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There’s a certain majesty – and terror – in looking up at steep, snow-covered mountain peaks, even in the confines of a patrolled ski resort like Lake Tahoe’s Kirkwood. “You know, the thing about the ski runs here is that only 20% are man-made gaps from trees we cut down. The rest were created by avalanche paths through the forest.” says Andrew DeGuzman, backcountry guide and instructor at Expedition Kirkwood. It’s enough to make you want to enroll in one of their Avalanche Safety classes, as I did, even if not planning to head to the backcountry.
During the 2021 winter season, avalanches killed 37 people across the US – and not just backcountry skiers. The Colorado Avalanche Information Center reported snowmobilers, hikers, climbers, and snowshoers accounted for nearly half the total fatalities, the largest number in over a decade. In the words of the avalanche training manual, “Nature is notorious for keeping quiet most of the time and providing unforgiving feedback when you want it least.” So, no matter what your outdoor winter activity, it’s a good idea to at least brush up on some snow safety essentials in a class like Kirkwood’s AIARE Rec Level 1 course.
AIARE, the American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education, is an organization that develops and supplies training programs to more than 100 different course-providers across the U.S., for both recreational and professional customers. The REC Level 1 class about avalanche safety basics is tailored for skiers and snowboarders, but relevant for anyone who may explore in snowy, mountainous terrain. It can be followed with further AIARE courses on snow science, avalanche rescue, and backcountry guiding.
The AIARE REC Level 1 class typically takes three days, with a combination of classroom (or online sessions in the COVID era) and on-mountain, hands-on training. Students read (or download) AIARE’s 100-page manual on avalanche and snow safety, then take a series of quizzes on the materials.
The biggest takeaway from the course materials is that the best way to stay safe in avalanches is to avoid them altogether – and the best way to do that is to study, study, study the terrain and the weather and snow conditions in the specific area you’re traveling. You’ll learn to identify key features that indicate avalanche-prone slopes and snowpack.
But there’s no substitute for getting out in the snow and testing your knowledge in a safe, supervised environment. “The great thing about Kirkwood,” says instructor DeGuzman, “is that we have typical avalanche terrain in-bounds, so you can see all your textbook lessons in person.” While that sounds dangerous, resort Ski Patrol are experts at safely clearing the terrain before the mountain opens to the public. The avalanche class tours around Kirkwood, with instructors pointing out (and questioning students on) potential avalanche start points, slide paths, and safety zones.
The class also tests student skills with avalanche transceivers and probes. Teams of two bury a backpack with a beacon, while their partners try to find it with their transceiver and dig it out with probe and shovel. What seems like a simple task I found to be tricky, walking right over my hidden “victim” many times before I properly interpreted the transceiver signals, showing the importance of practicing with your equipment.
The final day of AIARE Rec-1 class at Kirkwood includes a nearby backcountry tour, with skins for uphill climbing on skis or split snowboards. The instructors give further guidance on potential avalanche risk-zones, with the students probing and sampling snow with their tools to explore the dynamics of the snowpack. “It’s important to remember you’re not just skiing on the surface of the snow, you’re skiing on everything four feet or more beneath it,” says DeGuzman, revealing hidden ice sheets that can turn a fluffy snow field into a danger zone.
For a final exam of sorts, students get a backcountry challenge to find and “rescue” two hidden backpacks buried by the trailing instructor. Even saving these inanimate objects drives an adrenaline surge for us rescuers as the clock ticks valuable seconds away. Backpacks saved, the class skis back inbounds, with a renewed respect for avalanche country, and armed with some knowledge and tools to help manage the risks.
Some high-level tips from the AIARE curriculum:
Avalanche.org: nationwide forecasting and situation reports of avalanche dangers in popular travel areas
Weather.gov: National Weather Service forecasting and current conditions
Avtraining.org: AIARE website with training programs and links to local snow safety class providers that can be found at or near ski resorts across the US. Similar programs operate in Canada and Europe
Kirkwood.com: ski resort south of Lake Tahoe, CA, offering a full series of AIARE classes through their Expedition Kirkwood program
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