Welcome to the AIARE 1 Pre-Course Study. Familiarize yourself with these concepts so you can come to your course and build on your existing skills. By reading through this, you can perhaps answer some questions that you currently have as well as develop questions that you can have your instructor explain, either in the classroom or out in the field.
Each of these topics will be addressed in-depth in your AIARE 1 course.
PLAN – always have plan
Obtain an avalanche advisory. These are available for your region by clicking on this link: www.avalanche.org a map will display links to all the avalanche centers throughout North America. Additionally, there are many good avalanche related links on this page.
The information contained in the avalanche bulletin is compiled by local experts. Reports will give you the danger rating for the day. Danger Scale
Planning and preparing for a trip must be done well before your outing. Don’t wait to do it at the trailhead – it’s too late at that point. Planning is simple – where are you planning to go? Does that plan include navigating avalanche terrain? If so, check the avalanche advisory to see what the danger rating is in the area you’re heading. Based on that, make a plan to avoid dangerous slopes – or enact an optional plan if you’re unfamiliar with the terrain or uncomfortable with the danger rating.
- Review Observations and Team
- Evaluate Terrain Travel Options
- Plan Emergency Response
CREATE OPTIONS – have a plan B and C
As you plan and prepare, consider creating route options. Remember the goal of any backcountry trip is to return safely. The objective can be a certain run or peak – but that is not the goal. The objective can always be reached another day. Discuss various trip variations with your team: your Ideal Trip, which may take you through avalanche terrain; a Preferred route, which minimizes your exposure to avalanche terrain; an Alternate route and an Easy Exit/Evacuation option. Additionally you can discuss alternates such as going to ski area where avalanches are controlled or going bowling — something completely safe, should the conditions change dramatically
- Create your trip options
- Research your route and options
- Develop a start and turnaround time
- Your goal is to return safely
EQUIPMENT – always bring the gear.
For any backcountry trip, consider what the minimum required safety equipment is: an avalanche beacon, shovel and probe. Avalanche Balloon Packs are gaining popularity among backcountry travelers. As well, pack the usual components of the Ten Essentials: food, water, extra warm clothes, cell phone, emergency overnight equipment such as a bivy sack and a way to start a fire, and other items you might typically carry (you can split up group gear to be carried among the group). The beacon, probe and shovel are always taken into the backcountry, and the beacon is always turned on and checked at the trail head, and off when back to the car.
TEAMWORK – who is coming on the trip?
This is the part that can make or break your trip, with or without dangerous avalanche conditions. Who’s coming, and can you trust your life to them? You may think, ‘we’re just going on a little snow shoe trip with some friends, what can go wrong?’ A lot can go wrong! Many people have died in the backcountry on seemingly innocent outings on snowshoes, cross country skis and snowmobiles. You may have heard of how ‘human factors’ play into avalanche accidents – things like ‘summit fever’ or ‘powder fever’ the human urge to push things to the limits or ignore information that indicates danger. Those are ever present and you can read about them here. However – by making a plan, observing and working as a team many of the common human factors that might manifest are mitigated through a thoughtful process. There are volumes of books dedicated to avalanche accident case studies, documenting what went wrong. One such publication is The Snowy Torrents.
Here are some questions to ask about the people with whom you’ll be heading out:
- Discuss group goals, experience and abilities
- Share tasks and responsibilities
- Agree to travel together, decide together and build consensus
OBSERVE – look for clues
This is where you become a detective. Most of the relevant and easiest to gather clues to avalanche danger are provided by Mother Nature. We look for clues in the following categories: avalanches observed, weather and snow pack. We especially look for what we call ‘Red Flags’. Red flags are clues that indicate the avalanche danger is present or rising. Case histories have shown that frequently red flag clues were present and observed by people caught and killed in avalanches.
An easily observable and relevant red flag is recent or current avalanches. Try to determine how recent it was – the more recent, the more likely it is that instabilities still exist within the snow pack. Another red flag is lots of new snow, on the order of an inch per hour or more, coupled with winds that are moving snow. This combination can potentially stress the snow pack close to its breaking point. Don’t be the straw that broke the camel’s back.
Lastly, there are snowpack red flags. Sometimes layers in the snow bond well and sometimes they don’t. Simply put, it’s these layers with their different strengths and weaknesses that create avalanches. We can obtain clues about the snowpack as we travel over it, seeing shooting cracks or hearing loud whumpfing resulting from our weight on the snow, causing the collapse of weak layers below us. Seeing and hearing shooting cracks and whumpfing are red flags that are telling us that there are possible instabilities within the snow pack, and that it could potentially slide.
