Avalanche Evolution

By Molly Absolon, Photography by David Stubbs
Don Carpenter says he felt like he was drinking from a fire hose when he took his first formal avalanche class in 1993. More than twenty-five years later, Carpenter is a part owner of Jackson-based American Avalanche Institute (AAI), one of the premier avalanche education providers in the United States. He and his wife and business partner, Sarah, live in Teton Valley. These days AAI is helping the industry define what should come out of that proverbial fire hose and one of Carpenter’s goals is to slow the flow. To do that he, and the rest of the avalanche education industry, have revised the curriculum to better meet the needs of its students.

That revision began in 2014 when the leaders of the American avalanche industry, which included many Teton Valley and Jackson Hole professionals, concluded that it was time to overhaul the educational system to establish more consistency among providers and to cater to the different needs of recreational backcountry users and professionals like ski patrollers and guides. By 2019, those changes had been established, and theAmerican avalanche education industry reached a new level of professionalism across the country.

“Ten or fifteen years ago, it seemed like the more information we could present in a class the better,” Carpenter says. “Now, we are trying to boil things down to the essentials in our level one classes. You can only remember so much. We are trying to make the information more approachable, more accessible. It’s not like we are dumbing things down; rather, we want to filter out the noise and focus on the things that can kill you. That’s what you need to remember.”

Avalanche education began in the middle of the twentieth century as ski areas started to spring up in the West following World War II. Most of the early courses were geared toward protecting highways from slides, but as resorts moved into steeper, more avalanche-prone terrain, avalanche education began to evolve. A lot of that evolution took place in the Teton region, home to a notable concentration of leaders in the avalanche education field who were attracted here by easy access to the mountains and a consistently enviable snowpack.

The father of it all is Rod Newcomb, who in 1974 started the AAI in Jackson. AAI, which he sold in 2009 to Don Carpenter and his partners, Sarah Carpenter and Don Sharaf, is the oldest avalanche education provider in the United States. In those early days, there weren’t many other avalanche instructors or avalanche education providers in the country. A ski patroller at Snow King Mountain who had worked with forecasters in Utah andColorado, Newcomb saw a need and an opportunity, and he began offering training courses for patrollers and recreationists in the winter of 1974.

Reading AAI brochures from then is like reading a “Who’s Who” for the avalanche world at that time. The instructors were the era’s leading avalanche researchers, the heads of ski patrols from around the West, top forecasters and meteorologists, and highly respected mountain guides. If you skied in the backcountry, you knew their names. Newcomb relied heavily on these experts and says that in the beginning his curriculum was determined mainly by who was teaching a particular course and what his clients were looking for.

“My classes were based on what people would pay for and who I could get to teach,” Newcomb says. “Pretty quickly we started to get busy. As ski areas expanded into avalanche terrain, and people woke up to the fact that there was a hazard out there, we began to see more and more people looking for avalanche education and willing to pay for a course.”

The winter of 1985–86 marked a turning point in avalanche awareness, according to Ron Matous, who worked as a patroller at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort and taught avalanche courses for AAI from its beginning. Two of his colleagues, PaulDriscoll and Tom Raymer, were killed in avalanches while performing control work at the mountain that winter. In February, a slide in Glory Bowl buried two cars on Teton Pass. Later that month, a patroller fired four pounds of explosives into the Headwall at JHMR, triggering a massive avalanche that ran a mile and a half down the mountain, coming within two hundred feet of a house inTeton Village. Teton Pass was closed for more than two weeks because of avalanches, and the Snake River Canyon was blocked by avalanche debris fifty feet deep.

“Before that winter, forecasting was kind of seat-of-the-pants around here,” Newcomb says. “Afterwards, the patrol got on top of things.”

In the Tetons, avalanche education was pushed toward a more professional paradigm, but the curriculum continued to focus primarily on snow science.

