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Peregrine News

There is No Such Thing as a Recreational Level Backcountry Skier

Posted by Joseph Anderson

Every year I am bombarded with this question:  Do you offer the level 1 avalanche course?  And every year the answer is...No.  I don’t and I won’t. 

“But why?”  That’s what people ask me.  They ask me “why?”

Fair question.  From the outside it seems like it’s an essential public service. It’s educating people about the dangers of traveling in winter and how to assess the terrain and snow stability.  It provides a simplified framework of how to make decisions in the complex and dynamic world of the winter snowpack. 

So, what’s my problem? 

Not only are these classes designed to keep the public safe, they are essential winter revenue sources for almost all guide services as well as the guide work force in the Northwest.  Every course is almost guaranteed to be completely full and I could facilitate several a week all winter. 

So…why don’t I offer the most popular winter program the Northwest has to offer while simultaneously “saving lives through avalanche education?”.... Why?

Between 2006 and 2009 I did teach the AIARE (AIARE stands for the American Institute of Avalanche Research and Education) level 1 and 2 curriculums which are essentially THE standard curriculums for teaching safe travel techniques in avalanche terrain.  If you take a level 1 avalanche course with any guide service in the US it is more than likely an AIARE course.

When I entered the instructor pool for the level 1 the proverbial AIARE moth was really just emerging from its cocoon.  At that time some of the courses that I taught were AIARE while some were just simply a level 1 avalanche training.  There was not a clear distinction at first but by 2008 AIARE had become the gold standard.  The idea was that they had developed a streamlined playbook on how best to educate the public. For the record, there is a competitor: American Avalanche Institute but not nearly as big of a player as of yet however the main structural approach is similar. 

While teaching these courses I was incredibly committed to the program.  I felt honored to be entrusted in teaching students this state of the art streamlined curriculum which I still believe was designed by some of the very smartest avalanche forecasters and educators in my field.  Through facilitating these courses I felt that I was in fact “saving lives” through avalanche education. 

But eventually I stopped. Something was not right. I couldn’t put my finger on it for some time but for me the most contradictory thing was the simple act of handing out certificates of completion to anybody and everybody who showed up to a three-day class.  It just seemed too much like an oxy-moron or maybe worse, a social experiment and practical joke tied up in one:  “Now that we’ve taught you all about heuristic traps, here’s one on your way out the door!”  That’s not what we would say of course, but that’s essentially what we were doing.  But that wasn’t all.  That was just one little piece of this ten thousand-piece puzzle I’ve been sitting with and ever so slowly assembling over the years relating to why I don’t think these courses are that great of an idea. 

“But why?”  People continue to ask me.  “Why?” 

And I do give them my answer, not my whole answer, because I haven’t finished putting that together yet, but little bits like “I don’t believe that three days is enough to learn anything.”  Or maybe I’ll answer with a question like “Did you know taking that course puts you more at risk?”  And with that people typically shrug, head down the street and sign up somewhere else.

I get it though.  Skiing is fun.  Skiing the backcountry is a lot more fun.  The gear is cheaper, lighter and better than ever.  And just like the gear we now have this state of the art 3 day course available to us that’s right around three hundred dollars which gives you a framework needed to travel beyond the ski area and into avalanche terrain.  And the best news: Once you take that you’re ready for the backcountry.  Right? You even get a certificate of completion that proves it.

And so here I am with my puzzle and over the years I have been able to put more of it together and I’m starting to see the big picture with increasing amounts of clarity.  I can’t quite see the whole picture but enough to find it necessary to share a few tidbits with you because lets be honest, the course does leave its students with an intangibly high level of vague subjectivity to work with.

While I begin, it’s important to point out that the original intention of the level 1 course was essentially an intro level guide’s course for a much more involved program.  It was never a standalone course for non-professionals.  From the beginning there was no reason or ambition to turn away anyone interested though. But over the past decade the popularity and affordability of backcountry skiing has boomed and with it the evolution of the level 1 course into a “Recreational” level course.  With all of these shifts the curriculum has been molded towards a stand alone, 3-day course.  With the recognition that the actual snow pack complexities could never be taught in this short of a time the entire curriculum was simplified to focus on a recreational level protocol or as it’s called by AIARE: The Decision Making Framework.  Now that the program has been fine-tuned and mass-produced reaching an ever-increasing population, the problems of the highly touted AIARE level 1 program have become clearer to me. Alas it’s important for me to share five of the bigger ones.

Problem #1:  There is no such thing as a Recreational level backcountry skier. 

Whether you are a payed guide or just someone who likes skiing the backcountry, every time you head out there the terms are equally as serious.  Your level of training should reflect that.  A 24-hour course is really a tiny drop in the bucket.  Compare it to another common risky activity that we all partake in like Driving.

