primomo takes a closer look at snowpack. [Photo] James Roh

DIGGING IN

Following the brief formalities, we dove right in and spent the first day refreshing basic concepts at an expedited pace before further exploring snow science. When we weren’t in a classroom, we were waist deep in a snow pit, poking, examining, measuring and asking innumerable questions. By gathering seemingly minute observations, I began to understand the process as a whole.

As someone who spends countless hours thinking about snow, I found the detailed information fascinating. Nevertheless, I couldn’t help but wonder if some of the information and processes presented were—for a lack of better word—“excessive” for my recreational purposes. Do they expect me to complete full pit profiles and record to standardized guidelines every time I go for a skin? If I see a cornice-triggered wet slide, should I immediately think “WS-NC-R2-D2?” Was this knowledge that I, a recreationalist, needed to know?

LEVEL TWO, TWO PATHS

“There’s a lot of people that have taken Level One programs that are saying, ‘Give me more. I want more,’” says Ben Pritchett, program director with the American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education (AIARE). “And what [recreationalists] are finding is that the current Level Two has an awful lot of professional details that may not be perfectly suited for their needs.”

As it stands, the AIARE Level Two course is not specifically targeting either the professional or recreational audience but a middle ground between the two. And AIARE, along with American Avalanche Association, National Avalanche School and American Avalanche Institute, hopes to change that by designing a curriculum that will divide the student groups into separate tracks and cater to their specific needs.

Changes for the recreation course include increased emphasis on communication, trip planning, managing terrain and accurate assessment of slope stability in unfamiliar areas—in essence, the ability to answer the most important question when touring: “Is this line safe to ski today?”

“I think it’s going to greatly improve the educational offerings for recreational students,” Pritchett says.

AIARE is currently working on a proposal, and, if approved by the American Avalanche Association, the new curricula will roll out over the next several years. In the meantime, is the Level Two, in its present state, still valuable to recreationalists? Absolutely.

Participants practice a compression test. [Photo] James Roh

Participants practice a compression test. [Photo] James Roh

ADVANCED AVY SKILLS

Having a more thorough understanding of snow science and snowpack formation has enabled me to observe and interpret more clues while in the backcountry. And if I do happen to find a suspect layer, I am capable of investigating further, monitoring it throughout the season and sharing my findings with others by submitting an observation to my local avalanche forecast center.

“Those high-level observations not only help the community, but they give the forecasters an extra leg up on the avalanche dragon, so to speak,” Zimmerman-Wall says. “Having the community crowdsource that kind of knowledge is pretty incredible.”

While taking that Avalanche Level Two course is an excellent tool for learning advanced concepts from experienced professionals, education doesn’t just start and stop in an organized course.

“Continuing education can be most effective by spending time in the snow, watching the snow, digging in the snow, trying to figure it out yourself, comparing your thoughts to your partners’ and the advisory,” says Wendy Wagner, director of the Chugach National Forest Avalanche Information Center. “Essentially, being aware and inquisitive is the key.”

Zimmerman-Wall encourages skiers to take advantage of online publications available through the International Snow Science Workshop, Montana State University and the University of Calgary.

Ultimately, it’s nearly impossible to say whether or not an Avalanche Level Two education would have prevented me from getting caught in my avalanche. I do know, however, that I am now better educated and capable of making more informed decisions in the future. And that’s a goal to strive for no matter how many times we’ve been in the backcountry.

This story first appeared in the October 2015 issue. Grab a copy now at backcountrymagazine.com/store and check out a calendar of avalanche courses nationwide here.

backcountry-magazine-october-2015-cover

Comments

  1. That’s my boy!

  2. Nice article– And way to go, Matt!

  3. Patrollers and guides dominated my Lvl 2 and I would say that the class was 40% snow science, 40% oriented to professionals, 20% recreational, but I did get quite a bit out of the class and it is worth taking. Even more lopsided was the Lvl 1 Instructor class, which focuses on teaching avalanche safety within a guide service (for hire) format rather than in a recreational or club (non-profit) format. Will be very interested to see how AIARE’s proposal for separate tracks for professionals and recreationalists works develops

Speak Your Mind

*

css.php