Where should I take an avalanche education course?

Backcountry skiing has increased dramatically over the past decade.  This is due to variety of factors. In response, the number of avalanche course providers has significantly gone up as well.  For example, in 1990 there were two avalanche courses providers in the San Juan’s (one in Telluride and one in Silverton), neither of which were AIARE providers.  In 2013, there were over 10 AIARE course providers in the same territory, and close to 30 in Colorado alone!  This is great for the public in regards to options. However it can also be overwhelming when choosing which course to enroll in.

So, how do you choose where to take an avalanche course?  Here are a few questions to ponder and ask;

  • AIARE VS Non-AIARE courses – What’s the difference?

AIARE stands for the American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education.

AIARE, a non-profit based out of Crested Butte CO, gathers the latest knowledge, research and ideas in avalanche safety from; mountain and ski guides, transportation and public forecasting offices, ski area and snow safety operations, public awareness centers, academia, and more.  AIARE develops and disseminates avalanche course materials to avalanche educators in the United States, South America and Europe. There are over 80 course providers and 250 instructors representing AIARE internationally.

Each Course Provider and Instructor is heavily encouraged to personalize their course with local anecdotal and case study information, however the learning outcomes for each topic must be met.  If you decide to take an AIARE 2 in Washington after taking your AIARE 1 in Colorado, you enter that course with the pre-requisite knowledge as the AIARE courses build on each other, from AIARE 1 through AIARE 3.

AIARE supports it’s course providers and instructors with curriculum, material, PowerPoint’s, etc.  There is virtually no way that a non-AIARE provider could have the same level of instruction and material as an AIARE provider.  We highly recommend an AIARE provider over a non-AIARE provider.

  • What about the American Avalanche Association?

The American Avalanche Association (AAA) is our national organization for snow and avalanche studies.  Their mission is:

  1. To provide information about snow and avalanches.
  2. To represent the professional interests of the United States avalanche community.
  3. To contribute toward high standards of professional competence and ethics for persons engaged in avalanche related activities.
  4. To exchange technical information and maintain communications among persons engaged in avalanche activities.
  5. To provide direction for, promote, and support avalanche education in the United States.
  6. To promote research and development in avalanche safety.

Unlike AIARE, the AAA does not provide curriculum or material for avalanche course providers.  The AAA purely provides guidelines.  The purpose of the AAA Guidelines is to provide a general benchmark for skill progressions between different levels of avalanche education, for the public’s benefit. AAA believes that avalanche education can be more thoughtfully, consistently, and responsibly conducted and can achieve more constructive outcomes for students when course providers and avalanche instructors in the United States strive to embrace common guidelines and practices.

Bottom line, by default, all AIARE course meet or exceed AAA guidelines.  However, not all AAA course are AIARE courses.  Make sense…?

  • Who are you instructors and where are they from?

Just like any college course, a tremendous amount of how excellent a course is, is dependent on who the instructors are.  A wonderful instructor can make a crummy course great and a horrible instructor can butcher a great course into junk.  Look into your instructor.  Ask the course provider specifically who will be teaching your course. Ask the course provider the following questions:

  • Where else do the instructs teach? Or do they only instruct for that single company?
  • What do they do the rest of the year? Does your instructor only teach two avalanche courses a year and then work at a computer the rest of the year?  OR do they work year round as an outdoor educator and mountain guide?
  • What types of snow packs do they work in each year? Do they only work in a single area every year such as only in the Cascades or only in Colorado?
  • Are the instructors local? OR does the company have to bring them in?
  • Are they certified by the American Mountain Guides Association (AMGA)? Guides and Instructors that are certified by the AMGA have undergone extensive training, and commitment to their profession as a mountain guide. The AMGA is our nation’s sole representative to the 21-member International Federation of Mountain Guides Associations (IFMGA), the international governing body responsible for guiding standards and education around the world. AMGA certified guides and instructors could work in any part of the industry from teaching on climbing walls and single pitch cliffs to guides guiding long rock routes, alpine climbs, and ski mountaineering trips.  Ask that your guide or instructor is AMGA trained and/or certified.
  • Or do they just have “years of experience?” Just like any profession, a true “professional” goes through Continuing Professional Development (CPD).  Any instructor that tells you he/she is good enough to teach, but has nothing to learn should be questioned.  Lawyers have to pass the Bar.  Doctors have to become Board Certified.  Make sure your instructor is Certified as well.