Driving is MUCH less complex than backcountry skiing.  In order to receive a driver’s license in Washington state a student must complete 50 field hours and 30 classroom hours.  Compare that to the 24-hour AIARE level 1 course. 

The reason that this incredibly short program is so successful is the same reason McDonalds has been so successful in the past - Fast and cheap. One of the main justifications for these quicker “recreational” level programs is based on a theory.  That theory is that any training is better than none, and that “recreational” level backcountry users can stay out of harms way as long as they adhere to a rule based system learned in the class.  The result is that this opens the graduates of this level 1 course up to a myriad of problems the greatest being the false concept that a 3 day course is all the formal training they need.  It’s not a stand-alone course.  Everyone heading out into the winter snowpack should be shooting for a professional level of understanding of the snow pack. 

Problem #2:  Certificate of Completion is a Heuristic Trap.

During your level one course the curriculum focuses heavily on Heuristic Traps also known as “The Human Factor”. This is the phenomena that works to understand why people may do something completely dangerous and risk potential injury or death even though all of their experience and education should have led them to make a more conservative decision.  For example:  Joe Schmo just found an incredibly unstable snowpack due to his compression test results, but Mr. Schmo skis the suspected 35 degree slope anyway because the snow was siiiiiick!.  The trap Joe may have succumbed to was Scarcity.  The emotion of how awesome the snow was over shadowed by the lamo compression test results that suggested very sketchy snowpack. 

That’s just one example but in my opinion receiving a certificate of completion actually promotes a plethora of these traps that can lead to distasteful results.  I have heard the certificate described as an important lure to bring more people in.  Keep in mind the students do not need to pass any sort of test to receive this certificate.  It’s a trap!  Do yourself a favor and only accept the certificate of completion for your AIARE level 1 in order to sign up for your AIARE level 2.  Your training is not complete.

Problem #3: Avalanche Danger Bulletin promotes a False Feedback Loop to AIARE level 1 graduates.

The biggest reason the Avalanche Danger Bulleting appears to work is that in the Northwest conditions are usually safe.  Even when the danger rating is considerable, it’s actually more on the benign side.  Until it’s not.   The reason the bulletin is not effective is because people actually learn more from false feedback loops than they do in their entire avalanche class. 

So what’s a false feedback loop?

Most accidents do happen when the danger rating is listed as Considerable to High.  But equally as important is how many accidents don’t happen on a busy day when the danger rating is listed at Considerable to High.  Having a Considerable to High Avalanche rating on a very crowded back country day where there is little or a very specific and predictable avalanche activity is incredibly impressionable. This is why most accidents happen during specific EVENTS.  Take the Tunnel Creek accident at Stevens Pass on 2/19/12 for example where 3 experienced skiers were killed.  The danger rating was listed as High that day as it should have been but why would three “experienced” skiers have attempted their chosen route for that day.  The thought of getting anywhere near that slope on that specific day for any skier with adequate training should really have sent shivers down anyone’s spine.  In other words it’s not because the danger rating was high that they shouldn’t have been on that slope but more over the reason it was listed at high.

Now consider how many days those three unfortunate individuals had been skiing big terrain in the Northwest when the danger rating was listed at High.  There was also certainly an incredible weight of heuristic traps (which I’ll get to later) that these three skiers had been subjected too but consider that on that same day there was an avalanche death at Alpental near Snoqualmie Pass as well as two other reported avalanche burials, one of them a full burial near Crystal Mountain. 

Equally as important is that Washington’s Cascades would continue to have days listed as Considerable to High on the avalanche danger scale many times over that season and through out the next.  BUT the Cascades would not experience this deadly of a day for another 14 months until two deaths occurred and two other reported burials occurred in four separate locations on the same day in April of 2013.

These are specific weather EVENTS that are exceptionally dangerous for individuals with only an AIARE level one training because of the false feedback loop.  How many of these victims and near misses had been subjected to the false feedback loop over the years?  How many of these victims had taken their AIARE level 1 and not beyond that and continued to ski on days rated Considerable or above on a regular basis?

At the end of the day there is very little information in the three-day course that teaches the students the incredible variety in possible snow structure. Everyday you are touring in the backcountry you really need to know why the snow is consolidating quickly even though the danger rating for the day was clearly high or you need to know when the snow will not support the added stress of a skier even though the bulletin clearly called for moderate level of danger.

What I have watched happen over the last several years is a culture of skiers making conclusions based on huge sweeping assumptions of what the snow is really doing.  The fact is most people out there are crossing their fingers and essentially fooling themselves.  They don’t know if there’s truly an aggressive temperature gradient 50 centimeters in depth on North facing slopes which could spell potential problems.  They don’t know that because they didn’t check.  If they did, that’s great, but they didn’t learn how do that in their level 1 course.  There is really nothing that takes place of a sophisticated understanding of the snow pack, which takes years of studying. 

