November 29, 2017
By BCA ambassador and American Avalanche Institute educator Sarah Carpenter
Avalanche education has undergone many changes in the past year. Now there are “professional courses” and “recreational courses” – the pro/rec split. But what does it all mean? Going on an avalanche course provider’s website and identifying the perfect course for your progression can be overwhelming.
So which avalanche course should you take? Here’s the breakdown:
Everyone starts with a Level 1 course. Whether you’re a recreationist or a professional, the foundation of avalanche education is the level 1. It’s a three-day (or 24-hour) course that gives you the basics of snow and avalanche training.
Before or after a Level 1 course, take an avalanche rescue fundamentals course. This is a one-day course focused entirely on avalanche rescue. It’s a field-based avalanche course that you can take at any time in your education progression. You can even take it every year as a focused skills refresher.
After the Level 1 and the avalanche rescue course, it’s time to choose your next direction. If you’re planning on recreating in the backcountry and not using your avalanche education as a professional, take an Recreational Level 2 course. This course is fun. It’s focused on skills development. It’s not the old Level 2. It aims to help backcountry travelers improve their skills: advanced rescue, techniques to increase your efficiency in snowpack analysis, route finding in challenging terrain, and communication and risk management in a small group. The goal of this course is to give you the skills to pull off a trip in a location that lacks an avalanche forecast.
If you’re planning on working in the field of snow and avalanches, instead of taking the Rec 2, you’re going to sign up for the Professional Level 1 course. This course is aimed at coaching and building skilled observers for the workplace. This is a pass/fail course that tests a variety of skills: weather station observations, terrain analysis, rescue skills, snowpit execution, and analysis, etc. The goal of this introductory professional course is to give individuals the foundation to be contributing members of a team of guides, ski patrollers, or forecasters.
If you took an Level 2 course before the 2017/18 season and are interested in pursuing a career in the snow and avalanche industry, you have the option of taking an Pro 1 Bridge course. This course takes the testing components from the Pro 1 course and puts them into a two-day format. A cautionary word on the Pro 1 Bridge course: this is more like a two-day test than a two-day educational experience. If you’re prepped and ready, then this is a good avenue. If you’re rusty or it’s been a while since you’ve taken your Level 2, take the Pro 1. It will be a much better experience for you that offers opportunities for skills development.
The Professional Level 2 course takes the place of the Level 3 courses previously taught. It is focused on coaching and developing team leaders in the snow and avalanche industry. These team leaders will be honing their forecasting skills on this course, as well as their professional writing and presentation skills. We will focus on operational risk management, building forecasts, and communicating with larger audiences. This course is a pass/fail course as well.
Outside of the pro/rec split and these courses, there continue to be a variety of educational opportunities for all backcountry users. There are winter weather forecasting courses, professional rescue courses, and refresher courses.
No matter where you are in your educational journey, remember that these skills are perishable. They need to be practiced and refreshed. As avalanche education continues to evolve, I encourage you to continue that journey and take advantage of the opportunities that exist.