Avalanche education in the US is about to make a big change. Perhaps the biggest change ever. Starting this fall, avalanche courses will be split into two tracks: recreational or professional. As usual, we’re following in the footsteps of our avalanche mentors in the Great White North (Canada), who have followed this system for years. Up to now, all avalanche education in the US has been lumped into one progression: Level 1, Level 2, and ending with Level 3.
The Pro-Rec split is directed by the American Avalanche Association, the head honchos in the US avalanche world. The AAA sets the curriculum standards that AIARE (American Avalanche Institute) National Avalanche School and the Alaska Avalanche School follow. The diagram below illustrates the changes to each track:
We’ve desperately needed this Pro-Rec split as professionals and recreationists are not well-served by a one-size-fits-all approach to avalanche education. While teaching Level 2 courses for the Alaska Avalanche School, it’s felt contrived digging a full snow profile and recording top to bottom temperatures, crystal types and all those gory details. What recreational user has the time to dig a full snow profile anyway? That’s a task geared more for ski patrol and avalanche forecasters. Recreational skiers have also felt the pain of recording everything in a field note book. They want to get the data, make good decisions, and get back to skiing.
Here are five common questions I’ve seen regarding the upcoming Pro-Rec split:
1. What is the difference between AAA and AIARE? The American Avalanche Association develops the guidelines and evaluation criteria for professional avalanche courses in the US. AAA also approves professional course providers and professional course leaders. AIARE takes the guidelines produced by AAA and develops curriculum to teach pro courses and run evaluations. AIARE is an approved professional provider equivalent to the American Avalanche Institute, National Avalanche School and the Alaska Avalanche School. All must follow the standards set by AAA.
2. Are you Pro or are you Rec? If you’re wondering, then you probably fall under the Rec category. Recreational avalanche education is for those who want to make good decisions in the backcountry: do we ski the slope or not? The Pro track is for those who work, or will work, in an operational setting such as ski patrol, forecasting or guiding. The pro courses are each five days and are examined for pass-fail.
3. How do I start on the Pro track? Everyone must take the Rec Level 1 Course and the one-day Avalanche Rescue course. Additionally, you’ll need proof of 20 days or more of relevant experience in the avalanche field. Then you can take the Pro 1 course.
4. I’ve taken a Level 2. How do I transition to the Pro track? You will need to take a Bridge Course/Exam to achieve Pro 1 Certification. This Bridge course evaluates student’s skills from the previous Level 2 training. It will be offered for the first two years of the new professional avalanche training program. After two years of the new program, a student with an old Level 2 will need to take the complete Pro 1 course.
5. I’ve taken Level 3. How do I transition to the Pro track? Pro 2 avalanche training contains material not covered in the old Level 3 courses, however, expectations are that after taking a Level 3, professionals will continue building skills through continuing education and on the job training.
In mid-December I attended a three-day Pro-Trainer workshop in Jackson, Wyoming where we learned the fundamentals of teaching pro courses. Much of it focused on grading since the pro courses are pass fail, eeep! For example, during one exercise, we went in pairs; one person would take study plot weather observations, while the other had the grading rubric in hand, grading the measurement taker on the spot. An interesting, challenging and exciting experience.
Although I am an avalanche educator and ski guide, I think like a recreational user: I want to make good decisions in the backcountry. That said, I am very excited about teaching Pro courses. It will push me in a new direction within a field I am passionate about. As a result, I will become a better guide.
Avalanche educators are both excited and nervous about the update. We have much to prepare for, but that’s a good thing. Avalanche education is our passion as instructors, and this is just another opportunity for us to learn more about our favorite topic: skiing and playing in the snow.
Written by: Joe Stock