Snow Studies Series: FLC’s PRO 1 Avalanche Course
The San Juan Mountains are a paradise for winter adventure seekers. Peaks and slopes, capped with blankets of snow, create an invitingly gorgeous and undeniably intimidating landscape. The snow can be several feet deep, forming drifts that defy gravity. It’s a wild area that beckons thrill seekers and scientists across the nation.
The FLC community is uniquely positioned to work and play in this region, with the best access in the state to multiple ski resorts and natural laboratories. It’s also one of the few college campuses in the nation to be close to so many ski resorts, including local Purgatory Mountain, just 45 minutes up the road. To work and play in the San Juan Mountains requires more than just stoke, but also the knowledge of how to avoid dangerous scenarios on winter adventures.
Colorado has the highest avalanche-related death toll in the nation. According to the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, almost 300 people have died from being on the wrong side of Colorado avalanches in the last 70 years. The 2022-23 season has already seen seven fatalities. It's more apparent than ever that backcountry travelers can mitigate avalanche incidents with proper training.
FLC's Outdoor Pursuits program is doing just that—offering a five-day PRO 1 Avalanche Course in collaboration with the American Avalanche Institute. It is separate from the Snow & Avalanche Certification offered through FLC’s Adventure Education program, which lasts a semester and takes a deeper dive into snow science.
Spearheaded by Josh Kling, coordinator of Outdoor Pursuits, the in-house professional avalanche course is the first in the United States to be offered by a collegiate outdoor program. Kling developed and launched the first PRO 1 course this past January.
“There are only five providers that can teach the PRO 1 course, and of those five, there are two national players: the AAI and the American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education,” said Josh Kling, coordinator of Outdoor Pursuits. “Instead of contracting out the instruction, we brought AAI to teach alongside us for an FLC program. It was the first time AAI or AIARE had heard of a collegiate outdoor program doing that.”
The course is open to anyone, including non-students, but FLC students have a unique advantage. Before taking the PRO 1 course, Kling treated FLC students to two additional days of instruction. Ben Iverson, a senior studying Business Administration, appreciated the two extra days of training that he received from Kling.
“Josh went out of his way to plan those additional prep days for the course,” said Iverson. “He took us out for two days. During one of them, we dug snow pits, performed simulated rescues, and did some beacon drills. That gave us the momentum to get into that course and succeed.”
The Pro 1 Avalanche Course is designed for snow professionals who have completed AAI's Rescue Fundamentals and Recreation Avalanche 1 courses.
"These future professionals will have a much larger reach to people with Pro 1 training as opposed to just having a REC 1 certification."
— Josh Kling
The course also builds on the knowledge base and hands-on skill building necessary to reduce risk, work effectively as a group, and meet legal and ethical responsibilities as guides while traveling in the backcountry.
In addition to being open to the public, the Outdoor Pursuits PRO 1 course is available to students from any program, beneficial for aspiring snow scientists who may want professional avalanche training without the burden of an additional degree track.
“Our students can pursue whatever degree track they want and still get this professional training,” Kling said. “Degree tracks matter, but many mid-degree certificate programs are valued in the outdoor industry. A Bachelor of Science degree in Geology would be phenomenal during the job application process. But large companies and organizations like CDOT and Vail Resorts prize these extra certificates. There's tremendous value in these kinds of auxiliary certificate programs.”
Even though it's not part of a degree track, the first PRO 1 course is challenging. Students meet at 7:30 a.m. at Silverton or Red Mountain Pass and push through the backcountry for 10 hours, learning the ins and outs of avalanche science. The course is capped off by a 20-hour, self-paced online segment.
Ben Iverson, FLC senior, pictured left, with Rob Peper, a local wilderness guide, working on snow grain identification.
Outdoor Pursuits Coordinator and IFMGA Mountain Guide Josh Kling gives lessons on constructing an improvised leg splint.
Outdoor Pursuits Coordinator and IFMGA Mountain Guide Josh Kling gives a lesson on constructing an improvised rescue sled for patient extraction.
“They ran it like a boot camp,” chuckled Iverson. “We all woke up at 5 a.m., running through high-stress situations like timed exams. They put us in front to lead the group into actual avalanche terrain. We were getting hands-on with it and mitigating all that risk in the backcountry instead of in a controlled environment.”
Iverson, who plans on working in the ski industry, said the program was enriching and that the certification will make it easier to pursue his career goals. This is especially true as more people continue to move to Colorado for its ski industry opportunities. The certification will help Iverson stand out amongst a mountain of eager applicants.
It helps that FLC students receive a heavy discount for the course fee, which usually runs from $1,600-2,300. FLC students will pay only $800, coinciding with Outdoor Pursuits’ longstanding mission to increase access to outdoor gear and education.
Going forward, Outdoor Pursuits will offer the program every other year with AAI. Though the course will maintain a cap of 12 students, it’s a point of pride for FLC.
“It’s going to be a huge incentive [for recruitment],” Iverson said. “I can see other collegiate outdoor programs offering PRO 1 certifications as the new norm. Our program will set students up for success, and they’ll be able to get better jobs.”
Kling echoed Iverson’s sentiments and added that the certification had more than just monetary value.
“It’s going to make our students more in demand,” Kling said. “But more than that, they can now perform industry-standard tests for safety and make some observations that protect everyone involved…The grassroots and organic effect of preparing future professional avalanche workers and future avalanche educators have a much larger systemic impact on avalanche communities than recreational programming can alone.”