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FLC launches avalanche program to train the next generation of industry leaders
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FLC launches avalanche program to train the next generation of industry leaders

DURANGO— In early 2023, Jared Allison donned a split board, skins, and a backpack equipped with a beacon, shovel, and probFort Lewis College’s Snow & Avalanche Studies instructor Aaron Ball with a group of students go over emergency plan, cheack out gear before going backcountry skiing.e for a day of backcountry snowboarding in Southwest Colorado’s La Plata Mountains. He was riding out of a chute off Deadwood Mountain when he heard his ski partner yell.

“He shouted for me to ride up the side of the gully because I had popped a wind slab,” Allison recalled. “It wasn’t anything large—it barely ran out into the gully—but it was enough to bury me if I hadn’t ridden out fast enough.” 

Allison’s tale is not uncommon for Colorado’s backcountry enthusiasts, who, more than ever, are searching for adventure, solitude, and deep powder.

The backcountry travel increase has meant a rise in avalanche-related injuries and deaths. According to the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, there were 30 avalanche fatalities in the United States during the 2022-23 winter season, six more than the annual average over the last decade.

In response to the increasing demand, Fort Lewis College launched in 2022 the Snow & Avalanche Studies (SAS) Certificate. This multi-year program prepares students to manage groups in avalanche terrain and build competencyFort Lewis College’s Snow & Avalanche Studies instructor Aaron Ball with a group of students go over emergency plan, cheack out gear before going backcountry skiing. in hazard assessments.

Besides taking courses that overlap with the Adventure Education major, students in the program will complete a 100-hour practicum and graduate with four of the industry’s most widely recognized certificates from the American Institute for Avalanche Research & Education (AIARE), including the AIARE Level 1, AIARE Level 2, Avalanche Rescue, and an AIARE Pro Level 1.An FLC Snow Avalanche Studies certificate student climbing a mountain. Students earn a bachelor’s degree in Adventure Education, the

Allison, a Glenwood Springs, Colorado native, said he was on a full-ride scholarship at the University of Colorado-Boulder when he started backcountry skiing in 2021. After completing scores of backcountry travel days, Boulder felt two hours too far from the alpine. When he heard Fort Lewis College offered an Adventure Education major and a new certificate program, he transferred to Durango. He fell in love with backcountry snowboarding in the San Juan Mountains. 

“No other college in the state offers a program that lets you get an internship, a pro avalanche certification, and a degree. So, I transferred to achieve my future career goal to be an avalanche forecaster,” Allison said. “The SAS certificate program is one of the largest reasons for ditching my full ride at CU-Boulder.”

“Avalanche education is shifting, and the industry is evolving a more professional approach in how we train people to travel in the backcountry,” said Aaron Ball, Adventure Education operations coordinator and senior lecturer at FLC. “It’s less about facets in the snow and more about how we engage to make decisions. Students will come out of this program much more prepared than most professionals when they first start in this industry. There’s much more room to grow and help push the industry forward. No one else is doing quite what we’re doing.” 

“I think a real advantage of the certificate is that students can leave Fort Lewis College not only with the certificate and bachelor's degree but also with industry-recognized credentials for a fraction of the price they would pay elsewhere,” added Bruce Saxman, a senior lecturer of Adventure Education who also teaches in the program. “By completing those certifications, students can enter snow safety careers earlier than if they had to work their way through the courses as time and finances allow post-graduation.”

Focusing on human behavior to prevent accidents

FLC junior Liz Wallentine during a recent class trip. Photo courtesy of Aaron Ball.
FLC junior Liz Wallentine said she had a few hours to spare earlier this month, so she and three friends headed to Deer Creek to spend them in the backcountry. After double-checking the tour plan for the day, they headed out, but soon after, the conditions changed.

“We saw some weird stuff going on in the snowpack, some weird cracking. We were in steeper terrain than we wanted to be in to keep ourselves safe, so we stopped and talked about it,” said Wallentine, one of six inaugural students in the SAS certificate at FLC.

“We could have easily just kept going and been like, it's fine, this is the plan we made,” she said, adding that kind of thinking can easily lead to unnecessary risk-taking. She noted that as a female with limited experience in the backcountry, she could have been unwilling to speak up and tell the others she was uncomfortable moving forward. 

“What we've learned through training is that you must listen to your team, and you must speak up,” she said, adding that after talking it over with her touring partners, they decided to ski a different zone with more appropriate terrain.

This is the kind of discussion that is taught at every step of the program, Ball said.

“We’re preparing students to be not just knowledgeable and skilled in weather, snow science, and backcountry travel skills but also in leadership, judgment, and group management. Students graduate with an understanding of the snow and avalanche phenomena but with an eye toward working with people in this high-risk and uncertain environment. They have great opportunities to learn from practical experiences and have excellent access to mentors in the field that prepare them to step into careers in this growing industry.”

 

Hands-on experience

On a recent Wednesday, Ball and three students met in a classroom to review the PM forms from previous days and that day’s AM forms — standard forms used by ski and avalanche operations to help determine their day’s plan based on the weather, the hazard assessment data, and the terrain. They reviewed the emergency plan for the day before getting in the van that would take them to Molas Pass. 

At the trailhead, they reviewed their plan, checked their rescue equipment, and ensured everyone knew what to do in an emergency before heading out.

“Aaron was modeling how to be the leader, showing us ways to check the snowpack so we could feel a crust layer. He did a lot of that,” Wallentine said.

A week later, the group would be back, this time led by one of the students.

“This is all to prepare them for work in the snow and avalanche industry. In their practicum work, they’ll participate in operational morning meetings and hazard assessment discussions, engage with avalanche control work, or make observations in the backcountry, and practice managing clients,” Ball said. “It’s an opportunity to gain real-world experiences.” 

FLC Snow Avalanche Program participants take a break for a photo. Courtesy of Aaron Ball.

Students enrolled in the program said they enjoy the balance of theoretical and experiential learning.

Wallentine, originally from Indianapolis, said she came to FLC for its Adventure Education and cycling programs.

“I didn't know backcountry skiing until I came to FLC, and I completely fell in love with it. This class is awesome because I'm learning more about myself as a leader and building that confidence,” she said.

“You can't pick a better location than Durango to study —and play in— the snow. The San Juan mountains are among the most avalanche-prone areas in the world. We also have amazing terrain that you get to ski on when conditions are right.”

Agreeing was Pang Boches, who is also enrolled in the program.

“It’s hard to get into the field; you need a lot of practice, experience, and certifications to get hired,” he said. “The SAS certification will prepare me to understand more about the industry and build the basic knowledge to be safe and practice in the backcountry. This program gives me what I need to chase my dreams and work in the ski industry.

 

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