Problem #4:  The AIARE level 1 promotes backcountry travel in avalanche terrain.

The original justification for this as a stand alone course was to educate everyone that was potentially intending on heading out into the backcountry.  They were going to be skiing the backcountry regardless so by all means, lets get them educated. With that in mind this is actually a great course.  Just get people in the door give them as much training as possible before they head out to the snow. The original intent of promoting this course is admirable but it has now turned into something beyond that.  

Whether AIARE or the guide services like to admit it, they are campaigning to promote the backcountry to an expanding population of people beyond the original target.  Especially now that the public is sold on this idea that only a limited amount of education is realistically needed in order to travel safely in the backcountry.  We now have an increasing number and diversity of people that are showing up.  The great majority of students that only attend the level 1 course are no longer the original target audience of “some knowledge is better than nothing” types. The great majority are those that do follow concise rules and now the rules say “Three days is enough.”  But what this population does not realize is that the “three days are enough” rule is not a rule, it’s a sociology experiment that defaulted into a rule when people stopped asking questions.

The economic benefits of this program made it worth promoting wholesale and business is really good.  Therefor it is very unlikely that we’ll see any immediate revisiting by the industry as a whole of whether this is truly a good idea.

Problem #5:  Heuristic Traps last forever.

About a quarter of all avalanche deaths are professionals.  Of course this number is so high partly because the people that make their living in the mountains spend so much more time out there in the field than the average Joe, but beside that, the numbers are still way too high. If I look at all of the accidents of the working professionals caught in an avalanche, I am convinced that a great majority of these victims were blinded by heuristic traps.

From the beginning we are taught about these traps in such a way that suggests that knowing that they are there makes it is easier to over come them.  That’s false.  As part of the human condition, knowing about these traps will not necessarily make you truly understand, acknowledge or see them coming.

What that means is that knowing about these traps is not enough.  Time spent in the field does not really necessarily make you acknowledge them either.   Simply put some personalities are more prone to one trap while others are prone to another, while still others are just overall more subjected to heuristic traps.  It does not matter how many years of experience or how much education you’ve received. So when you learn about them, it’s important to know that you have not overcome them just because you’ve been told they exist.  They will always be there.  So do yourself a favor and have a seat and think good and hard about what traps you may be subjected to now and most likely forever.

Familiarity – This is where I have had the most near misses.  However, more often than not it does in fact work in your favor.  Always remember the mountain environment, especially in the winter never see two days exactly alike.

Consistency – You have a goal and you’re sticking to it!  This can be particularly problematic with summit oriented trips.  Remember your number one goal is:  Don’t get killed in an avalanche.  Just remember that and you may decide some itineraries need to shift.

Acceptance – This is your need to prove yourself to specific people.  Think about who you are traveling with.  Is it easy to speak your mind out loud?  Larger groups as a general rule are not safe. 

Expert Halo – Who are you following?  Why?  Beware of large groups and someone else making essentially ALL of the decisions. 

Social Facilitation – This is becoming increasingly more significant with current cultural shifts.  Do you use a Go Pro?  Selfie Stick?  Post every 5 minutes to facebook?  Do you update your wardrobe and all your gear on a regular basis for the soul basis of keeping up with trends?  Just remember, any motivation to impress can work against you and yes…..it can kill you.

Scarcity – It could be that this is one of the main fulcrum points in which most other problems arise.  When the danger is rated high and it’s pouring rain you won’t see so many people rushing out there.  But when the danger rating is high and it just snowed 18 inches of cold smoke for the first time in 2 weeks than the danger is pretty damn high.

To conclude the practice of the AIARE level 1 course as a standalone “recreational” course is in my opinion a public safety problem that needs to be assessed and managed.  Statistically speaking taking the AIARE level 1 course automatically puts you in the most dangerous bracket for backcountry travelers, as it turns out the numbers are in agreement with my opinion. 

I do believe that acknowledging all of the problems I have presented could bring the number of accidents way down.  To be fair, when you take a level 1 course all of your instructors will most likely press the issue that it’s only the beginning. Also an incredible amount of effort and innovation has been put towards this program really trying to make this work.  I think that from the beginning this program was headed towards something very effective.  But it’s also important to acknowledge that maybe this hasn’t worked….not yet. Unfortunately I don’t see enough people in my profession truly asking questions.  When you stop asking questions than you stop evolving.  I do think there is a program that can be offered to the public that addresses many of the current short falls AND I think anything that will truly work will require much more training.

For now, if skiing in the backcountry is a life passion I have two recommendations:

1 - Go with a professional

2 – Take the level 1 AIARE course and then the level 2 AIARE.  Use your level 2 skills to take detailed notes in a variety of snow conditions for 1 or 2 seasons.  Then take the level 2 again. 

Then always remember:

There is no such thing as a Recreational Level Backcountry Skier.