We sat down with two Colorado Mountain School guides to get their take on the importance of backcountry education.
To some, the backcountry seems an unattainable place no one should go because its inherent risk is too high, while others callously see it the same as riding inbounds. A reasonable viewpoint lies somewhere in between. Mountain wilderness in the wintertime can be treacherous and fatal, yes. But it doesn’t have to be. Anyone competent on a snowboard can enjoy what’s beyond the resort—the catch lies in one’s willingness to dedicate time to gaining the necessary knowledge and skill set. Just as it was a process to learn to snowboard in the first place, so too is the path to competent backcountry travel.
They say that avalanche courses teach you how little you know. It’s true; taking a class isn't going to transform you into a proficient backcountry user over the span of its three or so days. But if you’re going to progress your snowboarding beyond the boundary ropes of the resort and their implied safety, there is a base level of knowledge necessary to do so, and it begins with education.
The desire to venture into the backcountry is part of a natural progression that starts on the bunny slope and eventually leads us to the terrain park and the slopes on the high end of an arbitrary ranking scale—I think the hard ones are called blacks, and I hear there’s even a double version. The type of satisfaction backcountry riding provides, however, is something that’s tough to achieve inbounds, so we sat down with two experts who educate those seeking to progress their snowboarding to its next level, Andy Hansen and Mike Bortnowski, of Colorado Mountain School.
There’s a lot of misinformation about avalanche danger. Let’s start with some misconceptions.
Andy: Yeah, I think there’s a lot of folklore—odd things like that yodeling can trigger an avalanche, or that anytime you're in the mountains avalanche risk is high. That's not always the case. I think giving the correct information, or more accurate information to backcountry users is important to dispel those myths.
Mike: I think a lot of people, especially ones with little or no true knowledge of avalanches or backcountry, think avalanches are this unpredictable thing, and it's just like "Well, today we'll flip a coin, and we might not come back. Leave it up to the avalanche gods to make decisions for us." But it's not that way at all. And I think taking an avalanche course is a way to understand when risk elevated and there is a potential for loss, versus when it’s a good time to go out and ride more challenging lines with little or no avalanche risk. There is unpredictability in our snowpack, but we know when danger is heightened, and we know when danger is lessened. I also hear a lot of myths out there like that skiing in the trees is completely safe, and other things that aren't necessarily always true.
Andy: I gotta agree with that. I feel like some people just think, "If you go into the mountains, you're automatically gettin' 'lanched." Or that these avalanches are unwieldy or unpredictable, mysterious things. But they're not mysterious; they're awesome in the truest sense of that word. I think they're a natural phenomenon that needs to be treated with a healthy dose of respect and information. Inform yourself instead of being afraid of that dragon, you know?
Who should take an avalanche course?
Mike: I think anyone who’s started backcountry touring on low-angle terrain, gotten used to their equipment, and wants to know more should take a class. Pretty much as soon as you get used to your equipment and want to venture into the backcountry, I think it's super valuable to take an AIARE course—a lot of people nowadays are taking an AIARE course as soon as they get their gear.
The big push is to get the gear, get the training, get the forecast, get the picture, and get out of harm's way. That's what’s being pushed within the industry, and people are catching on. An AIARE I course is baseline knowledge that anyone who's traveling in the mountains in the winter should have. Backcountry, slackcountry, and even inbounds—stuff can happen. We can't let our guard down.
Andy: Being uninformed is pretty dangerous, and anyone who's got the desire to get into the mountains in the winter should be taking an avalanche course. I think that the history of being misinformed about avalanches has permeated the larger culture, and folks that just want to enjoy the backcountry in any medium should seriously consider getting educated.
What are the most important concepts that you think a student in an AIARE I course should grasp?
Mike: I think one of the most important concepts that an AIARE I student should grasp is what is safe to ride and how to stay out of harm's way in the first place. Even when danger is elevated there's still terrain you can ride. Frankly, there are slopes with little to no avalanche danger, and understanding what that terrain looks like can really open the doors to touring. You can learn a lot on that terrain and apply a lot of the concepts you learn there to more challenging terrain with much higher risk, and I think the biggest overarching theme is understanding what that terrain is.
Understanding human factors in decision-making is critical as well. No matter how much knowledge and wisdom and application experience you have in backcountry terrain, you still have to manage risk. I think a lot of times factual information can get overwhelmed by people's decisions based on emotion. And I think it's really important to remember that.
Andy: An AIARE I course is decision making-based. So while there is a wealth of technical information to sift through, I think the overarching concept that folks should understand is that snowpack is constantly changing. A basic knowledge of weather patterns, how they influence snow, and how to make decisions based on those conditions and our subjective influences is what I think someone should hopefully walk away with. I think once you're able to practice it in the field and apply it in relatively low-risk environments, it becomes a little more organic and less “check this box, check this box, check this box.” It becomes a more digestible process.
What about your first avalanche course?
Andy: I grew up snowboarding, and for a long time it was my primary source of happiness. Then for whatever reason, I just kind of fell out of love with it. And I guess that love was rekindled by rock climbing. My first AIARE course was primarily motivated by my goal of becoming an internationally recognized mountain guide—I needed to pursue avalanche education as part of the training. But the course demystified and dispelled a lot of preconceptions I had about avalanches and being in the mountains in the winter.
It had been years since I had been on a snowboard, when I was finally prompted to re-pursue it. It made me want to learn more and more, and I fell in love with snowboarding all over. Avalanche education actually rekindled my love of snowboarding.
Mike: My first avalanche course stemmed from watching too many snowboard movies, reading too much TransWorld and looking at too many photos—not really understanding this medium of backcountry snowboarding but wanting to ride more interesting and challenging terrain outside of the resort boundary and learn anything I could about that process. Things were starting to get boring at the resort unless there was a ton of snow, and I just wanted to continue pushing the boundaries of what I can do on a board. The big, rude awakening was that it takes time to get into that terrain.
My AIARE I course opened my eyes. I was sitting there all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed like, "I want to start riding the gnar." Then I realized it was going to take a little time to get there, ’cause this is a lot more complex than movies and media make it seem. It was a process, and it was amazing to look back to where it all started and be able to manage my risk and be able to snowboard this unique terrain that not many folks get to, and it's been beautiful and amazing. And to bring it full circle and now be teaching these things is pretty cool.