At KMG, our instructors work in a variety of snow packs from maritime (Washington/CA) to Intercontinental (Colorado).  This gives them a wider breath of knowledge about snow.  All of KMG instructor work for a variety of institutions as well.  KMG’s owner and lead guide, Josh Kling, teaches more avalanche courses for more college programs every year than any other instructor in Colorado.  Over the past decade Josh has taught programs for (listed in alphabetical order); Alpine World Ascents, Apex Mountain School, Colorado Mountain College, Fort Lewis College, La Plata County Search and Rescue, San Juan College, Silverton Avalanche School, Silverton Mountain, Telluride Avalanche School/Telluride Alpinism, and more.  These are all in addition to Kling Mountain Guides courses.  There is a reason why so many other programs in Colorado and elsewhere hire Josh to teach programs for them.  Many of KMG’s other instructors have degrees in Adventure Education from national recognized institutions such as Prescott College and Fort Lewis College.

Many other programs do not have any local instructors.  This means that they have to bring in other instructors (such as Josh) to teach for them.  While having some non-local instructors is a great attribute, we do not believe that a program should have an entire staff of non-local instructors (like some do).  When an entire program relies completely on non-local instructors, the courses end up being a hodgepodge of different instructors ideas and tends to make for a poor course.  Picture a college program where every professor was visiting.  Not horrible, but less than ideal…

All of KMG instructors are going through training and certification from the AMGA.    Many companies out there say their avalanche course instructors are IFMGA Licensed guides or AMGA Certified Guides.  This is often smoke and mirrors.  With a little inspection, you’ll find that the instructors listed on the website and that teach their courses end up being neither AMGA certified or IFMGA licensed! Look into who the actual instructor for your course is.

  • Where is the course? Classroom time?  Field Time?

Where the classroom and field time is, can almost be as critical as who the instructor is.  At KMG we divide our courses a little different than other courses. Both our Level 1 and Level 2 courses utilize the terrain around Silverton, Molas Pass, and Red Mountain Pass.  This terrain, for an avalanche course venue, is virtually unmatched in the lower 48.  There is a reason that people have been coming to the San Juans, Red Mountain Pass, and Silverton for decades to study the avalanche phenomenon.  On KMG avalanche courses you will be put into actual, manageable avalanche terrain. Believe it or not, many avalanche courses never enter avalanche terrain.  It’s a course of “pretend this is avalanche terrain, how would you proceed?”  Other courses only have access to the most extreme.  Check with your avalanche course provider on where the field time is held.

  • Level 1: We have the entire first day of our Level 1 inside, in a classroom. This makes for a long first day.  However, there are no transitions.  You can come in your street clothes, bring your lunch, and relax and learn all day.  By having the entire day in a classroom, we have two full days in the field actually on the snow.  This eliminates the transition time from classroom to field each day, which typically eats into the days productive time.  Many programs will have classroom all morning, field in the afternoon, and then more classroom.  These added transition times cut into the learning time. The end result is that class either goes late each night, or your on snow time is compromised and cut short.  After having taught 10-14 avalanche courses a season for the past nine winters throughout Colorado, I have found that the our schedule (full classroom day, two full field days) works best.

  • Level 2 The Level 2 is a much more intensive course than the Level 1.  This has to do with significantly material being covered.  This year, in an effort to eliminate transition time, KMG will be hosting all of our Level 2 programs at ski huts on Red Mountain Pass.  By staying at the huts, we virtually eliminate any transition time.  We can get up in the morning, have breakfast while watching a snow science and avalanche lecture and then just stroll out the door.
  • best ski run of my life!

The Level two is often looked at as an entry-level professional course. Typical course participants may be future ski patrollers, ski & mountain guides, and frequent backcountry travelers that are interested in improving their decision making skills and avalanche knowledge.  This course also includes the introductory and prerequisite components for progression to AIARE level 3 programs.

In the end, it all comes down to communication.  So:

  • Talk to your course provider.  Ask them lots of questions, like the ones above.  There is never to much communication.
  • Check out some of the forums and blogs out there and see what people are saying.
  • Talk to local gear shops. We recommend chatting with gear shops that are not associated with a guide service.  IE KMG is connected to Backcountry Experience in Durango, so of course Backcountry is going to say take a KMG course.  Talk to the random shops that are not affiliated with a guide service.  They often can give the most straightforward and honest answers.
  • Talk to your buddies and see where they have taken a course.
  • Call the local ski area and talk to folks there, specifically the patrollers.
  • Call the local college outdoor program and see who they like.
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