Education is Essential in the Backcountry. Find Out Where to get Schooled.
Education is Essential in the Backcountry. Find Out Where to get Schooled.

Education is Essential in the Backcountry. Find Out Where to get Schooled.

By Jordan Sunshine, Seattle, WA: You want to start venturing outside the ski area boundary in search of fresh snow and spiritual bliss. Whether it be lift-accessed “sidecountry” or hike-for-your-turns backcountry, making good choices and being prepared are mandatory. evo sits down with Scott Schell, the Program Director at the Friends of the Northwest Weather and Avalanche Center, to talk safety for our series on Backcountry safety.

Okay, so you have run through the safety checklist. You have all of the backcountry necessitiesavalanche beacon, check, shovel, check, probe, check, backpack to carry it all, check. Maybe you have even purchased yourself what many are now referring to as the new 4th backcountry necessity: an airbag. Plus, you have friends with proper avalanche equipment. This is a fantastic first step, but do you know how to use all of this equipment? Have you practiced? Do you follow the weather and avalanche forecasts? Do you know what is happening today in the snowpack? Do you know the snowpack from three days ago? Have you assessed the terrain you will be traveling on? Have you asked your partners all of these same questions? You do not want to be in an avalanche, but in the unfortunate occurrence that you are, they are the people who will save you.

It sounds like it’s time to get educated. At evo we are here to teach you all we can about the proper equipment to purchase for your best experience, be it in bounds or out of bounds. We cannot, however, take you out on the snow to teach you avalanche education, but we will point you in the right direction for essential education. We will probably even be joining you in some of these great classes offered by our local avalanche education providers.

If you live in the Northwest, the guys over at the Northwest Weather and Avalanche Center (NWAC) highly encourage you to take an American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education (AIARE) avalanche course through one of the following local providers:

  • Northwest Mountain School – Level 1& 2 – Leavenworth/Stevens Pass
  • American Alpine Institute – Level 1 & 2 – Bellingham/Mt Baker
  • Pro Guiding Service – Level 1 & 2, Ski Touring – Alpental
  • Cascade Powder Cats – Level 1 & 2 – Near Stevens Pass
  • BC Adventure Guides – Level 1 – Snoqualmie Pass/Mt Baker/Mt Ranier
  • Oregon Ski Guides – Level 1 – Bend
  • Everett Mountaineers – Level 1 – Everett PUD/Mt Baker
  • Stevens Pass Ski Patrol – Level 1 – Stevens Pass
  • Mountain Madness – Level 1 – Bellingham/Mt Baker
  • Baker Mountain Guides – Level 1 – Bellingham/Mt Baker
  • The Mountaineers – Level 1 – Seattle/Mt Baker

Check NWAC for a full class schedule as well as for free Friends of NWAC avalanche awareness classes, including classes hosted at evo Seattle.

“People should have an AIARE Level 1 class… It’s a 24 hour class. It’s usually done in two evening lectures and then two full field days…for those who are getting into the backcountry, you need a framework. We need some sort of a system to manage all of the different things you need to look at and weigh them differently, and that’s basically what you get in a Level 1 course. You get this process, and then from that, you need to get experience using the process, ” explains Scott Schell. “Avy 2 takes it one step further. We spend a lot more time on making observations and figuring out what those observations actually mean. So we take that regional or drainage-scale forecast and learn how to go out and assess slope scale and feature scale and stabilities, and we spend a lot more time with that.”

“Some of the local guide services are doing more of a five day class, where they’re combining an AIARE Level 1 and a couple of days of actual ski touring… Terrain’s the big factor. If you can identify what is and isn’t avalanche terrain and then move around through it, you can really stay safe. The problem is a lot of people don’t know how to move, they don’t know how to skin, they don’t know how to do kick turns, they don’t know how to do all that stuff, which forces them into terrain that they might not want to be in… Whether you’re a splitboarder or a snowshoer or a skier, learning how to use that [equipment] properly for at least a couple days with instruction, that actually really helps,” recommends Scott.


Here in the Pacific Northwest, we rely on NWAC for detailed and user-friendly, daily weather and avalanche forecasts for the Cascades, Olympics, and Mt Hood area. “Aside from all the little things you would learn in a Level 1 about terrain recognition and all of that, you should check the forecast. At the very beginning, I think number one would be check the forecast and have a really good understanding of what that forecast is and then what your goals are for the day, and if those two actually can work together,” says Scott.

Don’t live in the Northwest? Check the AIARE website Find avalanche centers for class listings and forecasts in your area:

Don’t forget to become a member of NWAC or your local avalanche center and help them improve avalanche forecasting and provide free avalanche education.

Learn more about how to choose the proper backcountry safety gear: