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Jim Frankenfield

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Choosing a Recreational Avalanche Course

April 11, 2001 (Third Revision)

© 2001 by Jim Frankenfield; reprinting of the entire article with an acknowledgment including the website URL, this copyright notice, and the revision number is welcome, for any other use (including reprinting of excerpts or any edited version) please request permission.

So you're interested in taking an avalanche course, and you've just searched the web for a course. And you found hundreds. Even narrowing it down by region and dates you have several options, perhaps a dozen. So how do you choose? What qualifications do you look for? Are there any standards and, if so, how well established are they?

These are good questions, but unfortunately straight answers are hard to find. And the matter of choosing the best course (for you) is important. It turns out that many if not most people involved in recreational avalanche incidents in North America had previously taken some level of training. Maybe the instructional methodologies were incompatible with their learning style, maybe the course emphasis was off base, or maybe something else was wrong. Whatever the case, their training didn't serve them as well as it could have. Your safety should be important enough to choose and invest in the best course for your needs. Do your homework before enrolling!

Lets take a look at the issue of curriculums first and then general instructor qualifications. But first lets make sure we know what we're talking about so we don't compare apples and oranges.


It's easy to get confused by a few terms which are used in different contexts in Canada than in the US. In Canada the terms Level I and Level II pertain to week long professional training courses offered by the Canadian Avalanche Association (CAA). These are not recreational, the recreational programs are called RAC Basic and Advanced. Canadian RAC (Recreational Avalanche Courses) courses usually use materials prepared by the CAA but they are not offered by the association directly. They are offered by various providers in the private sector. In the US the terms Level I and Level II are used for recreational courses, typically lasting a weekend or three days. There is no standard or commonly recognized professional training program in the US such as the CAA Level I and II. The American Avalanche Association (AAA) does not offer any training directly, everything is done in the private sector. (The AAA recently changed it name, and you may still see references to the AAAP, American Association of Avalanche Professionals, which was the previous name.)

In some instances I've used the terms "Canadian Level I/II" or "American Level I/II" to help clarify. Where the terms have not been clarified it will hopefully be clear from the context which is referred to.


The CAA curriculums (Canada)

Professional - The Canadian Avalanche Association has traditionally taught Level I and Level II courses for professionals. Each of these is a week long and the intent is to prepare those interested in working in field professionally. For those interested in working in Canada in a professional capacity the standard is the CAA Level I. There is no equivalent to this in the US. Some people have been told "sure, we all know each other and my course will be accepted in Canada". This is not true except perhaps in a few very limited cases. The CAA Level I course is organized around the standards used in Canada for the exchange of information among the professional community. I have been asked about this with increasing frequency and my unequivocal answer is that if you want to work in Canada go take the CAA course. Note that the professional Level I course has a heavy emphasis on observations and on data recording. It assumes a recreational course as a prerequisite.

Recreational - Despite the fact that the Level I is not oriented towards recreation many students were falling into that category. So the Recreational Avalanche Course (RAC) program was introduced by the CAA. The RAC program sets standards for class content and class size. Prepared instructor and student notebooks are sold through the CAA, ensuring consistent curriculum materials. Instructors can obtain and use the CAA RAC teaching materials by completing the Level I professional training course and agreeing to adhere to the standards outlined. Instructors are not reviewed, certified, or endorsed by the CAA. They also have a great deal of latitude in how they teach and run their programs. So the key content of basic and advanced courses should be standard but all courses and instructors are not 100% the same.

One growing concern I hear more and more often is that almost anyone can complete the CAA Level I and begin instructing RAC courses. Indeed, students are showing up at the Level I (Professional) courses with the stated goal of "making a lot of money teaching weekend RAC courses". Many of these people have neither significant field experience nor formal snow science studies. The Level I course does not ensure that somebody has the experience or the teaching skills to teach a RAC course. However, it is the only objective standard that can realistically be used at this time.

A second concern I am beginning to hear voiced is that the current curriculum is too limited. Many people feel that the programs being developed by instructors in the US (under voluntary guidelines but without any centralized control) are more comprehensive. (See below for more on such curriculums.)

The CAA RAC curriculum is based on 2 days, or 16 hours, for the basic course and 30 hours for the advanced course. (Actual classroom and field time.)

There has been mention of course materials being passed on for use by instructors not working under a CAA agreement and of courses exceeding the class size specified in that agreement. If you are taking a CAA RAC course you should make sure your instructor is listed by the CAA and that they are following the parameters of the CAA agreement (which is no longer posted online, unfortunately). This is a minimum, as discussed above it is still not a guarantee of competency or experience.

The AAA Guidelines (United States)

There are established guidelines but there are no real standards. In the end it is up to the consumer to compare courses and instructors with limited assistance in the way of useful guidelines from the professional community. It is not uncommon for advice which is provided to be driven by politics, personal alliances/conflicts, or business bottom line. This only aggravates the situation.

There are "Level I" and "Level II" guidelines from the AAA (American Avalanche Association). These reflect a great deal of discussion among professional avalanche educators. While they are not true standards and do not provide a curriculum or teaching materials they should help promote some consistency between courses taught by different people. Look for courses taught by people familiar with these guidelines who make an effort to follow them. The basic or American Level I course guidelines were originally based on a three day course or a minimum of 24 hours. Note that this is significantly more than the 16 hours assumed for the CAA Level I. Many weekend two day courses which claim to be American Level I do not have 24 hours of instruction. Such courses will be hard pressed to do justice to all of the topics in the guidelines.

The Advanced or Level II course in the US is more variable than the Level I. The guidelines are less specific and different courses have different emphases. Courses oriented towards guide training tend to be heavy on data observation and recording, which differs from the emphasis of the Canadian Advanced RAC and the emphasis found in some US courses which are recreation oriented. Some Level II classes spend time with research instruments such as ram penetrometers which are rarely used by guides or recreational parties.

