In this section I’ll be talking about gaining experience through education. If you haven’t read parts 1 and 2 of this series please check them out.
Geared Up And Ready To Go
If you have taken my advice so far then you have hopefully purchased or rented some gear, taken an intro backcountry skiing course from an ACMG guide and now you are looking to be good ski partner and gain some experience.
You have probably already heard of AST courses and it is likely someone told you that all you need is an “AST 1” and you’ll be good. Often I see posts online from people looking for partners with the only “requirement” being having their AST 1. AST stands for Avalanche Skills Training. There are two levels, 1 & 2, which are offered by Avalanche Canada through certified instructors, which are almost always ACMG guides in Canada. You can find out more about these courses here: https://www.avalanche.ca/training
AST 1 Is Only An Introduction…
It is extremely important to realize that the AST 1 course is an introduction course to a subject that is so complex that even professionals make mistakes. After taking an AST 1 you are not “good to go” but rather have just started an educational journey that will last a lifetime. To put it into context, would you let someone who was only introduced to heart surgery terms and ideas actually do surgery on you? Of course not. This is the same as taking an AST 1 and thinking you can now operate in the backcountry safely. So why take it? Well of course you need to start somewhere, you can’t just jump into being a professional avalanche forecaster and the AST 1 course is overwhelming the gold standard on where to start off.
Post AST 1
After taking an AST 1 you will need to get out skiing in terrain which is safe for you to make decisions in, admittedly that won’t be the most fun for getting turns. You will want to look for people with more experience and formal training than you to help get into terrain that you personally can’t operate safely in. After getting some in field experience you can look to do your AST 2, which will expand on your knowledge and test your skills. Unless you are skiing a lot in your first season there is little reason to do both AST 1 and 2 in the same year. You will want to gain some experience in field before trying to advance. People often ask me how long they should wait and it’s different for everyone, you best move is to ask your AST 1 instructor what they think will work for you.
It Doesn’t Stop, It Never Stops
A lot of people go as far as AST 2 and they are done with training but it should never stop. The next formal course is Operations Level 1 (https://www.avalancheassociation.ca/page/level_1) but this is a professional level course for those looking to work in ski industry. I know a lot of people who took this course and were disappointed as they didn’t actually want to work in the industry. Instead you can look to hire an ACMG guide for focused educational days. You can hire a guide for 1 on 1 lessons or get a group of friends together to lower the individual cost. Some guides offer group focused learning days at a reduced cost. When you hire a guide for a day like this make sure to have specific goals and/or questions to get the most out of it. This is an excellent way to stay on top of your backcountry skiing game. In the last couple of seasons some guides have started offering AST+ types of programs, so far these aren’t standardized so make sure to ask about course content to make sure it helps with any specifics you may want to focus on. I assume at some point Avalanche Canada will come up with a standard AST 3 program but for now the above options should work out well. For a complete flow chart of formal courses follow this link: https://www.avalancheassociation.ca/page/Training_Flowchart
What Else Can You Do?
Outside of courses there are some things you can do to stay sharp out there. There are dozens of excellent avalanche books that have been published. Even though you won’t understand everything you can even read these books before taking your AST 1, that way during the course you will feel less flooded with information. If you are reading this article during summer then reading as many books as possible is a great way to prepare to get the most out of your AST 1. You can also read the Avalanche Accidents in Canada book series to learn from others mistakes. Avalanche Canada has some free online learning as well, found here: https://www.avalanche.ca/tutorial
Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop
The most important thing is that you never stop learning. I don’t care how many days you have or what training you received, if you think you “know it all, seen it all” than you are fooling yourself. Every year operations have their ACMG guides do refresher days and/or courses. I have personally taken two AST 1s, two AST 2s, Operations Level 1 and volunteer almost every year to help with AST 1 and intro course alongside guides. I read books and reports regularly and I am always thinking or talking about current conditions with ski partners. Every year I practise avalanche rescue. Ongoing avalanche education and training needs to be something you commit to for as long as you are backcountry skiing. You and your partners lives literally depend on it.
In part 4 I will dive into ski culture, which is often a bit silly but something you should be aware of when starting out.