Avalanche School

"Let's just go one at a time here and stay off that slope, eh?" I can't see what Marty Schaffer is talking about from my position, 10m back on our skin track, but I trust him.

Sure enough, as he stomps down a spot for us to turn around, he triggers a slide on the exact slope he'd pointed to. At 60 centimetres deep and 30 metres wide, the avalanche is plenty big enough to take us for a ride, and the debris that piles up on the flats below could bury someone. But from our safe locale, Marty just nods, finishes his kick-turn and continues merrily on his way.

So, Marty Schaffer's an avalanche wizard? No, but even at his relatively young age, he has amassed the experience and education needed to clearly understand the avalanche conditions and recognize terrain that "could" slide. There aren't a lot of certainties when it comes to avalanches. Even an old mountain guide with the grey beard and distant stare of a true wizard will tell you there are always surprises. 

marty schaffer

Marty Schaffer looking wise and guide-y.

But the more you learn, the more you can limit your risk in the backcountry and enjoy the adventure, scenery and deep powder. Luckily, it's never been easier to start your education. With the glut of resources and options available today, it's a good idea to establish your goals early.

Let's decide what type of snow geek you are. Then we'll look at your academic path: 1: the Avid Recreationalist looking to get into the backcountry on your own - and often, 2: the Keen Weekend Warrior with ambition but limited time on snow. 3: the Pro-In-Training who's looking at a career in the mountains. Grab your book bags and stationary; it's time to get learned!


All three types of students can get started on their own. Books and crusty old mountain-folk used to be the only way to learn snow science, but these days you can be entertained while being educated on your couch by watching several different action-packed and well-thought-out videos. 

Sherpas Cinema's first feature-length film, The Fine Line, set the bar for visual avalanche education, and it's still full of great education and action.

The Avalanche Handbook is the industry's bible, and no matter how many times you pick it up, you will always glean a bit more. 

Backcountry Avalanche Safety, Tony Daffern, is a lighter, more approachable text with plenty for everyone to learn from.

Avalanche Canada has a revamped online tutorial which makes an excellent place for anyone to start. Their website, avalanche.ca, is also where you'll get the avalanche forecast, mountain weather forecast and the Mountain Information Network. Better bookmark it!


The Avid Recreationalist:

You need to get out there and get some hands-on training as safely as possible. Luckily, AvCan has developed a curriculum where you can learn from experienced instructors, on snow, in the mountains. The AST 1 or Avalanche Skills Training course is THE place to start. The two-day program focuses on the basics of the avalanche phenomenon, identifying avalanche terrain and safe travel practices. Companion Rescue is a primary focus as well, and participants need to own, rent or borrow standard rescue gear (beacon, probe and shovel). AST courses are offered in almost every mountain range in Canada, including Quebec and Newfoundland. For a list of course providers, head back to avalanche.ca.

The AST 2 is a four-day, more in-depth study. It gives participants time to get into the backcountry and practice safe travel while identifying avalanche hazards and gaining experience making decisions in avalanche terrain.

Weekend Warrior:

A week-long course could burn half of your annual ski days. That simple math right there keeps many people at the ski resort, but it doesn't have to. Hiring a guide to take you backcountry skiing is not only a great way to ski the best snow and have a safe adventure, but it is also a great way to learn firsthand from an experienced backcountry traveller. With the correct number of friends, it often costs no more than a lift ticket, and while you won't get a certificate afterwards, you will be skiing powder while you study instead of sitting in a classroom. In almost every ski town on the planet, you will find qualified ski guides who can customize a day/trip with just the right amount of tutoring versus skiing for you.

There are new twists on the classic avalanche course, as well. The aforementioned Marty Schaffer founded CaPow Guiding, which offers trips to Blanket Glacier Chalet and Rogers Pass that let you learn while maximizing fun on your precious ski days. 

Looking for something more informal? Avalanche Awareness Days are spread out this year across the country in January. Educational options include on-hill rescue practices and tutorials at many resorts and online seminars and events. (avalanche.ca, do you have that bookmarked yet?).


Pro in training:

For those looking to work in the avalanche world, the Canadian Avalanche Association (the professional's avalanche association) has developed a three-stage curriculum for becoming a certified avalanche wizard. Their Operations Level 1 course is "for persons seeking employment with avalanche risk management operations. Participants must be advanced skiers or split-boarders and should have considerable backcountry travel experience." This intense, week-long course costs upwards of $2000, and you have to come prepared if you hope to pass.

After working in the field for a few years (and saving your pennies), you can take the Ops Level 2 course. Pass it, and you might make a bit more money which you can then save for the Level 3. Ops Level 3 takes years of experience to get into. It's quite secretive, but rumour has it, if you pass this year-long exam, they present you with a wizard's staff of your own.