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A man in a ditch dug into snow talks to a group holding shovels
Long-time avalanche education instructor Billy Rankin demonstrates and discusses the process, benefits and limitations of utilizing a snow profile in a recreation level 1 avalanche course. Rankin uses curriculum created by the American Institute for Avalanche Education and Research, which recently conducted a study to see how much its students retain from classes. (Intuition Consulting Photo)

Billy Rankin remembers a time not long ago when someone asked his 20-person guide team at Irwin Lodge in Crested Butte how many friends they’d had die in avalanches. 

Nearly everyone raised a hand for one friend, most kept it raised for two and Rankin left his hand up as the number soared to 10. Part of that was odds: Rankin has been a ski guide and avalanche course instructor for decades and lives in Crested Butte, which he said “has a pretty high tolerance for risk.” But it also shows how crushing the consequences of shaky decision-making in the backcountry can be, which is why Rankin encourages his students to study every active avalanche accident report published by the Colorado Avalanche Information Center in a given winter, looking for “the skull and crossbones, the red flags” that are always so much easier to see in retrospect than they are in the mountains.

Rankin is one of the hundreds of Colorado guides who’ve learned to teach avalanche education courses based on a curriculum created by the Telluride-based American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education. AIARE curriculum is recognized by the American Avalanche Association (A3) which maintains guidelines for recreational avalanche education to ensure quality, consistency and up-to-date content.

Since 2014, AIARE instructors have taught avalanche education to 107,790 students across the U.S. with the largest proportion in Colorado. An AIARE recreation level 1 avalanche course focuses on understanding avalanche hazard terminology (the vocabulary avalanche centers use to convey avalanche hazard) and how to identify avalanche terrain, said Liz Riggs Meder, AIARE’s education director. “Ultimately, we want students to put the two together to choose terrain appropriate for the avalanche hazard that lowers their risk of involvement with an avalanche.”

A man on skies with poles treks up a snow-covered mountain with a pack on his back
A backcountry skier ascends in the Snodgrass Mountain trail area near Crested Butte in January 2019 carrying avalanche gear and a rescue beacon. (Dean Krakel, Special to The Colorado Sun)

“We think it’s more memorable and makes for better teaching when you focus concretely on what course participants will actually do after a course,” she added. But what AIARE has never been able to gauge is just how effective their teaching methods have been. Or as Riggs Meder said, how their students are using AIARE education before, during and after they head into the backcountry. 

“Basically, the industry didn’t yet have an evaluation of avalanche education, and yet we held a belief that if you teach someone something they will change their behaviors,” she said. But that’s not how it works in a formal education setting, where, for example, elementary school teachers use tests and assessments to understand their teaching efficacy.  

That changes now, through a first-of-its-kind study with Eastern Oregon University that tracked 1,700 students who have taken courses over the last three winters, looking for signs of influence AIARE education had on their behaviors before and after courses.

A study sparked by epiphany

Kelly McNeil, a professor, backcountry skier and lead researcher on the study, said she was looking for a project in her field of public health and programming when she heard Riggs Meder speak about avalanche-education evaluation. McNeil thought, “avalanche education is public health. It’s trying to get people to make better decisions and change behavior to protect themselves.” So she and Riggs Meder developed a survey they sent to AIARE students six weeks, one year and two years after they’d taken one of the organization’s level one avalanche education courses. 

These courses focus on the elements of safe backcountry travel, including making sure a rescue beacon works before leaving a trailhead; how to identify unstable conditions while skiing; checking the weather and the Colorado Avalanche Information Center’s daily forecast before heading into the backcountry; and always traveling with a shovel and probe in case a partner gets caught in a slide.   

McNeil said while research on avalanche education has been done — looking at changes in knowledge, risk perception, confidence and beliefs — “this is unique because it’s specifically looking at changes in behavior after someone is given information. We talk about this a lot in public health. You have to know smoking is bad before you quit, but just because you know it’s bad doesn’t mean you’re going to quit. In public health we have a lot of evidence-based strategies around this. And I wanted to know, can we start incorporating those in the avalanche industry?” 

Turns out the training sticks

Survey results showed recipients were practicing the behaviors they were taught in their AIARE courses a full two years after they’d learned them.

Rankin said that’s indicative of the quality of instruction AIARE offers. Full disclosure: He teaches one AIARE course each year and was trained in AIARE curriculum, but has worked for multiple backcountry skiing-related businesses and is owner of Intuition Consulting, which offers custom avalanche courses for groups and organizations. 

“The study is very much the pedagogy of AIARE, which is backed by the principles of formal education. If I had to choose which part of the paper that spoke to me the most, it was the discussion of how do we know a course has been successful? Well, having fun and having a course be satisfying is great but are we creating behavior change?”  

Riggs Meder said study results show her, “we’re not knocking it out of the park. There’s still room for improvement.” 

A group of women on skies stuck their poles into snow while reading from booklets
Participants practice their teaching skills in AIARE’s all-women’s Instructor Training Course in Leavenworth, Washington, in spring 2022. (Lisa Granden, AIARE Photo)

“People reported practicing avalanche rescue, although maybe only a couple of times since their class. So there are ways we can try and impact that,” she said. “Or, nobody ‘debriefs’ at the end of their day, but they do talk about how the day went, so there could be some directed learning in connecting people to action. And in places like Seattle, where we have 10,000 to 15,000 people going through courses but only backcountry skiing five days a year, we need educational products for those casual skiers.” 

Next up: AIARE will submit the paper to peer-reviewed journals. If all goes according to plan, they’ll share their findings. And Riggs Meder said AIARE will use the information to help avalanche professionals be good educators. 

“I train my instructor staff who then train instructors who work for guide services who train students,” she added. “That’s several steps for a message to get garbled and we know that. That’s where we’re constantly working to improve things.” 

“If I just did this study and kept it within AIARE, it wouldn’t help the greater industry,” McNeil added. “If we can show we’re working on this, and show things we can measure — our hope is it encourages others to evaluate or collaborate, so everyone is offering the same education.” 

Tracy Ross writes about the intersection of people and the natural world, industry, social justice and rural life from the perspective of someone who grew up in rural Idaho, lived in the Alaskan bush, reported in regions from Iran to Ecuador...