Avalanche Study Resources
Sharpening our awareness of avalanche conditions and practices is key for establishing early-season safety routines.
Since we are receiving quite a load of new snow, now is a perfect time to do a little homework with the vast array of avalanche safety study tools. While there are certainly many other objective hazards besides avalanches that can get you in trouble in the backcountry (more on that in the next post), avalanche danger is the most recognizable and impressive, and therefore gets the most attention. With an average of 27 annual avalanche deaths in the US, including 37 last season, avalanche hazards merit our respect and attention.
The key is preparation and education, and fortunately there are now a ton of avalanche resources in our area, and online, to help us learn, plan and prepare for our upcoming winter backcountry trips.
Avalanche Certification Courses
The primary system of avalanche education in this country is provided by the American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education. AIARE's progression of avalanche education courses provides a comprehensive approach to avy education, with practical classroom discussion and hands-on practice in the field. All backcountry users should make it a priority to complete a 3-day Avy 1, as well as the 1-day Avy Rescue course early in their backcountry career. Later, you can progress to Avy 2 and Pro courses. Regular, continuing in-person education and refreshers are essential to staying current and sharp in your backcountry skills. A list of upcoming AIARE avy courses can be found here.
Additionally, the AIARE YouTube channel is chalk full of great videos resources, including about making observations, learning the daily flow and executing efficient rescues.
Sierra Avalanche Center
Of course the Sierra Avalanche Center daily avalanche advisory is essential reading for anyone who is heading into the backcountry. Backcountry enthusiasts should make it a habit to always have an awareness of what is happening with the snowpack as well as current conditions.
We can’t all be on the mountains digging snow pits every day. But the Sierra Avalanche Center’s work allows us to keep well abreast of avalanche hazards and conditions, even if we are not venturing out into the backcountry regularly.
As you get more familiar with the advisory and the conditions, a fun game to play is to guess the avalanche danger that day before you check the advisory. Getting in tune with the season’s snowpack, you should be able to roughly estimate that day’s potential avalanche problems, as well where they may be found, based on prior advisories, weather forecasts and your own observations.
Also on the SAC website, the 'Observations' page can be a great resource to see what other users, including guides and forecasters are seeing and measuring on their forays into the field.
Naturally, there is plenty of study resources that we can also access at home to stay fresh on our avalanche critical thinking. The Sierra Avalanche center sponsors an annual California Avalanche Workshop, with talks by experts discussing the latest in avalanche topics, accident reviews and other great updates. Links for the last two year’s Workshops can be found here.
Classes, webinars and video resources
The American Avalanche Institute provides excellent continuing online education, such as their starter Avalanche Fundamentals course, which is a great introduction to avalanche study awareness and avoidance.
Also, tune in every Thursday at 6 PM for AAI's quick 10-minute discussion on a different backcountry topic every week.
This season the Outdoor Adventure Club is hosting a series of weekly live avalanche courses, each episode providing personal attention and focusing on a different aspect of avalanche formation, problems and management.
Finally, The Tahoe Fund recently sponsored a Tahoe Backcountry Safety Awareness week, with several online and in-person events. Check out the great collection of videos that were referenced that week, including tips on planning, preparation, observations and etiquette.
Avalanche awareness never stops
Stay safe by brushing up on your avalanche knowledge and awareness. Even if you may have all the avy training and information in the world, it is not really useful until that knowledge is activated and put into practice on a regular basis. You are only as avy savvy as your most recent study and practice permits.
We find that even the act of studying avalanches and snow science sharpens our awareness and understanding for making practical observations out on the mountain. Once we are out in the field, we can put our education into practice by engaging in constant observation and analytical decision making. We are then better ready to conduct a daily routine of taking observations and making decisions that help ensure a fun safe tour in avalanche country!