Analyzing Avalanches – Revamped National Avalanche School Focuses More on Operations

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Analyzing Avalanches – Revamped National Avalanche School Focuses More on Operations


Over the week of Oct. 22-26, 2017, the classroom portion of the 25th National Avalanche School was held, with 116 participants from nine states and 30 ski patrols. As always, the school offers some of the most knowledgeable people in the avalanche world to teach avalanche forecasting and mitigation.

The instructors are the people who generate much of the current research into snow and avalanches, as well as write/edit many of the books that are universally used in avalanche classes, including Bruce Tremper, Karl Birkeland, Doug Chabot, Ethan Greene, Janet Kellam, and Dale Atkins. Also on the instructor roster were Paul Baugher, Max Forgensi, Chris McCollister, Mike Rheam, Scott Savage, and Simon Trautman.

Regardless of where you patrol, if you have any interest in avalanches, the National Avalanche School can be a valuable resource. Dave Childs, who patrols for the Thunderbolt Ski Patrol in Massachusetts (see “Next Level: MTR Challenge,” Ski Patrol Magazine, vol. 33, issue 3), found the NAS invaluable. Childs is an Avalanche instructor in the East and was able to attend the NAS in part because of a scholarship offered by the Eastern Division.

“I really wanted to come to this because all these people, I’ve been reading their papers and their books and here they are, and to see them in person and to learn how they’re teaching the different lessons, what they emphasize, how they present the material, what kind of slides they are putting up, what points they’re highlighting, what they’re not highlighting, that’s really important to me,” said Childs. “It’s obviously this huge amount of information, and you’ve got to distill it down into something that’s easy to understand, easy to digest, and give it to the people so that they don’t make mistakes and they can recognize the hazards.”

Since Ski Patrol Magazine last covered the National Avalanche School (Ski Patrol Magazine, vol. 29, issues 2 and 3), the school has changed its focus, becoming much more patroller-focused and offering more information from the ski area operations side that patrollers who work avalanche mitigation can employ in their daily routine.

“At a recent board meeting to discuss the future path of the NAS, there was renewed interest in developing the program to become progressively more patrol-centric,” said Andy Lapkass, the program director for the National Avalanche School and a member of the snow safety department of the Breckenridge Ski Patrol in Colorado. “What I would tell ski patrol directors or snow safety supervisors is that the goal of the National Avalanche School is to produce a patroller who would be a valuable, respected member of any professional snow safety team, someone who could provide valuable feedback in the avalanche hazard forecasting process and be a very solid member on any control route, even during a moderate to high hazard day. With additional mentorship from that patrol’s snow safety team, the patroller could develop into a route leader capable of making critical decisions out in the field regarding existing hazard and risk, mitigation strategies, and, ultimately, slope stability.”

This new focus is in part due to a restructuring of the entire avalanche education model, something that started in 2013 when there was a proposal to split education models into a professional level and a recreational level. All of the major players, including the American Avalanche Association, the American Avalanche Institute (AAI), the American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education (AIARE), the National Avalanche School, and the National Ski Patrol supported this evolution.

“The Education Committee at AAA had been having a discussion on how we could collectively as avalanche educators in the U.S. be doing things differently and potentially more effectively for our audiences,” said AAA Executive Director Jaime Musnicki. “In October 2013, the American Avalanche Association hosted an informal initial meeting asking that question. Kirk Bachman, who was the AAA Education Committee chair at that time, initiated and organized the meeting and invited people from across a wide array of different educational groups to come join in the discussion. There were individuals there from American Avalanche Institute, AIARE, National Avalanche School, National Ski Patrol, a variety of ski area folks. It was hosted at Alta.


“Ben Pritchett, who at that time was a program director for AIARE, and Don Sharaf, who is co-owner of American Avalanche Institute, each presented a brief look at what a new or different system could look like, and both of them had a split between recreationists and professional training at a certain point. So that was kind of the start of that discussion, and walking away from that meeting at the end of the day, AAA was tasked with overseeing a working group comprised of representatives from AAI, AIARE, the National Avalanche School, and our own American Avalanche Association AvPro course to work on a more detailed proposal of what this new framework for avalanche training in the U.S. could look like.”

The current avalanche education framework starts with basic Avalanche Awareness and progresses through Level 1 Avalanche training and Avalanche Rescue training as prerequisites prior to undergoing professional training (see Figure 1). At that point, a recreationist can take Level 2, or a pro can move into Professional Avalanche Training (Pro1 or Pro1 — NAS) and progress to Pro2, or move to Professional Avalanche Search & Rescue (ProSAR).

This pro/rec split is not going to have too much of an effect on current NSP Avalanche courses, according to NSP Avalanche Program Director Ed Carlson, who volunteered at the school.

“I think we’ve had a lot of discussions, and I think it’s going to be very minimal,” said Carlson. “We are going to focus on the recreation side plus the development with the NSP of instructors. So I don’t think it’s going to have much of an effect at all other than we’re following AAA guidelines, and those guidelines have changed as far as course format. So we’ll see a little bit of course format changes within the NSP.”