“The shift came in the nineties,” Newcomb says. “Most of the science was well figured out by then. The new stuff being discovered was pretty esoteric. Avalanche education began to focus more on the human factor.”

Every year, on average, thirty people die in avalanche accidents in the United States. Most of these slides are triggered by the victim or by members of his or her party. Often those involved are well educated and highly experienced. They know snow, but they still end up in accidents. Why?

Usually it comes down to what researcher Ian McCammon called in a seminal paper published in 2004, “heuristic traps.” Heuristic traps, or human factors, are those nebulous things that color our perception of risk without us even recognizing their influence. (See Facets sidebar on page 65.) These traps, avalanche educators began to realize, were what they really needed to focus on in their courses to reduce fatalities.

“As a whole, in my thirty-two-year period of exposure to avalanche education, it’s evolved from a kind of ‘just the facts man,’ hard-science approach to an emphasis on the human variables that affect our decisions,” says Don Sharaf, who lives in TetonValley, co-owns AAI, and has worked as a forecaster and heli-ski guide in Alaska.

Sharaf got into avalanche education back East, but he moved West to work for the National OutdoorLeadership School (NOLS) and served as its winter program coordinator in TetonValley from 1994 until 1999. It was a new position at that time, created after a NOLS student died in an avalanche on a winter course in the Absaroka Range, north of Jackson, in 1993. An analysis of the accident revealed a breakdown in communication among instructors. In response, Sharaf and NOLS revamped the winter program, and the avalanche training its instructors received, to put more emphasis on communication and decision making. That shift in focus filtered into courses taught by AAI and other providers as NOLS instructors moved into the field and began teaching avalanche courses, and as social scientists started to examine the importance of considering the “human factor” in avalanche incidences in their research.

Demand for courses was growing rapidly at the same time as gear improved and the seductive lure of untracked powder spread.

“Avalanche education became more important as gear got exponentially better,” Sharaf says. “People’s apprenticeship in the mountains got shorter because suddenly they could ski in avalanche terrain. Back when I started in flimsy boots and skinny skis with three-pin bindings, it took a long time to get proficient. Skiing Glory Bowl was not in a first-year skier’s repertoire, [but] now skiers can achieve that quickly.”

The growth in winter backcountry recreation was mirrored by a growth in the number of avalanche education providers offering training. Many of the courses taught were innovative and effective, but no overarching body provided oversight or ensured consistency among providers, meaning a graduate of an AAI course in the Tetons might walk away with a different knowledge set than someone who took a course from another provider in Colorado or California.

Tom Murphy, the operations director of the American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education (AIARE), told Powder Magazine in2014 that avalanche education had a “closed loop” problem in the early 2000s.“The flow of information from region to region was restricted. We weren’t able to learn from each other and share ideas and concepts,” he is quoted as saying in the article.

“Everyone was playing in their own sandbox,” says Driggs resident Lynne Wolfe, a longtime avalanche educator and editor of the American Avalanche Association’s Avalanche Review.“Rod [Newcomb] was the first one to recognize that we needed guidelines. … A bunch of us worked on them, and we established some consistency in 1999. But still we were all teaching things in different ways.

“Then, at the InternationalSnow Science Workshop in Banff in 2014, the Canadians raised the issue of professional risk,” Wolfe continues. “My takeaway was that we—the American avalanche education industry—needed to implement some consistency in our avalanche education system before it was forced on us, before the federal government began regulating us.”

The American AvalancheAssociation, known as A3, was tasked with implementing the change, and Jaime Musnicki, a Teton Valley resident who’d taken over as executive director of the organization in 2013, assumed leadership of the effort. She began her avalanche career working for NOLS, and Don Sharaf and Lynne Wolfe were early mentors. She credits both of them with advancing the field.

“Lynne asks people to think and ask questions; she pushes folks,” Musnicki says. “And that’s important. Don is highly respected for his great combination of practical experience guiding and forecasting and his ability to translate that experience into education.They have had a lot of influence on the field.”

