Over the first weekend of the new year, I had the privilege to take an AIARE 1 course with Eastern Mountain Sports in North Conway, NH. As an aspiring backcountry skier, AIARE 1 had been on my radar for quite awhile. It just seemed like a no-brainer to me to learn about the risks and how to mitigate them when traveling in backcountry terrain. Understanding and mitigating objective and subjective hazards is an important part of having a long career in the mountains.
The subtitle of AIARE 1 is “Decision Making” and the course lives up to that. You are given the tools you need to begin assessing snow hazards and make decisions to mitigate the risks of those hazards. Assessing avalanche terrain and snow instability, identifying avalanche problems and understanding an avalanche bulletin, objective tests to measure the degree of snow instability, and basic companion rescue techniques are covered.
Currently, AIARE 1 is structured as a three day course. There is 8 hours of classroom instruction, a module on companion rescue, including how to use a beacon, probe and shovel, an observational outing where you learn to dig snow pits and objectively assess snow stability, all of which culminates in a ski tour/hike in to avy terrain to apply the skills you’ve just learned. I personally found the course to be a great mix of didactic classroom learning coupled with hands-on application. But be warned: taking an AIARE 1 course will not make you an expert overnight.
In fact, the weekend cemented my opinion that AIARE 1 is really just the first step in what should be a lifetime of learning how to travel safely in the mountains. What it does effectively is provide a framework to direct and give more meaning to future experiences and learning. This sentiment was echoed by almost all of my classmates in the course debrief: it is both a foundational course and, yet just the tip of the iceberg. I would also underscore that the most important piece of gear anyone carries in the backcountry is good judgement. While that can’t be bought per se, enrolling yourself in an AIARE 1 course is almost the same thing.
I would be remiss if I didn’t also mention the quality of the instruction from Dave Lottman and Mike Lackman, our course instructors. Both are guides with Eastern Mountain Sports and very obviously passionate about avalanche education and teaching folks how to travel safely in the mountains. Both are a wealth of experience and knowledge and ‘practice what they preach’ (though they aren’t preachy in the least).
Bottom line: if you venture into the backcountry (or side country), travel in avalanche terrain, or just like playing in the snow, get your butt into an AIARE 1 class PRONTO!
Oh and before you go, make sure to check out AIARE’s pre-course study info– trust me, it will help you get the most out of your course!