Backcountry Prerequisite: Take a Level 1 avalanche course today

February 8th, 2012 by

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AS SEEN IN THE 2012 FREESKIER BACKCOUNTRY EDITION. 
WORDS: GREG FITZSIMMONS. PHOTOS: MARK FISHER.

IN THE PAST DECADE, AN AVERAGE OF 25 PEOPLE WERE KILLED EACH YEAR BY AVALANCHES IN THE UNITED STATES. Formal training can dramatically increase your margin of safety while traveling in the backcountry. Between time spent in the classroom and in the field, a three-day Level 1 Avalanche Course will teach you what to look for in the snow pack, how to test stability, how to read and travel through terrain safely, and how to rescue yourself and your partners if caught in an avalanche.

use_3_0.jpgAmerican Institute for Avalanche Research and Education (AIARE) instructor Steve Banks advises people to take a course with a ski buddy or two. “That way, you’re on the same page with your crew.”

Prices vary anywhere from $225 to $425 depending on where you’re staying, what you’re eating, and how you’re getting there. Like any other product, you generally get what you pay for. Consider the venue, instructors, curriculum, and student-to-teacher ratio. AIARE (avtraining.org) has developed a nationally recognized curriculum with 65 course providers around the country. These are but a handful of Level 1 Avalanche Courses in North America.

With the Tetons towering above town, Jackson Hole boasts some of the best backcountry skiing in North America, and the Jackson Hole Mountain Guides use the Tetons as their classroom for their Level 1 classes. Small groups, experienced instructors and legit terrain make for a solid learning experience with JHMG. (jhmg.com; 800-239-7642)

Durango, Colorado-based Kling Mountain Guides take advantage of their proximity to the San Juans, the most avalanche prone mountains in the lower 48. Kling’s students knock off two must-do experiences in one three-day class: tee-up the huge peaks surrounding Silverton while getting a Level 1 certification. (klingmountainguides.com; 970-259-1708)

The Pacific Northwest’s m.o. is snow, and lots of it. Cascade Powder Cats hosts an immersion Avy 1 course based from a backcountry yurt. The course includes a cat ride to the yurt, two nights accommodation and meals, and extra ski tours and runs before and after class. (cascadepowdercats.com; 206-629-2329)

Nestled in the Flint Creek Range in western Montana, the Altoona Ridge Lodge offers an all-inclusive Avalanche Level 1 hut trip experience. Groups are limited to six students, and the course runs only three weekends of the winter—in late January and early February—so space is limited. But, after snowmobiling to the lodge, 70-percent of the time is spent in the field and skiing. (altoonaridgelodge.com; 406-493-6810)

screen_shot_2012-02-08_at_1.14.41_pm.pngWhile digging pits and studying Utah’s snowpack, students of Utah Mountain Adventures’ Avy 1 course learn why the Wasatch Range harbors “the best snow on earth.” An abundance of snow and easily accessible avalanche terrain combine with uber-knowledgeable instructors and Big Cottonwood Canyon’s world-class skiing to make an ideal learning environment. (utahmountainadventures.com; 801-550-3986)

South America Snow Sessions (sassglobaltravel.com; 800- 851-4660) gets students into Bariloche’s backcountry for an AIARE Level 1 course in between Spanish classes and photo shoots with pro photogs. And, you can set up private classes with the instructors at Powder Quest (powderquest.com; 888-565-7158) anywhere in Chile or Argentina.

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About the author:
Henrik Lampert loves hot dogs, backflips, the Boston Bruins and Norway. Twenty-seven years old and a Massachusetts native, he's the Editor of Freeskier Magazine and Freeskier.com—a proud staffer since 2010.