Musnicki says avalanche educators recognized that, in an interconnected world, it was important for people to speak the same language and have a common baseline of training. Furthermore, it was becoming increasingly clear that professionals—patrollers, forecasters, and guides—needed a different set of skills from recreationalists when it came to avalanche training. The pros needed the hard science; the recreationalists needed to recognize avalanche terrain and know how to make good decisions to avoid being involved in an accident.

“There has been a realization that, while the science is important for sure, having an understanding and foundation for making good decisions is really what matters for most backcountry skiers,” Musnicki says. “People are not involved in avalanche incidents due to faulty science. They are involved for being human. Human factors cloud our vision.”

In 2014, A3 began overseeing the reconfiguration of avalanche education in the United States out of Musnicki’s home office near Victor. The goal was to develop curriculum for two educational tracks: a professional track and a recreational track. According to the plan, all providers would use the same curriculum for their courses.

As of winter 2018–19, all avalanche students begin their training with a basic level-one course that covers topics such as what causes avalanches, how weather affects conditions, what is avalanche terrain, how to rescue someone caught in a slide, and how to communicate and make decisions effectively in the backcountry. At the next level—level two—students now opt to pursue either the recreational or the professional track. Recreational level twos cover basic snow science and rescue, and teach participants how to dig snow pits to test snow conditions, but the emphasis is on communication, leadership, recognizing avalanche terrain, and using the avalanche forecast to determine where it’s safe to ski in any given condition. The professional track includes information on decision making and leadership, but also dives deeper into snow metamorphosis, avalanche mechanics, weather, and forecasting. Pro-track students spend a lot of time analyzing snow in pits, and their performance in the course is evaluated, allowing the results to be used as a credential for career advancement.

The shift to the two-track system has not been without its difficulties. Change is always challenging and some providers, like AAI, have been teaching courses for nearly fifty years.But most people in the industry believe the restructuring is working, and the quality of avalanche training has improved across the board. Numbers seem toreflect this, as avalanche fatalities in the United States have leveled off in recent years, despite increases in the number of winter recreational users.

“Avalanche deaths have plateaued,” says Kate Koons, the professional training coordinator for A3. “In the education world, we like to believe it’s education that has resulted in this improvement. We can’t prove that’s true, but we like to think so, especially since there are so many opportunities now for people to get training.”

Despite the recent move toward consistency in avalanche curricula, providers like AAI continue to have freedom to put their own fingerprint on the programs they offer. AAI’s Sarah Carpenter is particularly excited about her organization’s efforts to use social media to help expand the effectiveness of its educational mission. These efforts are particularly useful for local skiers, since AAI’s base in the Tetons means that many of its social media posts reference Teton Pass or Grand Teton National Park.

“As technology continues to improve, we are adapting to a mobile platform so people can use their phones to get information,” Sarah says.“We post snowpack updates and videos of snow pits, and have built an online avalanche awareness course. We offer online prep classes to help people get ready for their courses. They can go back and use the prep videos after the course, as well. These efforts have really improved student outcomes, so hopefully when people come to take a course it’s less of a fire-hose effect.”

AAI has also developed a youth program in conjunction with Teton County, Wyoming, schools, the Jackson HoleSki and Snowboard Club, the Bridger-Teton National Forest, Exum Mountain Guides, and the Steve Romeo Foundation (Teton Valley residents Steve Romeo and Chris Onufer died in an avalanche on the north side of Waterfalls

Canyon near Ranger Peak inGrand Teton National Park in 2012).

“Avalanche education is like giving someone the keys to the castle,” Sarah says. “It unlocks the backcountry in a way. It’s cool to think we are able to share that, but it also comes with a big responsibility.

“All three of us—Don [Sharaf], Don [Carpenter], and myself—share a passion for education, a passion for snow, and a love for where we live,” she says. “We have such easy access to the backcountry here. If we continue to be stewards, we can maintain that and share these big, beautiful mountains.”