There are now a variety of "Level III" courses being promoted. A comparison of the descriptions should indicate to just about anyone that these are all over the board, from research oriented to data recording oriented to the guiding orientation of the AMGA required Level III. There is no standard whatsoever for Level III.

There is now an initiative underway by the AAA (formerly the AAAP) to certify or qualify instructors. The problem with this is that there is no objective requirement that makes sense in the US. There is no professional training such as the CAA Levels I and II. There is already a lack of objectivity in the approval of new members for the AAA - members don't meet requirements, they get voted in. The shortcomings, and the potential for abuse, of this system should be obvious. This initiative has arisen at least partially out of the misconception in the US that the CAA certifies or qualifies instructors when in reality they have a very simplistic objective requirement. (As discussed above, there is much concern over how sufficient the CAA requirement is. But at least it is objective.) The future of this AAA initiative is uncertain at this time.

Instructor-developed curriculums

One of the positive things about having guidelines now established in the US is that it has provided a framework for those individuals motivated enough to begin producing and refining their own materials and even full curriculums. The philosophy that a competitive private sector will produce quality goods is a cornerstone of the American way. But without guidelines things can go astray, so we now have a common framework to follow. And that framework is publicly available to students so that they can evaluate what they are being promised and what they are receiving.

One example of a full curriculum, Levels 1 through 3, being established is AIARE. They have distinguished between a professional-track course and a recreational-track course beginning at Level 2. This is a good thing which needs to be done. The AMGA requires a Level 2 course for entry into their guide training programs, but they have never specified (for instructors or students) just what the expectations and needs are. AIARE appears to include primarily AMGA/UIAGM guides at this time, and these are the people that should be setting clearer expectations for a professional training track.

Another example of instructor-developed materials are my own. I have both student and instructor materials in progress, with a list of lesson plan and objectives publicly posted. The Southeast Alaska Avalanche Center is also planning to post their course materials on their website. Hopefully others will follow.

Instructor Qualifications and Course Particulars

Things to evaluate include:

  • Does the instructor know the material you want to learn?
  • Are they able to approach it from a recreational perspective?
  • What are their communication and education skills?
  • What is the student to instructor ratio, and the total group size?
  • Does the instructor invest time and money each year in their own professional development?
  • Is the instructor actively involved in developing the materials they use? Or do they teach "off-the-cuff", or from somebody elses materials?

You will find many suggestions on affiliations or backgrounds to look for such as the AAA (formerly the AAAP), AMGA, experience doing control work, etc. If you look into this you will find that none of these things guarantee an acceptable answer to the above questions. There are people who have done control work in a well-defined area and know about the snowpack but who have little experience in varied backcountry terrain. There are numerous courses which ignore or gloss over human factors such as group dynamics and leadership. Anyone who has spent (served?) time at a university has seen the difference between experts who are poor educators/communicators and those who can teach well. An advanced course typically includes content which is inherently technical in nature and your instructor needs to be able to explain this material. There are people who have an incredible amount of intuitive knowledge acquired from years of experience, but some can communicate this knowledge and some cannot.

One "qualification" that appears fairly frequently is a particular course, usually the CAA Level I in Canada and often the American Avalanche Institute Level II in the US. While both are worthwhile courses neither are intended to produce competent recreational avalanche instructors. An instructor who has no further experience will only be passing on to you what they learned, and often what you can read. This training "qualification" is good only as a starting point for a process of professional development which has occurred over at least several years, and continues to occur. This process of professional development should include field time every winter, in regions with significant snowpack features such as persistent weak layers.

Ask a potential instructor many questions. Consider their replies, and also if a question seems to make them uncomfortable. Ask what they see as the most important current issue in avalanche education at your level of interest. For an advanced course ask what research results from the past couple years they see as most important in the applied world outdoors. Their level of comfort with this question says a lot about how current they are staying. Whether or not they take the time to answer numerous questions also says something.

Another factor is group size. The CAA RAC standard is a student to instructor ratio of no more than eight. A few instructors/schools use a maximum of six. But total class size is also relevant. 24 students and 4 instructors provides a much different learning environment than 6 students and 1 instructor. The AAA guidelines seem to feel that student to instructor ratio is only important in the field and not indoors. This seems to me to assume that indoor class segments are largely lecture oriented with some opportunity for questions. I feel that interactive, participatory exercises in the classroom require a ratio of students to instructors which is no higher than what is acceptable in the field.

Finally, look at the amount of time inside and outside. Some people refer to the amount of time spent outside as though more is better right up to 100%. There are topics which are better covered indoors where people can focus on the content rather than on being cold. In my courses I find that about 30-40% of the time (including the evenings) are spent indoors on things like identifying terrain on maps, watching videos, and going over the days findings from the field. This is consistent with the percentages given in both the Canadian standards and the American guidelines.

Comments Welcome

Some people may take issue with some of my points and suggestions. If that is the case please let me know. If there is anything factually incorrect I will gladly correct it. I may also add comments and dissenting points of view here or on a companion page if they are worthy of that. Or I will gladly link from here to any other points of view posted elsewhere. (As of April 2001 I have received only positive feedback on this article, which is both surprising and reassuring. While more positive feedback is always appreciated I remain open to constructive criticism or alternate points of view as well.)

This is the third revision of this information and the situation continues to change (mostly for the better). Each revision has been made based on personal conversations with avalanche professionals in the US and Canada as well on feedback via e-mail from various avalanche educators. All comments have been considered carefully and incorporated as deemed appropriate. To everyone who has taken the time to discuss the issues or to send e-mail, thank you!

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