The Good Divide — the Upcoming “Pro-Rec” Split in Avalanche Education

By Rob Coppolillo

Fresh batteries in your Tracker3, pressure in your airbag cylinder, shovel stashed, probe ready. Sure, this might be your checklist for the morning, but none of it matters if you don’t have an avy-education. Avalanche education offers the foundation for the most critical piece in the avalanche puzzle—avoidance—and there are big changes in the works for avalanche education in the US.

The Split in Avalanche Education
In June of 2014, representatives from the American Avalanche Association (AAA), the American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education (AIARE), the American Avalanche Institute (AAI), the National Avalanche School (NAS), public forecasters, educators, and ski patrollers gathered in Stanley, Idaho, to discuss “splitting” avalanche curricula in the US into professional (pro) and recreational (rec) tracks.

BCA-Avalanche-Problem-Graphic-413x203Avalanche professionals have increasingly recognized that the current “one-size-fits-all” curriculum has been falling short for users. Recreationists found themselves moving into Level 2 courses heavy on jargon and surrounded by aspiring professionals.  Those same professionals needed to learn standardized observation guidelines and operational protocols that simply weren’t necessary for the recreationists.  With somewhat divergent educational goals between the groups, having everybody in the room did not make sense.

The Stanley Idaho working group kicked off a lengthy, robust debate that, in fact, has not yet concluded. Stakeholders hope to have the finishing touches applied over the course of this season, with rollout of the “AAA Pro/Rec Avalanche Education Project” in winter of 2016-’17. Keep in mind—some terms and details of the program may change in the coming months.

Both the “pro” and “rec” tracks start with the current Level 1 “Avalanche Fundamentals,” but the new curriculum adds an eight-hour, in-depth Rescue Fundamentals module. To progress in either the pro or rec track, one will complete the 24-hour Level 1 and the 8-hour Rescue Fundamentals. This frees up valuable time within the Level 1 to focus more in-depth on other topics, while greatly enhancing the rescue component of the introductory education.

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Recreationists who wish to continue their studies will be able to enter the Advanced Recreational Avalanche Training (ARAT) with one year of field experience after their L1. Where recreationists were once expected to learn the same observational guidelines as eventual forecasters and patrollers, the new ARAT will have far less techy lingo and dive into more complex terrain management, prepare students to explore terrain not covered by a local bulletin, and reinforce their Level 1 training.

The ARAT marks the final stop in the rec track, with opportunities for refreshers down the road. Gone will be some of the cumbersome procedural content from the Snow, Weather, and Avalanches: Observational Guidelines (SWAG) from the pro track, and more attention will be focused on terrain and practical skills. The ARAT will probably be one day shorter than the current L2 course.

Anyone looking to build a career in the avalanche world will graduate from the Level 1 Avalanche Fundamentals and Rescue Fundamentals, to the Avalanche Technician (or AvTech, if the name sticks).  The Pro track courses will have examinations built in, something the current Level 2 curriculum lacks. The AvTech requires a pass/fail test at the beginning of the course, as well as a beacon test involving two victims (both wearing beacons) and a time limit. Students will begin mastering SWAGs guidelines and format, as well.

Should a student pass the AvTech and continue, then the current L3 becomes the Avalanche Forecasting for Operations (AVFO), or a course directed towards lead guides, forecasters, managers, and operational decision-makers. The AVFO, like the current L3, involves an examination at the end, a skills assessment, and requires continuing professional development for graduates.

The new American Avalanche Association program seeks most of all to be a better fit for users, pro and rec alike. Particularly in the current L2, students of dramatically different capabilities and competencies share the classroom, often leading to some feeling “lost,” while others are held back. Splitting the current curriculum in two should alleviate most of these problems and better prepare students for their eventual activities in avalanche terrain.


Rob Coppolillo is an internationally licensed mountain guide based in Boulder, Colorado, and the co-owner of Vetta Mountain Guides.