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Decision Making in Avalanche Terrain – Aiare level 1

February 12, 2017

In December, I took an avalanche class put on by Weber State University’s Outdoor Program in the Ben Lomond Backcountry. The level 1 class is designed to be an introduction to avalanche hazard management and is three days (24 hours) consisting of one full classroom day and two days in the field. 

The course is expected to:

  • Provide a basic understanding of avalanches
  • Describe a framework for decision making and risk management in avalanche terrain
  • Focus on identifying the right questions, rather than on providing “answers.”
  • Give lessons and exercises that are practically oriented, useful, and applicable in the field.

I’ve been dabbling in backcountry skiing with Tyler for the past few winters, everything accessed via gates at resorts. Anytime we’ve stepped outside the resort boundaries, we have always carried a beacon, probe, and shovel and we even practiced companion rescue (once) by burying our beacons in the sand at the beach. But carrying the gear isn’t good enough and I always felt confident that if something bad happened in the backcountry, Tyler would have the skills to help me but I’d be lacking (he took an extensive course with the Canadian Avalanche Association when he lived in Whistler). Backcountry skiing only works if you are confident in your team around you and I quite honestly wasn’t the best teammate. When I lived in San Diego, the only places that offered avalanche classes were Bishop, CA (Eastern Sierras) or Lake Tahoe. Both of these places were a minimum of 8 hours away from our home and if we were making that long a drive to the mountains, we wanted to spend our time skiing. So naturally, when we moved to Utah and the mountains became much more accessible, taking an avalanche class became a priority.

If you live in the SLC area, the Weber State Outdoor program is an place to go through the AIARE Level 1 curriculum. Our instructors (Mike Henderson, Daniel Turner, and Jamie Bernstein) were knowledgeable in avalanche education AND have a ton of experience with backcountry travel.

DAY ONE: CLASSROOM Weber State University | Ogden, Utah

  • Types and characteristics of avalanches
  • Avalanche motion
  • Size classification
  • The mountain snowpack: an introduction to metamorphism and layering

Here we layered sugar and flour to represent weak and strong layers in the snowpack. We then tested the “snowpack” at various angles representing low, mid, and high angle slopes.



DAYS 2 & 3: FIELD DAYS Ben Lomond Backcountry | Cutler Ridge | Eden, UT

Our days in the field were educational and quite enjoyable despite frigid temps (both Saturday and Sunday averaged around 10 degrees).

Day 2 was all about “Observations and Information Gathering”

  • Field observation techniques
  • Snowpack tests: rutschblock, compression test
  • Avalanche danger factors or “Red Flags”
  • Observation checklist
  • Avalanche danger scale

Observations being made


Practicing companion rescue in the landing zone


Pit digging



Cutler Ridge

DAY 3: Trip Planning and Preparation

  • Avalanche terrain recognition, assessment, and selection
  • Route finding and travel techniques
  • Decision making and Human Factors

That way.


The gang! 




Ben Lomond Weather Station




Surface Hoar | Photo: Mike Henderson


This is what the back of Ben Lomond looks like.

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