Avalanche educational offerings are as diverse in North America as the snowflakes falling from the sky. That can be a good thing and a bad thing. PHOTO: Mark Fisher/Fisher Creative

Avalanche educational offerings are as diverse in North America as the snowflakes falling from the sky. That can be a good thing and a bad thing. PHOTO: Mark Fisher/Fisher Creative

WORDS: Doug Krause

Doug Krause is a skier, guide, patroller, and forecaster from Silverton, Colorado. His favored locales include the Andes, Rockies, and Chugach Mountains.

Avalanche courses in the United States are like snowflakes. They all adhere to the same fundamental structure yet their diversity is what distinguishes them and makes each one subtly unique.

The variation is a result of parallel development. Avalanche education evolved in diverse locations simultaneously. Each place had a different idea of what was most important and developed their curriculum accordingly. What grew in the Tetons has regional traits that differ from what grew in the Sierra Nevada or the Colorado Rockies.

While a degree of regional uniqueness is encouraged and respected, too much autonomy is problematic. But leverage the diversity of avalanche educational offerings, and we can turn our problem into an asset. That takes effort. Capitalizing on diversity requires us—the students—to accept responsibility.

Tom Murphy is the operations director of the American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education (AIARE), a disseminator of avalanche education curricula and instructor training. Referring to the history of avalanche education, Murphy describes a “closed loop” problem. “The flow of information from region to region was restricted,” he says. “We weren’t able to learn from each other and share ideas and concepts.” Murphy says he’s seen dramatic improvement with the dawn of the information age, but he still believes that isolationism is a concern.

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The roots of avalanche education in the United States and Canada are similar in that both grew from the needs of professionals dealing with avalanche problems. However, over the years, the two countries developed programs that today are strikingly different.

American providers multiplied and became more oriented to recreational backcountry skiers, while Canadian programs grew under a single umbrella and cultivated distinct, separate professional and recreational tracks. The freedom inherent in the American system facilitates rapid innovation and allows a high degree of regional specialization, but the Canadian system is better positioned to maintain consistency across a diverse population of education providers. Can we have our hot dogs and poutine, too?

The Canadian Avalanche Association (CAA), the organization representing Canadian avalanche professionals, incorporated in 1981 with professional and public education among its primary objects. This established a centralized system of oversight that still exists in Canada today. The CAA collaborates closely with federal and provincial governments, while still enjoying the support of private industry. CAA professional training programs are accredited as post-secondary education, and its offshoot organization, the Canadian Avalanche Center (CAC), licenses recreational avalanche instructors. With a government partnership, a 2012 budget in the neighborhood of $1.8 million, and no competition, the CAC provides a world-class education that maintains consistency across the nation.

Across the border in the United States, avalanche education’s roots were driven by the needs of professionals. It started in 1949 when the U.S. Forest Service Alta Avalanche School was created to train Forest Service officers. American avalanche education continued to be tailored toward professionals for decades, with the National Ski Patrol and the Silverton Avalanche School establishing their own curriculums in 1957 and 1962, respectively.

Recreational avalanche education in the United States didn’t surface until the early 1970s, and it really didn’t gain traction until 1986, when the American Avalanche Association (AAA), the representative body for professionals in the United States, was born. The ’90s saw more curricula develop with AIARE And the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) joining the fray. In 1999, the AAA published its first table of avalanche education guidelines. Just as the millennials drew their first breaths, American avalanche education started to mirror the same diversity and independence that our country was founded on. However, this diversity is a mixed blessing.

They're never too young to learn. PHOTO: Doug Krause

They’re never too young to learn. PHOTO: Doug Krause

The AAA provides recreational course guidelines and, since 2003, a process for certifying avalanche instructors. It also supports professional education via the National Avalanche School and AVPro programs. But the lack of government buy-in, competing standards, a private industry that prefers its independence, and a budget one-tenth the size of the Canada’s, all combine to deny the AAA a similar level of clout as their neighbors to the north, even though both country’s guiding principles are similar: To represent professionals, support educational standards, and facilitate the flow of information.

Curricula diversity and the lack of a dedicated professional development track in the United States are issues being addressed. Kirk Bachman, chairman of the Education Committee of the American Avalanche Association, is currently auditing a broad spectrum of avalanche courses to flesh out a new approach to education for professionals. Bachman hopes that his research will also illuminate a path to greater alignment among competing recreational course providers.

Because there is no legal requirement in the United States for avalanche educators to be certified, nor are there authoritative regulations regarding what curricula must contain, students beware. But fear not avalanche rookie. An attitude of diligent optimism is warranted. Avalanche education is not defined by a phase or levels that can be reached, it is a process that never ends.

Embrace the diversity of American offerings and accept responsibility for your own education. Do your research. Set educational priorities. Locate a skilled mentor or course provider with a balance of professional and academic experience. Harness the advantages of diversity by taking classes in different mountain ranges or from different providers. The American avalanche community is expanding and refining its offerings but the onus is not on the teachers alone; it is on the students. Challenge yourself and you will be gratified by the wealth and quality of educational opportunities available to American deep powder aficionados.

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