Why Do We Have Lots of Avalanche Gear but Little Avalanche Education?

Miles Clark | BackcountryBackcountry | AvalancheAvalancheFeatured ArticleFeatured Article
Backcountry skiing avalanche terrain in Hakuba, Japan.  photo: miles clark
Backcountry skiing avalanche terrain in Hakuba, Japan. photo: miles clark

Avalanche gear has been flying off the shelves the past 6 years.  Probes, beacons, shovels, skins, touring bindings, backpacks, you name it, we’ll buy it.  It’s great that skiers and riders are buying backcountry gear.  It’s wonderful that people are looking for new ways to connect with the outdoors.  It’s unforgivable that we aren’t educating these new backcountry users to the dangers of what avalanches can do in a backcountry setting.

Backcountry Equipment sales 200
Backcountry Equipment sales 2004-2009 show significant grow in both AT (alpine touring) boots and bindings

Backcountry has been the fastest growing segment of the skiing industry for years now.  It’s been a huge boost to ski-industry numbers and retailers are rejoicing.  The problem is that we aren’t properly educating enough of these backcountry users to the dangers and realities of deadly avalanches.

“…there are around 650-thousand backcountry skiers; conservatively half a mil, maybe more.” – Craig Dosite/wildsnow.com


The truly frightening part is that as backcountry equipment sales rise so do avalanche deaths.  This may not be a 1 to 1 direct ratio, but there’s no denying that backcountry gear sales are up, backcountry use is up, and avalanche deaths are up.

“Before 1980, it was unusual to have more than 10 avalanche deaths in the United States each winter. There were 34 last season [2011/12], including 20 skiers and snowboarders.” – John Branch/New York Times

avalanche deaths in usa

We got the gear part right.  Now, we need to get the education part right.  Should avalanche gear not be available to anyone who can’t show proof of avalanche education?  No, but we do need to create a system where people can get educated about avalanche terrain more easily.

What we’re all looking for out there.
What we’re all looking for out there.  skier: jordi tenas. photo: txematrull.com

Currently, there are no reliable numbers on how many people have received avalanche training in the USA.  I called up my Avy 3 course instructor, Colin Zacharias, and asked him if he knew approximately how many people have avalanche education in North America:

“That’s a very difficult number to come up with for a few reasons.  There are so many different organizations offering classes in North America on top of the fact that some people are getting their education on other continents.” – Colin Zacharias, instructor technical director of the American Institute for Avalanche Research & Education

Valdez, Alaska.  photo: miles clark
Why we go into the backcountry.  Valdez, Alaska. photo: miles clark

We’d love to show you a graph displaying avalanche gear sales next to avalanche education classes taken, but it just doesn’t exist.  Even without the graph, it’s reasonable to estimate that the sales far outpace the education.  It’s easy to throw down your credit card and buy a piece of shiny new gear.  It’s hard to make time for a 3 day avalanche course.

The real question is:  What do we need to do to fix the problem?  How can we get more skiers, snowboarders, climbers, snowmobilers, and snowshoers to take an avalanche course?  The media has tried scaring us with stories of horrible, deadly avalanches and it’s not enough.

Goryu Japan.  photo: mark virgin
Goryu, Japan avalanche terrain. skier: miles clark. photo: mark virgin

“What we’ve inadvertently done is sell all this great gear to people, which pumped them into the backcountry in never seen before numbers, with no avalanche education.” – Avalanche course instructor

We need a simple system that makes avalanche education accessible, straightforward, affordable, and frequent.  The classes that already exist are fantastic, we just need to get people into them & in much larger numbers.

big avalanche terrain in Las Leñas, Argentina.  photo: sierra bourne
big avalanche terrain in Las Leñas, Argentina. skier: miles clark. photo: sierra bourne

I understand that creating a system to educate backcountry users about the dangers of avalanches will be difficult.  Until one is created, people are going to continue to die in backcountry avalanches in ever increasing numbers.  I know that avalanche education doesn’t keep everyone out of avalanches every time, but having some education is a lot better than having none at all out there.  We’ve got to figure out how to balance the strong avalanche gear sales with even stronger avalanche education numbers.



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9 thoughts on “Why Do We Have Lots of Avalanche Gear but Little Avalanche Education?

  1. You need education to gain experience, and you need experience to apply your education. They compliment each other and are enhanced when used together. Do yourself a favor and strive for both. Continue to attend clinics and professional development seminars after your education as well. There is new information every year and the experts are still evolving and learning and the truth is that their really is no experts on the subjects and an expert most likely won’t tell you they are an expert.

    I just found this piece and I wrote something similar about 2 years prior to this, not as detailed but the media outlets I presented it too didn’t believe my concerns nor did they want to hear it, they were too busy selling gear and making money.

    Play safe kids.

    “Their are old skiers, and bold skiers, but their are no old, bold skiers” same goes for climbers 😉

  2. Miles had contacted me earlier in the week when he was writing this piece and asked for numbers of participants in AIARE avalanche courses. I’ve been out of the office and just today compiled those numbers via our database. We have begun to keep track of these numbers the past 2 years:
    Season 2011-12 – AIARE 1 Students – 3,013 – AIARE 2 Students – 381
    Season 2012-13 – AIARE 1 Students – 3, 200 – AIARE 2 Students – 371 (all rosters have not been submitted so the numbers for this season will increase somewhat)
    Anecdotally we know that interest and attendance at avalanche safety courses has risen over the past 10 years.

  3. An interesting graph would be of the people that have died in an avalanche, how many had education? Is it mostly the uneducated that are being swept away? This has been my first backcountry season on skis and I did my AST1 at the beginning of it. That course is only the tip of the iceberg though in terms of knowledge and is possibly “just enough knowledge to get you into trouble”. Attending a course might give a person a false sense of being knowledgable, whereas I have had to do a LOT of my own research the whole season and I still feel under prepared. Ultimately it is down to the individual to prepare themselves and treating a single course as a cure to the problem is a start, but definitely not the end of the education required.

  4. There’s still a gap btwn knowledge and practice that needs to be addressed as well. I’m not saying that there’s no need to educate all these people venturing into the backcountry, but that once they get the education, how likely are they to actually apply the learning out there? I’ve seen way too many professional, knowledgeable skiers trigger avalanches b/c the instant gratification of skiing pow or something gnarly has dominated their judgment.

  5. I do agree that education isn’t everything but that is why these courses are mostly practical.theres not much value in experience if you don’t learn something from it AND understand what you are doing. These courses give you a lesson in risk management, methods to understand your environment and give you the tools to assess the situation you are putting yourself and others in. To be frank, if you don’t know what you are doing and how to get yourself out of a situation you have no business putting my friends and myself in danger by skiing the backcountry. In my opinion it’s all about trust and your friends you ski with, I trust them that they have taken their course and have the experience they need. If I cause an avalanche I can’t do much ,but need to know they will try their best and know what they are doing without putting themselves at risk.
    If you go of by yourself, noone around and no one you can put at risk.. By all means skip class and I hope you don’t kill yourself.. But the moment you risk putting others in harms way.. As I said before.. If you ain’t got the know how then it’s a no go..
    Look at scuba diving.. We can’t rent gear/tanks without showing our license.. Why NOT have the same for backcountry?

  6. There’s a point here. I’ve got all gear and good experience but no formal education.

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