Photos by Mike Schirf
The winter mountains are a sanctuary, a world of glittering wonder. Freedom is the quiet serenity found while skinning and skiing untracked winter powder. In the realm of earned turns, notions of controlled slopes and corporate responsibly hold no validity. The mountains offer extreme opposites; mighty destruction and absolute peace. Overwhelming contentment is easily found making powder turns and breathing clean air. It almost seems that a place of such sweet moments, could not be fatal. To believe that fluffy backcountry powder can be skied worry free, is flirtation with disaster. Ignorance will only be bliss until something goes awfully wrong.
As backcountry travelers we have personal responsibility, a code of ethics. Personal choices can and do effect all other people traveling in the backcountry. Each individual choice is part of a larger community and negligence effects innocent people. The Utah Avalanche Center provides a simple diagram for backcountry travelers, a balance between freedom and responsibility. A social contract for the safety of individuals and collective whole of backcountry skiers. The four points are: ski one at a time, contemplate what can go wrong/ the worst that can happen, share the responsibility of others safety in the backcountry, and be mindful of your decisions and how they can affect other people and the backcountry community at large.
The sense of shared responsibility and the power of our snowy sanctuary encourages a pursuit of knowledge. To be a safe backcountry traveler it is critical to learn techniques and awareness from the professionals. Fortunately in Utah we have the opportunity to learn from many respectable avalanche education institutions. Educated decisions and travel are possible through courses and workshops held by a multitude of organizations including; The American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education (AIARE), American Avalanche Institute (AAI), Utah Mountain Adventures (UMA), and The Utah Avalanche Center.
A level 1 avalanche safety course will give you tools to make educated decisions and travel safely. Level 1 courses through AIARE, AAI, and UMA will provide students with experience for safe backcountry travel. A level 1 student can expect to learn the following tools: plan and prepare for avalanche terrain, recognize avalanche terrain, understand decision framework in avalanche terrain, interpreting the avalanche forecast, trip planning, learning and applying companion rescue, introduction to snowpits and stability, and recognizing human factors. Level 1 courses through these institutions are 24 hours in length and consist of classroom and field time.
Goals, experience and budget may affect personal choice of avalanche education. Avalanche professionals provide information about the programs they represent to allow backcountry travelers the ability to choose education appropriate for their snow travel desires.
AIARE courses are available through many Utah establishments including; White Pine Touring, Powder Mountain Ski Resort, Utah State University, Snowbird Resort, and Weber State University Outdoor Program. The AIARE website outlines the components of each course, additional information and course dates can be found at avtraining.org
White Pine Touring located in Park City offers multiple AIARE courses each year. Scott House the program director for White Pine’s AIARE courses explains, “The standardization of knowledge is what makes White Pine excited to be part of AIARE”.
House describes, “a student enrolled in level 1 through WPT will be exposed to a different snowpack each field day.” The first field day is spent learning skills for companion rescue, beacon searches, and digging a snowpit in the Wasatch Back. The second field day is spent surrounded by the vast alpine peaks of the Uinta Range. Here a student will learn how to travel through avalanche terrain safely, while making quick snow observations. A partnership with Park City Powder Cats gives students an opportunity to experience mechanized guiding by riding a snow cat to a yurt. House describes, “The yurt serves as the base camp for executing a trip plan.”
WPT, AIARE level 1 course costs $395.00, this fee includes AIARE field book, AIARE manual, rentals (beacon, shovel, probe, and touring/split board set up), and transportation from WPT on field days. Visit WPT website for further details at, whitepinetouring.com/avalanche-training.php
In Utah, AAI offers avalanche safety courses in both Park City and Salt Lake City. The level 1 course is compromised of 40% classroom time and 60% time in the field. Level 1 and 2 instructor Cameron Banko describes details about the courses held in Salt Lake City. Level 1 courses in SLC are typically 4 days, two evening classroom sessions on Thursday and Friday and two field days on Saturday and Sunday. Field days are spent ski touring out of Little Cottonwood canyon, ending the day at the Peruvian Lodge in Alta.
There are two level 1 courses held in Park City. One of the courses is offered at the Canyons, with classroom sessions at the Grand Summit Hotel. Field time is spent in the Canyons sidecountry adjacent to the 9990 chair lift. This specific course can be especially useful for students who primarily ski at the Canyons and plan to execute backcountry travel from 9990. Banko offers advice on what to do before taking the course, “avalanche instructors are happy to help with equipment, but [I] recommend getting the most out of a course by using backcountry equipment prior to enrolling.” He encourages students to practice single beacon searches and practice using backcountry skis or splitboards.
AAI also offers several courses to deepen understanding of the backcountry, including; Winter Weather Forecasting and a Professional Rescue Course.
AAI level 1 courses are $375/$475 (Park City Powder Cats). A detailed course outline, course dates and locations can be found on the AAI website www.americanavalancheinstitute.com.
UMA is a local Utah guiding service, provides avalanche education courses sanctioned by the American Avalanche Association.
UMA courses are comprised of one evening session on Friday and two full day sessions on Saturday and Sunday. Avalanche professional John Mletschnig describes UMA courses as “primarily based out of the town of Alta, which allows immediate access to terrain from the classroom”. Splitboard guide and avalanche professional Kelly Robbins is enthusiastic about the location of UMA avalanche courses, “The Wasatch Mountains…provide a pretty stunning view for an avalanche course.” UMA courses can offer an advantage for students who plan to primarily ski in Little Cottonwood Canyon. Robbins describes, “our instructors generally know the Wasatch very well, and that local knowledge adds a lot of value to the course for students.”
Although no prior experience is necessary, Robbins encourages students to become familiar with equipment prior to the course. Being familiar with your gear allows the avalanche professionals more time to teach avalanche safety.
UMA level 1 courses are $299. A course description, schedule, and further information can be found at, www.utahmountainadventures.com/avalanche_education.shtml.
If you have already taken level 1 and yearn for more knowledge, AIARE, AAI, and UMA offer level 2 avalanche courses. House describes WPT AIARE level 2 as the, “first step into the professional realm of skiing”. House informs, after completing level 2 a student will have the ability to operate in an area with no avalanche forecast or a very broad avalanche forecast, providing skills for the students to take a large range scale forecast and hone in on the specific area they desire to ski. Banko describes AAI level 2 as appropriate for people who are, “advanced recreational backcountry users or entering the realm of professional skiing.” He encourages students to spend a year in the backcountry practicing skills learned in level 1 prior to taking level 2. Robbins describes people who would benefit from a UMA level 2 course as those, “interested in a more in-depth understanding of snow pack metamorphism.” Mletschnig encourages level 2 for, “anyone who has taken level 1 and wants a more thorough understanding and spent at least a season in the field developing their skills.”
The Utah Avalanche Center is wonderful organization providing loads of free information to keep back country travelers safe. Their website is updated daily with an avalanche advisory, recent avalanche observations, and weather. In addition to free information the UAC hosts avalanche education talks, classes and seminars. These classes fill a variety of education needs including; Know Before You Go, avalanche awareness, backcountry avalanche, companion rescue, and avalanche awareness for snowmobilers. The free Know Before You Go talks and video offered through the UAC is a great starting point for a backcountry novice. The 17-minute video provides avalanche insight and understanding and is appropriate for adults and children alike.
The daily avalanche advisory, Know Before You Go video, details, prices, dates, and locations for avalanche education opportunities can be found at utahavalanchecenter.org.
AIARE, AAI, UMA and the Utah Avalanche Center are only 4 of the many avalanche education opportunities available in Utah. If you attend a University check your school recreation program. Many Universities offer companion rescue and avalanche safety courses for school credits.