Why Your Avalanche Rescue Course Should be Lift Accessed

Why Your Avalanche Rescue Course Should be Lift Accessed

Practicing avalanche rescue during a scenario on our Lift-Accessed Avalanche Rescue Course

Participants homing in on a burial during practice on our lift-accessed avalanche rescue course in Tahoe.

It sounds like a funny idea: training for avalanche rescue at a ski resortShouldn’t a backcountry course take place in the backcountry?  Isn’t the whole point of taking an AIARE course being in the backcountry? As surprising as it may be, in the case of the Avalanche Rescue Course, the answer to these questions is a resounding no. 

Before we delve into why ski resorts are perfect training grounds, let's discuss how most backcountry avalanche rescue courses are taught.  Most guide services offer avalanche rescue courses that prioritize easy logistics and repetitions on flat terrain rather than fewer scenarios on sloped terrain.  And for good reason.  It’s difficult to get the repetitions and practice needed if you don’t run courses like this.

 On slope avalanche rescue practice provides a much larger span of critical skills than practice on a flat meadow.

On-slope avalanche rescue practice provides a much larger span of critical skills than practice on a flat meadow. Repetitions in real terrain is the key!

But there is something missing in “backcountry avalanche rescue courses.” Scenarios are often conducted with skins on, since transitions from skinning to skiing down take up valuable time without contributing to learning.  Splitboarders are almost always performing scenarios with their boards split and skins on, which means they miss the valuable aspect of searching a slope while sliding on their snowboard.  Many participants never even take their skins off during the day!  And if the majority of participants in the course do ski down, what is the time penalty for having the whole team transition to searching in ski mode?


This brings us to our next topic: Why ski resorts are the perfect place to train for avalanche rescue.

Terrain is realistic and safe.

Ski resorts intrinsically offer easy access to terrain that effectively simulates the deposition zone or search area for an avalanche rescue.  We don’t need or want to practice avalanche rescue in the start zones of avalanches, but it is helpful to practice in terrain that is variable and has a reasonable pitch.  Featured terrain that is less than 30 degrees but greater than 15 degrees provides a lot of really useful lessons during avalanche rescue scenarios.


The lessons that are specific to realistic terrain include:

  • Understanding the position of power in the terrain 
  • Leader positioning for team rescues
  • Searching while descending variable terrain
  • Visibility of the search field and impacts of the terrain
  • Searching in downhill mode (without skins, boards together for splitboarders)
  • Difficulties of uphill travel

Ease of access

A 5 minute lift ride puts you at the top of each scenario, ready to search.  It doesn’t get any easier to access perfect terrain to practice!  Even if you find a suitable backcountry venue close to the trailhead, transition time for a whole crew of skiers eats up a lot of time!  Using lifts allows us to put all of our time into learning avalanche rescue, rather than transitioning.


Lift-Access means you get to participate and lead more scenarios.  More scenarios means more practice.  More practice means you’ll be a more competent rescuer at the end of the day.  Ultimately you will have a better chance of saving your partner’s life in the event of an avalanche by having more practice in realistic terrain.   


The scale of scenarios is much bigger with lift-accessed courses.

Avalanche transceiver searches have 3 phases. The signal search, course search, and fine search.  The first phase is the signal search.  This happens when you begin your search out of the range of the buried victim’s transceiver.  This is a critical part of the search and where things can go desperately wrong.


In backcountry based courses, it’s time consuming to get far beyond the range of the buried beacon.  Often, backcountry rescue courses begin just a few meters outside of the range of the buried transceiver.  The searcher enters the range of the buried beacon after a few steps, finds the signal and enters the next phase of the search (the course search).  This means they have little to no practice covering the debris field, making the proper search pattern and searching for the signal.  


The signal search is a critical part of avalanche rescue. Without good technique on the signal search, signals can be missed which puts rescuers out of position.  Time is of the essence, and getting out of position once during a rescue can mean the difference between saving your partner's life and having a fatality.


At a ski resort, it’s easy to create a massive scenario in which the Signal Search is a major component of the search.  This teaches rescuers to comb the debris field visually, cover their pattern, stay high before committing to go down, and move down the slope while listening for the buried transceiver’s signal.  Often people who don’t practice frequently miss signals because their pattern is too narrow or they commit downhill too quickly, it’s really important to practice the signal search!

It’s more fun at a ski resort.

Setting up scenarios takes time. On normal, backcountry rescue courses, participants often alternate setting up and participating in scenarios, going back and forth across relatively flat terrain.  Having a Lift-Accessed Avalanche Rescue Course allows participants to use the time while instructors are setting up problems to have some fun - participants take a free lap!  By the time the instructor is done, participants are back at the base of the lift and ready to tackle the next scenario!  It’s a great way to break up the day and have some fun while digging into learning this intense subject (pun intended… :/ ).


So why aren’t all avalanche rescue courses taught at ski resorts?

It comes down to complexity and cost. Ski resorts add complexity to what is otherwise a fairly simple operation.  Instead of simply finding a meadow with a suitable clearing to act as the debris field, the guide service has to establish a relationship with a ski resort, clear the program with management and put a number of additional safety procedures in place.  


With an agreement in place, the next hurdle is cost.  Lift tickets, even for life-saving safety courses, aren’t free.  The cost of the lift ticket, which is included in the cost of our Lift-Accessed Avalanche Rescue Course, makes these programs less profitable than their backcountry-based counterparts.  Despite the increased cost, we feel strongly that they provide a much better foundation of avalanche rescue skills for participants to be able to save the lives of a partner in the event of an avalanche burial.  


Our instructors and participants agree, Lift-Accessed Avalanche Rescue Course has a definitive advantage: participants come away with a much more comprehensive and powerful set of skills than they could through a backcountry course. 


Where are Lift-Accessed Avalanche Rescue Courses Offered? 

Blackbird Mountain Guides is the only company in the United States to offer lift-accessed avalanche rescue courses and we currently have two venues in North Lake Tahoe. Donner Ski Ranch and Tahoe Donner Downhill Ski Resort are the two venues we operate our lift-accessed avalanche rescue course.  While these venues lack numerous avalanche start zones, they are ideal for avalanche scenarios because they have plenty of areas that can act as avalanche debris fields during practice. The terrain provides enough variety that a number of scenarios can be accomplished in a short amount of time.

We are always looking for more venues for this program.  If you know of ski areas that might want to participate, please contact us


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