Logo Jim Frankenfield
jim@mountain-guiding.com; 1-877-604-0166

Mountain Guiding; Mountain Safety
An Experienced Professional

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Guiding Newsletter

"Safety Soapbox" Archive - February 2002


Avalanche Classes

Avalanche avoidance and other winter safety skills come from a combination of experience and education. When seeking education it is important to realize that not all courses and programs are equivalent. I'm often noticing questionable actions or accidents involving people who have taken a course, sometimes only a short time before.

If your main interest is the backcountry then it is imperative to learn from somebody with backcountry skills. The most critical skills do not involve a technical understanding of snow but rather good sound planning skills, good decision making, and route/terrain selection.

Anyone who takes a class which spends much of its time in a snowpit has very likely not gotten the education they need, at least at a basic or Level I level. If you read the recreational reports on avalanche-center.org you will find that the vast majority should have been avoided right up front through better planning or use of a better route. In many cases, probably a majority, a snowpit was unnecessary.

Statistics have shown that a majority of avalanche victims had taken an avalanche class prior to their involvement. Apparently they did not learn the right things, either because the right things were not presented or because they were unable to adequately absorb these things for one reason or another.

These statistics have changed the way recreational courses are being taught by many of us. Over the past several years I've had the chance to discuss course content and methods with numerous other guides in the US and in Canada. Although we all have our own biases, methods, backgrounds and other differences, I have repeatedly found one piece of common ground. Which is a movement away from technical snow science towards simple observations, terrain recognition and human factors. (Within this common ground it is by sharing our differing opinions and thoughts that we improve our own courses in various ways. In my experience, anyway.)

This is not to say that I've abandoned snowpack factors in my courses - we certainly still spend time in snowpits and talk about the nature of the snowpack. But I make no effort to have basic level students identify crystal types or record profiles formally. The emphasis is on identifying a weak layer and what it has over it. Why it is weak or what the crystals look like is not as important as the fact that it is weak.The finer points are rewarding to understand as one progresses but are not essential at a basic level. I also introduce strength and stability tests primarily so that students know what they're all about when they are mentioned or discussed. I believe most go away with a pretty good idea of why these tests can be misleading if used out of context, and why other factors are better indicators in most cases.

Not all schools and instructors have a backcountry orientation. Some are based on ski area type work where recording snowpit data and participating in organized rescue are important. Some people spend time in the backcountry but only as part of a highly structured operation with a solid base of data to work from, covering a wide area and a significant time frame. That's different than the context the typical recreational party will have.

So when you decide you are ready to take an avalanche course consider these things. Look for a course that will serve your needs, and an instructor with the right background. And the right personality and methodology for you as well, since this can effect your learning ability in the class. The worst way to choose a class is strictly on a convenient location and a low cost without regard to the above issues.


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