Some of the pro/rec split was reflected in the new prerequisites for the National Avalanche School. Prior to 2015, it wasn’t required that anyone attending the NAS have any prior avalanche education. Currently, in order to participate in NAS attendees must have an Avalanche Level 1, two years’ patrol work or mentoring by an avalanche professional, and companion rescue training or in-house training.

Each day of the 25th National Avalanche School began at 8 a.m. with lectures that generally ran till 10 a.m. At that point, the group would break into smaller workshop groups to do some practical work on the subjects that had been covered, such as snowpit graphing, a task made much easier by using, an online resource that allows patrollers to register and then enter snowpit data and render it. The rendered snowpits can be downloaded and shared.

Matt Chaffin, a member of the NSP Safety Team and a patroller at Park City Mountain Resort in Utah, really enjoyed working with Snowpilot. When asked about what he took away from NAS the most, Chaffin stated, “I think the automated or the online snowpits (Snowpilot). They’re very easy to use, and they’re very neat. They look really nice. And then kind of some of the information of training for rescue, making it as often and as real as possible so that people are ready for it and not running around when it does happen.”

Each day built off the other. Monday introduced the Conceptual Model of Avalanche Hazard, an industry standard that looks at the avalanche problem type, its location, the likelihood of triggering an avalanche, the destructive size, and, ultimately, the avalanche hazard. The class then moved on to mountain snowpack, avalanche formation and release and understanding the fracture mechanics involved in avalanches, and ended with snowpit analysis. The afternoon workshop tied it together by showing how using Extended Column Test results can show the potential for snowpack fractures to propagate and become avalanches.

“I’m really enjoying it just because it’s kind of been able to broaden my perspective on things just because being on support, you don’t get to see that much,” said Kara Flores, who has worked on the support team for snow safety at Winter Park Resort in Colorado and now will be on the full team. She added that the detailed aspect of avalanches is one thing she was very excited to take back to Winter Park. “I mean, we do it, but we don’t do it to the extent that we’ve kind of seen here, really looking at all that stuff out there almost the day before or like days before you go out there. … That’s the kind of stuff that I’ve never really thought of or been aware of, like SWE (snow water equivalent); I mean I’ve looked at density and that kind of stuff, but just really broadening my perspective on everything that really goes into avalanches.”

Tuesday’s concepts included weather data collection and looking at the snow water equivalent, avalanche hazard evaluation, and the use of explosives on the snowpack. The workshop sessions had each group determining the avalanche problem types at a ski area and the adjacent terrain and forecasting the potential avalanche hazard based on data from snowpits and the weather forecast.

Wednesday’s sessions started to get into the details of working avalanche mitigation. One of the morning lectures looked at 10 common mistakes that professionals make when working in avalanche terrain and applied that to three separate case studies of inbounds avalanche fatalities at a ski area in the West. Also discussed were how inbounds avalanches affect ski area operations and decisions about opening and closing terrain, and some of the ways that mitigation is done on major slide paths using a variety of methods. One interesting statistic is that 100,000 explosives are used annually to mitigate avalanches.

The workshop had the groups becoming avalanche forecasters and looking at a series of real avalanche hazards that occurred over a seven-day storm at an area. The group considered how and when to close terrain, how to mitigate potential problems that built up at this area, and how the storm characteristics (cold, then warm with a period of rain) changed the avalanche problem type the patrol would have to mitigate, and then compared the group’s decisions to what the mitigation team at the area actually decided.

Thursday’s topics included avalanche rescue technology and how it speeds efficiency in rescues, current thoughts regarding wet snow avalanches, and finally ended with how climate change may impact avalanche hazard and ski operations in general.

To pass the class, the students had to take two quizzes, one Wednesday afternoon and one Thursday morning, and then a final exam on Thursday afternoon. Everyone who attended the NAS found it an invaluable experience. The instructors all commented that this session featured some of the sharpest students they’d had.


“The wealth of knowledge here is amazing,” said Chaffin. “All the presenters are some of the best, most knowledgeable people in the industry, in the field, and we need to pass that information on because we’re not going to be here forever, so the knowledge needs to get pushed or shared to more and more people.”

Most of those who attended the classroom session planned to attend one of the field sessions this winter. NAS field sessions are open to students who passed not only the 2017 NAS, but the 2015 NAS classroom session. To earn the Pro1 — NAS designation, a person must attend both the classroom and field sessions. The field sessions will be conducted by AAI. For field session description, schedule, cost, and to sign up, students can go to the AAI website More information can be found on the NAS website at

“I guess I’m a big fan of trying to make sure that programs are very challenging and that the NSP represents the highest standards possible,” said Childs. “So I’m always very concerned when we have different programs from different regions or different divisions and things like that. I always feel like NSP really should be out on the forefront. That’s why I’m excited to see you guys here at this. I hope that every program we do represents the best of our ability and the highest quality standards possible.” +

This article was featured in the winter 2018 issue of Ski Patrol Magazine
By |2018-01-19T12:27:33+00:00November 19th, 2017|Safety, Ski Patrol Magazine|0 Comments

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