It’s a question as old as our avalanche education system. When do you know that you’re ready to sign up for a formal class? With the financial and time commitment to taking an Avalanche Level 1, pushing the sign-up button can be intimidating. Some students want to show up with years of touring experience, while others are just dipping their feet in the water. You don’t need a resume of hundreds or tours or have to read the Avalanche Handbook cover to cover. AIARE lists its prerequisites as: “Students must be able to travel in avalanche terrain and bring appropriate equipment for traveling on snow to class,” on their website. While this is the official word, there are some things that can reduce your stress and help you get the most out of your Level 1!
You are comfortable skiing or riding ungroomed, intermediate to expert terrain.
This is often overlooked, but can be the most crucial skill to getting into backcountry touring. Almost all Level 1 courses will require you to do some form of downhill travel, and there aren’t groomed cat tracks in the backcountry. Plus, keep in mind that you’ll be on touring equipment and wearing a pack back. If you’re comfortable jumping off the groomer and into the bumps and trees on the resort, then the backcountry will feel much less stressful and more accessible to you. If you’re spending most of the course worrying about the downhill, absorbing the information being shared will be difficult.
You are comfortable skinning uphill for about 2,000 vertical feet.
How much uphill avalanche courses do is highly dependent on the group’s skill level and the location of the course. In some areas, you can access teaching terrain in less than 1,000 feet. Other areas require a bit more effort, but most courses will average around 2,000 vertical feet of uphill. With that being said, avalanche courses do NOT move uphill at a fast rate. No matter how fit your group is, seven people traveling in the mountains together never move very quickly. Expect to be skinning at about 500 to 750 vertical feet an hour with plenty of stops for teachable moments.
You’ve been on a tour before.
A lot of people show up to their Level 1 with no touring experience. While that’s okay, it means that you’ll spend most of your time learning how to skin instead of focusing on the core curriculum of the course. Going on a tour doesn’t mean getting after the gnar in the backcountry. A lot of ski resorts allow uphill travel, which gives you a way to try skinning in a controlled environment. You could also consider hiring a guide. Get a few friends together to decrease the cost, and let them know that you’re prepping for a Level 1. Focused, professional instruction is by far the best way to prepare for your Level 1 and will allow you to get the most out of the course.
You’re familiar with the gear you’ll be touring on.
Owning your own touring skis or a splitboard is not a requirement. In fact, many avalanche students chose to rent for their Level 1’s so they can try out different gear. Even if you are renting, it’s a good idea to take some time before the first field day of your course to learn how to transition your gear between uphill and downhill mode. Put your skins on, take a walk around your backyard, and then transition back to ski or ride mode. Having familiarity reduces the time spent fiddling at transitions and leaves more time for learning. Bonus points if you can learn to do it with gloves on.
You’ve seen a topographic map before.
A big part of avalanche education is navigation. It’s integrated into understanding the avalanche forecast, planning your trip and executing a tour safely. Level 1’s will spend a portion of the course on understanding maps, but topo maps can be confusing. What are all the different lines for, what does the green mean, and the V’s ravines or ridges? Set yourself up for success and pick up a USGS map for your area. If you’re more technologically savvy, then check out Gaia GPS or Caltopo for some digital options.
You know how to take care of yourself in a winter environment.
Something like a sprained knee might seem like a minor inconvenience in the frontcountry, but having to stand still in the cold while waiting for rescue can have huge consequences if you’re not prepared. Have the proper equipment and knowing when to put it on is important. Avalanche instructors will carry all the needed first aid kits, rescue sleds, repair kits and communication devices, but you are responsible for your personal equipment. This includes having enough food and water and that extra warm puffy jacket that you’re only going to put on in case of emergency. If you’re showing up with a 20-litre pack back, then you probably don’t have enough layers. Learning about what goes into a touring pack is a part of the course, but having the needed equipment beforehand can save you a trip to the gear store mid-course.
SheJumps Snowpack Scholarship
SheJumps wants to provide the tools to grow the participation of adult women and Women of Color in snowsports. From progressing skiing and snowboarding skills to avalanche education, the SheJumps Snowpack Scholarship Program provides an educational bridge for women in winter activities.
Betsy Manero works as the associate editor for Backcountry Magazine. She also teaches AIARE courses and ski guides in Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming, and Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado. She loves teaching SheJumps programming, including a Deep Pow Camp in the Tetons this January.