Jessica Baker. Photo: Jay Dash
Jessica Baker. Photo: Jay Dash

Why Everyone Should Take an Avy 1 Course

From backcountry beginners to self-educated veterans, we can all learn from the experts

I spent last weekend with 20 strangers in a classroom and on a couple slow, icy tours, clocking about 5 minutes of cruddy downhill skiing in the backcountry around Stevens Pass, Washington. It was a setup that would typically have me sprinting the opposite direction, toward long days in the mountains with my friends, away from any situation that would call for note-taking. Despite it all, though, the AIARE Level One course is a pretty incredible way to spend a weekend.

Ego persistently finds its way into our lives as skiers, and dropping into the position of student is the quickest way I’ve found to stop worrying about people’s assumptions and to focus on one thing: learning and growing as a backcountry traveler.

Deciding to take an avalanche course can be tough for a lot of reasons. It’s a sacrifice of precious free time, and it can be tough for folks working typical ski town jobs—waiting tables, bumping lifts, bartending—to get two and a half days off, period. It’s a big expense, as much as some season passes. (Though my Northwest Mountain School course was a refreshing $375, compared to the more common $400-$500). For skiers new to the backcountry, it can be intimidating: Will I be surrounded by people way more experienced than me? Am I committed enough to skiing the backcountry to benefit from this course? For those who have learned avalanche safety and travel techniques through hands-on experience with their friends, it can feel like taking a few steps backward to re-learn stuff you might think you already know.

The thing is, anyone traveling in the backcountry should take an Avy 1. No matter your experience level, everyone—from avalanche safety professionals to casual snowshoers—can learn life-saving skills and science from the weekend-long intensive course.

For the uninitiated, Level 1 classes are a combination of classroom lectures and discussion and field training. We started with 6 hours of classroom time, where our instructors—on day one, an avalanche forecaster for NWAC and an ex-NOLS instructor and mountain guide—rotated between lectures about basic snow science, weather, types of avalanche problems, terrain choice, group dynamics, and communication, and search-and-rescue.

My classmates were mostly beginners—folks who had done a few tours, a bit of hiking, a little sidecountry here and there—but there were a handful of experienced mountain athletes, ice climbers, and backcountry skiers, who had finally decided to learn from the experts. I came in with an Avalanche Awareness Course under my belt (that’s sort of a “Level 1 lite,” an unregulated course without a specific curriculum. I took one with S.A.F.E. A.S., but you can find these at all sorts of ski retailers and mountains), which left me feeling really prepared, as some of the info we covered, like how to use and store my beacon, shovel, and probe, was review for me. This is a great and less expensive way for a beginner to become oriented with avalanche safety basics, but it’s no replacement for a full Avy 1.

On day two, we took a short tour to a flat, wooded area to practice search-and-rescue. Mistakes made included: burying my beacon for my partner to search for without turning it on, moving too quickly and confidently when searching, waving the beacon around and rotating it rather than holding it perfectly steady, and not taking leadership during a group search. Using inbounds beacon parks and practicing on your own is a great way to stay fresh, but learning with an instructor looking over my shoulder, fine-tuning my technique for me, can’t be imitated by watching a video or learning with a friend. No matter how experienced your backcountry partners are, there’s a huge difference between an avalanche safety professional (so, a guide or forecaster) and a recreationalist. For reference, according to a study by the Colorado Avalanche Center, 59 percent of burial victims survived when traveling with avalanche professionals and just 32 percent when dug out by recreationalists.

A short classroom session in the evening wrapped up day two, and we took a longer tour, two groups up the popular Skyline Ridge and one into the old Yodelin Ski Area, to practice digging pits, applying the avalanche forecast to a day of travel, making observations about the weather and its impact on the snowpack, and using safe skiing and skinning techniques to travel through avalanche terrain.

As a rule, I’m a huge advocate for just about all forms of outdoor education. From a NOLS course to an Avy 1 to a climbing safety workshop, no other setup lets you drop all pretense of expertise and ask just about any question you want: How do Dynafit bindings work? What’s the dumbest thing you’ve ever done in the backcountry?

Ego persistently finds its way into our lives as skiers, and dropping into the position of student is the quickest way I’ve found to stop worrying about people’s assumptions and to focus on one thing: learning and growing as a backcountry traveler.

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PHOTO: Jay Dash