It’s a pretty common question, “should I refresh my Level 1 avalanche course?” At the heart of it, we’re all asking something similar, "how often do I need a backcountry refresher?" It isn't always clear how or how often we should refresh our backcountry education in a formalized setting. Let’s take a look at three questions that can help us be life-long learners in the snow and develop a plan for growing our skills this winter.
What material or content do I need help with?
Sometimes it’s easy to look at avalanche education as a laundry list of topics to be memorized and regurgitated. However, at the foundation of all of our backcountry decisions is a basic level of understanding and knowledge of snow, terrain, avalanches, and group dynamics. Before the snow begins to fall, consider breaking out your student manual and review. What information do you feel comfortable with? What seems confusing? When you find gaps in your baseline knowledge seek out ways to fill these holes.
Read one of the many excellent books on snow and avalanches like, Avalanche Essentials by Bruce Tremper
Re-take a Level 1
Attend an NWAC Laying Tracks or Webinar on the subject
How do I apply information in my process each day?
Avalanche education isn’t about content, it’s about creating a process. As backcountry travelers, we want to develop a daily routine that systematically and repeatedly assesses information (the avalanche forecast, our group, observations), and applies this to where to travel (terrain selection) and where to avoid (terrain avoidance). If you’ve taken a Level 1 and you’re utilizing the process taught in these courses, then you’re on the right track! For you, it might be the right time to seek out feedback on your routine (see below) or take a Level 2. If you aren’t comfortable with the process taught in a Level 1, then there may be a few options.
Be intentional using your field book each and every day this season
Go out with a mentor
Re-take a Level 1
Where do I need targeted feedback?
Sometimes we feel pretty good about our knowledge, our skills, and our process, but we still know we want to grow and develop as backcountry travelers. This is where we ask for intentional feedback. Identify and target areas of your avalanche and travel skill set. Be specific. The more you narrow down where you want feedback, the more likely you are to find clear and actionable direction.
Travel with a mentor
Hire a guide or instructor
“Life-long apprenticeship in the snow”
As a novice forecaster, one of my mentors frequently used the term “life-long apprenticeship in the snow.” At the time, I didn’t recognize the value in his words. Today, I believe it was the ultimate lesson of his tutelage and I find myself reflecting on this sentiment frequently. This idea of embarking on a “life-long apprenticeship” emphasizes the need to appreciate the snowy journey that has embodied my life and career. This simple mindset is a daily reminder that:
I’m going to be doing this winter recreation thing for a long time.
There is always something to learn and skills to refine.
I will never master every aspect of it.
So, whether you’re new to the backcountry or a well-seasoned traveler, we all have something to refine and something to learn!
Postscript: Thoughts about re-taking a Level 1.
Why would I ever re-take an avalanche course? No matter how you slice it, there is a lot to learn in a Level 1 course. Add to that the potential stresses of unfamiliar equipment, large groups, and time pressure, and you can see why it can feel like “drinking from a firehose.” However, the fundamental routine taught in a Level 1 course is one of THE most applicable tools we can add to our backcountry tool belts. I frequently say, the Level 1 process is the foundation for my professional daily risk analysis, it’s 95% of what I do every single day. Investing the time and practice to become proficient at this process will take you a long way in your mountain adventures. So, instead of moving on, many of us may be better served to review and re-take, thereby increasing our mastery of the skills and process in a Level 1.
How can you make it different? Take it in a different location (or even a different snowpack) and from a different instructor. Changing the who, where, and how parts of the Level 1 can provide you with a new lens through which to view this information. At the end of the day, I've never had a student say they wish they hadn’t re-taken a Level 1.