Know Before You Go: The Importance of Education

Know Before You Go: The Importance of Education

This story was originally published in the October, 2008 issue of Freeskier (v11.2). Words by Tom Winter. Photos as credited.

There’s an old saying among avalanche professionals that the “only expert is a dead expert.” It’s a morbid take on the very real fact that many individuals in the avalanche science business have died at the hands of the phenomenon that they spent a lifetime studying. While it’s tempting to draw the conclusion from this that developing a sophisticated understanding of your local snowpack is a waste of time – if the experts can’t get it right, why bother – that would be a simplistic conclusion. The reality is that when you’re skiing in the backcountry, education is your best weapon when it comes to survival.

Each issue, this column will provide insights into avalanche safety and backcountry skills. But the reality is that with only six issues, we’re not going to be able to cover everything. That is why this first installment is going to point you towards the resources you need to pursue your own education. With more and more skiers hitting the “side country” (the area just outside the ropes of resorts), the explosion of snowmobile accessed skiing, and the availability of new tools that allow for tours far away from civilization, it’s important to tap into these resources to build a foundation of knowledge that will lead to good decisions.

First, it’s much more likely that you’ll face having to evacuate one of your friends due to an injury than an avalanche rescue scenario. Because of this, the first step in facing down a bad situation is to have a basic level of first-aid expertise. Your first stop should be the professional ski patrol at your resort, as they often offer basic first aid seminars. If they don’t host classes, look for wilderness first responder courses offered by the National Ski Patrol (nsp.org), American Red Cross (redcross.org) and The National Outdoor Leadership School (nols.edu). For those looking to delve deeper into the subject, many community colleges offer Emergency Medical Technician courses. EMT certification is intense and serious – one step below being a Paramedic – and will give you the opportunity to start the qualification process as a guide or professional ski patroller.


Erik Roner loses the ground under his feet in Haines, AK. Photo: Flip McCririck/TGR

Once you have a handle on how to splint a leg or stop bleeding, the second area you should focus on is avalanches. Again, check with the professional ski patrol at your local resort and the National Ski Patrol for information on Level 1 (basic) avalanche courses. Regional avalanche information centers such as the Utah and Colorado Avalanche Information Centers also offer courses. See the CSAC website ([https://www.avalanche-center.org]) for a complete listing. And you can’t go wrong with the American Alpine Institute’s ([https://www.aaisport.com]) avalanche, ski mountaineering and first aid courses. They’ve got the best instructors and the best educational opportunities in the country for those who are serious about increasing their first aid and avalanche awareness.

Regardless of how many hours you plan to spend in a classroom, the absolute minimum certifications for skiers who spend any amount of time in the backcountry should be a Level 1 first aid or Wilderness First Responder certification and a Level 1 avalanche course.

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