Until a few years ago, standard Avalanche 1 courses focused on teaching students to dig snow pits and look for weak and faceted layers that might cause a slide. Now there's a movement to prioritize decision making based on terrain, human factors, and conditions rather than snow-pit analysis.
"The first thing I tell new backcountry skiers to do is sign up for an avalanche course," says Margaret Wheeler, a Washington-based mountain guide. "The second thing I tell them is to find a course that focuses on decision making."
Here's a checklist to help you get started.
- Are you skiing in 25-to-45-degree steeps, the slopes most likely to slide?
- Is there safer, lower-angle terrain you should be skiing instead?
- Are you factoring in terrain traps like gullies and streambeds?
- Are you skiing the terrain for the right reasons?
- Is social pressure, a scarcity of good snow, or familiarity causing you to ski a dangerous slope?
- How aware are you of the expert halo—the false sense of security the experienced often get simply because they're experienced?
Weather and Conditions
- Is there a lot of new snow or high winds?
- What does the regional avalanche forecast say?
- What is the temperature and weather forecast?
- Have you seen any fresh avalanches or heard the telltale whoomping sound of snow collapsing?