- Observe avalanches, snowpack and weather
- Share observations among your group members
- Constantly update and re-evaluate
- When uncertain increase your margin of safety
CHOOSE TERRAIN – identify options and evaluate consequences
Will you be traveling in avalanche terrain? Avalanches most often occur on slopes of 30º – 45º or more but can start on slopes as shallow as 25º and as steep as 50º. In highly unstable conditions snow can slide under 20º. You must be able to identify when you’ll be in avalanche terrain. If you wish to eliminate your risk all together, plan your trip so it never intersects with slopes of more than 25º. However, just because you are in the middle of a valley on virtually flat terrain does not eliminate your risk if slopes above you are 30º or more and contain an unstable snow pack. Avalanches can be triggered from below and can run great distances.
Classic avalanche paths are readily identifiable as big swaths cutting down through the trees. Often paths can be identified as having broken or damaged trees and vegetation. As you travel above tree line however, the paths become less defined and harder to identify. It’s often smaller, undefined avalanche paths both above and below tree line that catch people. It is often reasonable and appropriate to travel in avalanche terrain. When we do so, however, it is wise to always look for the best routes to travel and the terrain where, if something should happen, you have the best chance of survival. Be aware of terrain traps like gullies and road cuts where if the snow slides it can pile up deeply on top of you.
- Learn to recognize avalanche terrain
- Avoid terrain traps
- When uncertain, move out of avalanche terrain
TRAVEL WISELY – Manage the group and use travel techniques to reduce risk
You’re at the trail head and ready to get going! The packs, the skis, the snowshoes, the snowmobiles are out of vehicles and off of trailers, and people start getting ready, perhaps figuring out what they left behind. Always bring extra items in the car such as water, sports bars, and clothing. An extra beacon is also a good thing to carry with you. On that note, start out by checking each other’s beacons to make sure they are all functioning correctly. You will be surprised how many potential problems this practice will turn up. That’s why having extra beacon batteries with you is also a good idea. Always do this at the trail head so you can drive back to get the stuff you’ve forgotten!
As you route find, stop and regroup, adjust your speed to the slowest group member, don’t get out of site of one another and never send someone back alone should they tire or have equipment problems. Communicate: ask how everyone is and what their current comfort level is – everyone has a veto and everyone should respect that veto power. Never travel alone in the backcountry; should you get buried there’s no one to dig you out!
- Check beacons at the trailhead
- Use shallow terrain and ridgelines
- Never travel alone
- Communicate and keep everyone in sight
DECISION MAKING – the crux of the matter
What actually are we doing when we make a decision? We might define ‘decision making’ as examining, choosing and carrying out options. Fortunately, we’ve got options in place because there are so many variables that can pop up once we start on a trip. One thing is very clear: decision making starts the very minute you begin to think about the trip and does not end until you and everyone in the group reached the goal of safely returning from the trip.
Your AIARE 1 course is titled ‘Decision Making in Avalanche Terrain’ – and that will be the entire focus of your course. You will leave the course with the tools and information on how to make an informed decision when traveling in avalanche terrain; when and where to go or not go, who to go with, what to look for and how to manage your risk. It will rest on your shoulders to use the tools such as the AIARE Field Book and the Decision Making Framework to assist you in gaining experience.
RESCUE – expect the best, prepare for the worse
You’ve done your absolute best to keep yourself and your party safe, and there’s a very good chance that by following the steps above that you will be able to stay safe. Expect the best but be prepared for the worse!! You’ve got beacons, probes (not ski pole probes, but dedicated probe poles), and shovels. Each person has this equipment in their pack, you’re practiced and if something does go wrong, you’re prepared!
- Your AIARE 1 will go over the basics of companion rescue.
- Avalanche Patient guidelines
CONTINUE TO EDUCATE YOURSELF – it’s a lifetime of learning
After your AIARE 1 your journey of learning has just begun and like any skill will require continued practice. Head out with friends who have similar risk acceptance levels who you can trust and communicate with in the backcountry. Join the AIARE Facebook site – we post lots of up-to-date info there. Search for – American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education or click on the link on our home page.
This is a big part of the joy of the backcountry; you’re always learning. Don’t be fearful of avalanches – respect and understand them, take a small slice of the pie so you can eventually eat the whole thing – and you’ll live to have lots of fun in the mountains.