A storm slab in the Mt Baker Backcountry. Photo: Adam U.
What is an AIARE 2 Avalanche Course and why I should take it?
If you’re a backcountry skier, you know that planning a safe ski tour can be challenging. Understanding the factors that increase the likelihood of avalanches and using a process to plan a tour and manage the risks in the field is a lifelong learning process that we build upon every day we travel in the backcountry.
An AIARE 1 or AIARE 1 + Rescue, is an excellent place to start your avalanche education. These introductory courses provide a baseline of knowledge and skills to understand the factors that increase avalanche hazard and a framework for how to plan tours and manage risk. Students freshly out of an AIARE 1 have a lot of skills and tools at their disposal to start planning and executing safe and fun ski tours, but when it's time to start managing elevated avalanche hazard, it’s hard to feel confident without direct experience to guide decision making.
An avalanche observation from the Tahoe Area December 14, 2022 crown lines from previous avalanches.
But even with this education, monitoring and managing avalanche problems in consequential terrain is difficult without a lot of real-world experience. It's a huge leap to go from having a theoretical understanding of the avalanche hazard to making decisions in a snowstorm while trying to accomplish a safe ski tour.
The hardest part about gaining experience in high-risk situations is doing it without exposing yourself to excessive risk. This period when you have knowledge and tools without a solid foundation of experience is a vulnerable time for backcountry skiers. Making decisions based purely on freshly acquired knowledge is prone to error and, in the backcountry, the consequences of mistakes can be huge.
A Narrow escape from a persistent slab avalanche.
The question is, how do you gain the vital experience you need without exposing yourself to big risks? The first answer is to make very conservative decisions each time you go into the backcountry. By avoiding avalanche terrain when problems exist, you can easily limit your risk, but this comes at a cost. One cost is that you'll build experience very slowly and you won't develop a deep understanding of managing avalanche problems. Another cost is that you'll miss out on a lot of really fun turns! If you're ok with these sacrifices, this is a really safe way to approach the problem.
If you want to fast track your experience and manage the risks, the second answer is to continue your avalanche education with an experienced avalanche instructor on an AIARE 2 or other avalanche course. By taking a course with an experienced AIARE Instructor, you'll gain understanding of how your instructor chooses appropriate terrain to manage risk and be given an opportunity to use more in-depth tools to prepare and plan your tours.
A fatal 2012 avalanche in South Lake Tahoe. Photo: Sierra Avalanche Center.
So what is an AIARE 2 Avalanche Course? AIARE 2 picks up where AIARE 1 left off: everyone taking an AIARE 2 avalanche course should have a baseline understanding of avalanche problems, snowpack, weather, terrain and human factors. Instead of introducing these concepts, we dive deeper into them and provide additional tools to analyze weather, understand the snowpack and provide more context on using snowpack tests. Implementing these skills in the field with an experienced AIARE instructor will build your pre-trip planning, in field observation and team leadership skills so that you have a broader base of experience to draw from when you go on your next tour.
What you will learn in an AIARE 2 Avalanche Course
- Differentiate where specific avalanche hazards exist within the landscape and identify avalanche terrain where consequences may be more severe.
- Use and interpret weather, snow, and avalanche observations to locate appropriate terrain prior to entering and while in the field.
- Demonstrate leadership skills within a small team that include facilitating small group discussion, promoting appropriate terrain selection, and utilizing simple risk management strategies.
- Implement a basic forecasting framework that can be used in conjunction with and in the absences of local supporting avalanche information.
If you’re still wondering why I should take an AIARE 2, let's take the early December snowpack in Tahoe this year, when a lot of snow fell onto a very weak, faceted snow surface. In an AIARE 2 during this avalanche cycle, we would discuss the persistent weak layer: how it formed, where it exists and the specific terrain that is most prone to the problem. From there, we would evaluate terrain options where we would be able to avoid that problem in the field based on the weather and snowpack. As an experienced backcountry traveler with AIARE 1 and Avalanche Rescue Course under your belt, you would be heavily involved in the decision making and discussion around what terrain is appropriate or not.
Determining which snowpack tests to use and interpreting the results are an important part of AIARE 2.
After deciding what types of terrain would be appropriate, we would pick a venue with a few different route options. The final route options would be decided upon in the field based upon observations of snow and weather as we approached our decision-making points. A big part of building this plan would be to choose which observations to make, where they should be made and when we should make them in order to inform our final decision on where to ski.
These concepts are introduced during AIARE 1 but they can be difficult to know how to apply them appropriately. Given the persistent weak layer, we might choose to do more extensive tests, like a Propagation Saw Test or Extended Column Test. For wind slab or storm slab problems we would use faster, on-the-go observations as well as weather and visual clues. Mentorship and instruction during the Level 2 make these the application of these skills much more tangible.
While the concepts are the same between AIARE 1 and 2, the tools we use and the way we process the information that we gather are more involved. The program is based on the foundation learned in Level 1 and allows us to get more precise with how we use the tools so that we can gain more precision in choosing terrain. Just like the Level 1, choosing terrain really comes down to the confidence we have in our understanding of the problems at hand and the features of the terrain we’re considering. The goal of Level 2 is to gain more experience and be able to better apply the tools at our disposal to have higher confidence in the terrain that we choose!