It seems that most everyone has received the message at this point: if you're going into the backcountry, you need to take an Avy Course. But why is this so important? Is it really all that complicated? Is it really that dangerous? What do we learn in these classes anyway?
For one, snow is complicated. The golden rule in avalanche is that there are no experts. We're all still learning, whether you're taking AIARE 1 for the first time or writing a text book on it, there are always lessons to be learned. Snowpacks have an infinite number of variables that affect how they behave and avalanche courses help us understand what's happening in the snow. If you can be humble, be observant and be conservative, you'll have a long life of backcountry riding.
The more you know about snow, the easier it is to find good snow. Both in terms of safety and snow quality, the more you know about why snow is the way it is, the easier it will be to find what you're looking for. When you tune in to aspect, temperatures, wind speeds and directions and long term weather patterns, you're much more able to predict which slopes will be holding the snow surfaces you're looking for. Whether that's deep, cold powder skiing or perfect, buttery corn, understanding how the surface was created and where to find it is critical for having an awesome day of riding.
Know what to do if things go wrong! When a day of touring goes from being all time to a catastrophe, you need to react. And fast. There isn't time to think about what to do or to make errors; you need to organize and respond effectively. Often skiers read the steps of avalanche rescue and think, "that sounds easy, I'll just do that." After teaching countless avalanche rescue courses, I can tell you that rescue is a simple process that gets complicated quickly. Gear and small team management are not things that can be learned in the moment; they have to be hard wired and automatic. The Avalanche Rescue Course is a full day clinic designed to bring your skills from dicey to dialed and to give you pro tips on the fastest and most thorough search techniques.
Know the common human factor traps and learn processes to help understand your team and limit human errors. We all make mistakes and have irrational desires. Skiing itself is a perfect example. Rationally it doesn't make sense: we take substantial risks for the end goal of sliding down snow on a couple of sticks. These same irrational desires draw us to ski lines that are riskier than we might have intended, even when we know the increased risk is there. These common heuristic traps can be linked to almost every avalanche accident. Somehow, against our better judgement, we convince ourselves, cut corners, show off, or stay quiet and go along with the group.
By learning the basics of avalanche, we know when it's obviously dangerous, but when the danger is less obvious, our knowledge and understanding must be much deeper. Unfortunately, many of the days we want to be out enjoying the snow, the conditions don't give us a green light or red light. They're solid orange. Where is it safe? Where is it dangerous? Why? Taking avalanche courses every year and hiring a guide for a mentored private tour on a storm day are great ways to build experience that helps increase understanding of the weather and snowpack and develops good decision making skills.
The bottom line is that avalanche is a complex phenomenon and it takes time and practice to understand it and make good decisions around it. Building your experience in a structured way, through courses and the mentorship of more experienced riders and guides, will make your tours safer and more fun. Make a plan to continue your avalanche education every year!