Viva la revolution: radical changes ahead for U.S. avalanche education

By Matt Schonwald

The revolution is coming: avalanche education for all! In 2017-18, you can expect big changes in how avalanche courses are taught in the U.S.  Similar to how it’s currently  done in Canada: recreationists will now be on a separate track from pros, meaning more emphasis on decision-making and less on documenting snow profiles. And here’s what we like best: a dedicated rec-level course just on companion rescue!

For the last two decades, avalanche education in the U.S. came one-size-fits-all. The progression went like this:

  • 1-2 hour avalanche awareness;
  • 24-hour Level 1;
  • 32-hour Level 2;
  • 5-6 day Level 3.

This progression followed the same formula as the Matrix Trilogy: the first course stands alone, introducing us to all the facets of avalanche hazard and how we should decide where to go. The Level 2 course bridges the gap of knowledge on professional recording standards from the Level 1 to the Level 3: one of the stated goals is to “learn standard observation guidelines and reporting formats.”

avalanche-education-pro-rec-split-3-940x705

Level 2 class at Berthoud Pass, CO. Instructor: Markus Beck.

Is that something recreational skiers and sledders really need? Not anymore, according to the new progression. Recreationists will no longer be subjected to conforming to “SWAG” standards.

Published in 2010, the document, Snow, Weather, and Avalanches: Observational Guidelines for Avalanche Programs in the United States (known by insiders as SWAG, and akin to Canada’s even uglier nicknamed OGRE’s), was a joint project of the American Avalanche Association and the USDA Forest Service National Avalanche Center. While this document set the standard of professional documentation in the snow safety industry, it also created a schism in the educational needs of professional versus recreational users. The hours spent studying the proper method of recording observations, such as full data snow profiles, took time away from practicing real-time application of those field observations into terrain and routefinding decisions. This left recreationalists wondering what was the point of knowing how to write all of this down, while still unsure how to apply those observations into field-based decision making.

This question vexed enough educators that in 2013 a group gathered and proposed to look into splitting the education tracks for recreationalist and professionals. (See BCA’s blog:  The Good Divide – The Upcoming Pro-Rec Split in Avalanche Education) The next two years saw a working group form, conduct a thorough review of existing course offerings, and a formulate a list of recommendations. They recognized that, beyond introductory training and education, recreationists and professionals address avalanche problems differently. Both students and educators would benefit from distinct tracks that meet the needs of fun-seeking recreationists, “hazard avoidance” oriented professionals, and pros focused on actively mitigating avalanche hazard.

avalanche-education-pro-rec-split-2-940x705

BCA’s Bruce Edgerly performs an extended column test.

What does this mean to the average backcountry rider? The Level 1 course will remain the first course for everyone, with the big changes coming next. The next course will be a 1-day avalanche rescue course allowing people more flexibility on course length and a distilled focus on introducing more advanced search scenarios. The next course, Advanced Recreational Avalanche Training (ARAT) will be 24 hours, the same length as the Level 1 course.

The recreational track would:

  • Retain current lower-level courses (awareness, intro and Level 1);
  • Eliminate the existing Level 2 course;
  • Upgrade the existing companion rescue course;
  • Establish a new advanced recreational course.

The professional curriculum would:

  • Eliminate the existing Level 2 and 3 courses; and
  • Establish three new courses:
    1. Pro 1- Avalanche Technician;
    2. Pro 2- Avalanche Forecasting for Operations;
    3. AvSAR- Professional Avalanche Search and Rescue.

avalanche-education-pro-rec-split-1-940x705

Full data snow profiles will become a thing of the past for recreationalists when the pro/rec split launches in 2017-18.

The Pro 1 certification aims to ensure similar levels of knowledge and skill for all participants, requiring them to pass multiple assessments to earn the certificate. The Pro 2 focuses deeper into leadership, forecasting and managing worker safety. The AvSAR course works on large group avalanche rescue using advanced leadership and resource management within the context of an avalanche incident.

Welcome to the new world of avalanche education: where there’s a need, there’s a course to meet it. The bottom line for backcountry users: avalanche courses updated to meet the needs of the recreational skier, snowboarder, snow machine rider, and the professional. Viva la revolution!


matt-schonwald-158x194Matt Schonwald is a certified AMGA ski mountaineering guide and certified avalanche instructor with the American Avalanche Association, where he is also the Pro Training Coordinator. He’s the founder of BC Adventure Guides, which leads guided ski trips to Antarctica, Europe, Asia, North and South America. In his free time he shares his passion for snow with his daughter between completing his “honey do list” and enjoying what he calls the greatest touring on Earth at Snoqualmie Pass (WA).