The Avalanche Skills Training (AST) Level 1 course is the absolute minimum level of education for winter backcountry users and should be taken BEFORE entering any avalanche terrain. Some providers offer an option for an additional half day of field time (AST 1+) which is slightly more expensive. There are some great providers of this course in the Sea to Sky Corridor.
The AST 1 is the introductory course that over 8000 people take every year in Canada. Candidates learn the basics of how snow slabs form, how these layers are triggered and how to locate and rescue a buried friend. Instructors also touch on trip planning, decision making and interpreting resources such as the daily Avalanche Canada bulletin. It’s important to note that the AST 1 does not qualify people for entering complex terrain, it gives them sufficient knowledge and awareness to stay in the green zone of the Avaluator tool.
The amount of experience required to get the most out of the AST 2 course can be different for each person. Altus recommends at least 20 days of ski touring which can take one to two seasons depending on how often you tour. The AST 2 is a higher commitment in time and money and has significantly more field time, up to four days. The investment is definitely worth it if you plan on skiing or sledding in complex terrain or venturing into regions that have little avalanche data.
“Skilled skiers and riders who want to venture into challenging or complex terrain should push on to the AST 2. But mentorship is also very important. Anybody that’s serious about winter backcountry travel should find a mentor who they can throw questions to and receive helpful insight from.” — Mitch Sulkers, AST instructor and Curriculum Development Consultant for Avalanche Canada
It may have been years since you last did an AST course and you may be looking for an alternative instead of repeating the same course. Avalanche Canada has this covered with a couple of single-day courses that can give your backcountry education and knowledge a seasonal boost. Sulkers says both of these courses are very underutilized, having enrollments in the hundreds compared to more than 10,000 per year for the AST courses.
The Companion Rescue Skills (CRS) course is a self rescue refresher that teaches how to prioritize, organize, and hone your search, probe, and shovel skills. Great for AST 1 graduates looking to raise their confidence during a worst-case scenario and gain familiarity with the latest transceiver technology and rescue techniques. This course does not need to be on a mountain; it can be held on a soccer field in November, for example (snow coverage permitting).
The Managing Avalanche Terrain (MAT) course is when a group of backcountry skiers contract an avalanche professional to oversee how the party manages risk, terrain and decisions. The party plans and leads the trip then receives feedback throughout and at the end of the day. A MAT course can be done through an Avalanche Canada course provider or can be tailored specifically by contracting a private ski guide who has an interest in educational field days.
For online resources, the Avalanche Canada website is a treasure trove. The Avy Savvy microsite has detailed online courses suitable for beginner to intermediate level backcountry travellers. The Learn tab on the Avalanche Canada website has content geared specifically for snowmobilers and enough webinars and case studies to keep you going all winter.
For those who appreciate old fashioned books, Staying Alive in Avalanche Terrain by Bruce Tremper is considered the bible among AST instructors. The book comes free with your AST 2 and is worth reading every fall before the snow flies.
“Tremper wrote the bible on avalanche safety. It’s super readable, entertaining and presented in a great style. If people want to get into it seriously, Staying Alive in Avalanche Terrain is the book they want.” — Mitch Sulkers, AST instructor and Curriculum Development Consultant for Avalanche Canada
If you intend on extending your avalanche education even further or are looking to work in a commercial backcountry operation, the Canadian Avalanche Association (CAA) Operations Level 1 course is about as comprehensive as it gets. It takes seven days to complete, costs between $1,500 and $3,000 (depending on the accommodation and hut fees) and courses often fill up months in advance. You learn the intricacies of snow science and how to meticulously dig and assess snow pits — far more than in the AST courses.