Do I really need an Avalanche Rescue Course?

Participants work to uncover an avalanche victim during an AIARE Rescue Course

Participants work to uncover a simulated avalanche victim during a Blackbird Mountain Guides AIARE Rescue Course.  Photo: Zeb Blais.

Avalanche rescue courses often play second fiddle to AIARE Level 1 courses in the minds of new backcountry skiers.  The mindset seems to be: AIARE 1 courses cover avalanche rescue, so why do I need a course just about rescue? What’s so hard about using a beacon, shove and probe?

Let’s start by looking at the AIARE 1 curriculum.  The amount of time devoted to teaching and practicing avalanche rescue in any AIARE 1 course is, by design, only enough to provide participants with the skills to practice avalanche rescue on their own.  Avalanche rescue, the ability to recover your partner in an avalanche burial, seems like a basic and critical component of avalanche education right?  So why is it only glossed over in level 1 courses?  

Avalanches are complicated.  If you’ve already taken AIARE 1, you know how much information there is to learn in a short period of time.  From the formation of the mountain snowpack, to snow grain metamorphism, to avalanche types and characteristics, to interpreting the avalanche forecast, to identifying avalanche terrain, to human factors, to snow and weather observations, to snowpack tests, to...well, you get the point. The list is overwhelming, but it is the bare minimum education required for backcountry skiers and riders to understand the risks and employ decision making strategies to avoid the hazards of avalanche terrain.  

 Students dig a snow pit during an AIARE 1 avalanche course

Participants work to uncover a simulated avalanche victim during a Blackbird Mountain Guides AIARE Rescue Course.  Photo: Zeb Blais.

Developing decision making skills to avoid an involvement with an avalanche is a matter of life and death. Level 1 avalanche courses cover enough information to provide a baseline, working understanding for backcountry travelers to make sound decisions in avalanche terrain, but it was never meant to be the end of any backcountry traveler's’ avalanche education. In 2018, the American Avalanche Association (A3) and AIARE made fundamental changes to the structure of avalanche education.  This was known as the Pro-Rec Split and it not only divided professional avalanche education from recreational courses, but it also minimized the emphasis on rescue during Level 1 courses.  

The old Avalanche Level 1 was overloaded with information and too much time was spent on rescue.  Teaching thorough rescue skills in AIARE 1 courses was taking precious time away from teaching critical decision making skills and still not providing participants with enough practice to gain significant, life saving rescue skills. 

In order for backcountry travelers to learn the critical decision making skills and be able to save a partner buried in an avalanche, the rescue course had to become its own, stand-alone program.  The original 3 day, in-person AIARE 1 program simply didn’t have enough hours to cover all of the information when it included full rescue practice.   

 A student inspecting the results of an extended column test during an AIARE 1 avalanche course
A student examines the results of an extended column test during an AIARE 1 Avalanche course. Photo: Zeb Blais.

 

AIARE 1 and Avalanche Rescue are both better courses than they were as one shorter, combined course (the original AIARE 1). Time that was once devoted to rescue skills during the AIARE 1 is now spent on identifying avalanche terrain, making weather observations, evaluating snowpacks and the other critical, hands-on skills under the mentorship of an instructor.  With a full day of training, the avalanche rescue course has the time needed for participants to develop significant skills through multiple scenarios and provide critical feedback and coaching.

Avalanche rescue requires practice. As a ski patroller at Squaw Valley Ski Resort for nearly a decade, I learned that every avalanche scenario is different. Each time I practiced, I learned something new. I practiced to respond if a friend was buried on a tour or if an incident happened at Squaw and I was also practicing to ace the transceiver test for my AMGA ski guide exam. I practiced a LOT and received a lot of coaching from mentors. It made a huge difference.

My confidence was high when I showed up at the AMGA Aspirant Ski Guide Exam to pinpoint, probe and recover 3 beacons within 7 minutes. I had practiced so many scenarios and seen so many things go wrong that I knew I could succeed even if something strange happened during my test. I passed the test, probing my last beacon with minutes to spare thanks to my dedication to practice.

Participants scramble to pinpoint and recover an avalanche victim during an AIARE rescue course
Participants scramble to pinpoint and recover an avalanche victim during an AIARE rescue course. Photo: Zeb Blais.

Most recreational backcountry skiers don’t have the rescue skills they need to save a life. I’ve watched hundreds of people learning to perform avalanche rescues. Most would be lucky to save their partner in the event of an avalanche burial after only taking a Level 1 avalanche course. Seasoned backcountry skiers, who’ve logged decades in the backcountry, often fail in realistic avalanche scenarios. This can be accredited to lack of practice. To succeed you’ve got to be fast.  And to be fast, you’ve got to practice.

Coaching matters.  Beyond simply logging hours of finding beacons in your back yard or skipping across meadows to find a lightly buried beacon, you need realistic scenarios with coaching and critical feedback.  Avalanche rescue is not complicated, but it has to be done fast and it has to be done correctly.  Making a mistake can add seconds or minutes to a rescue which isn’t an option if you are trying to save a life. Coaching from AIARE trained instructors will make your searching more methodical which will build your confidence and make it harder to make mistakes.  

The bottom line is yes, you really do need to take an AIARE Avalanche Rescue Course if you expect to succeed in a rescue. The AIARE 1 and the Avalanche Rescue Course provide the baseline knowledge and skills that the original AIARE 1 intended to but didn’t have time to. Together they are the bare minimum education for backcountry travelers. Now, with online learning, it’s possible to get a full AIARE 1 and Avalanche Rescue Course in the same 3 days of in-person learning that you did before the rescue course became a stand-alone program. You can also take them together for a streamlined experience that minimizes redundancy and focuses the learning on making the most of field time with avalanche experts.

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