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Avalanche Education in the US-the REC/PRO Split

Last season, I had many students ask me about the upcoming "split" to avalanche education and training in the US. As I learned more via instructor refreshers and emails from the AAA & AIARE, I decided to create a post that clearly articulates the changes. Hope this helps!

First, to understand the split, you need to understand how Avalanche Education is structured and facilitated in the US.

Hx Preceeding the Split in US Avalanche Education and Training

From A3's website-

In October 2013 the American Avalanche Association hosted a meeting with a cross-section of avalanche industry representatives to discuss the question “Is there a need to revise the framework of avalanche education in the United States?” The group identified the following areas for improvement within the existing system:

  • Existing avalanche education courses mix professional and recreational students, particularly in Level 2 classes; separate courses for professionals and recreationalists may better meet the training needs of both groups.

  • Students in current Level 2 courses are not tested; a thorough evaluation process could allow for demonstration of course comprehension and skill development, especially valuable for professionals.

  • Some existing professional-level courses have parallel topics and learning outcomes yet no clear measure of equivalency; a common system for professional training could increase course consistency and provide clear course equivalencies.

  • Without a single, clear training progression it can be difficult for employers to evaluate the skills of prospective employees, and can sometimes result in redundant training; again, a common system for professional training could address these challenges.

  • Increased consistency in professional training could help improve workplace safety.

The participants at this meeting concluded that separate professional and recreational avalanche training streams could better achieve course outcomes and meet distinct training needs for both groups. A3 stepped into a leadership role to spearhead this project at the request of meeting participants.

Years of effort, lots of behinds the scenes trial and error mixed in with emotions of hopeful excitement and forboding....and now, "The Split" is here!


The AAA (The American Avalanche Association)

The AAA, aka the triple A or A3, is the leading avalanche training and development organization in the US.

From the A3 website:

A3 "certifies professional avalanche training programs to ensure programmatic quality, consistency and up-to-date curriculum content. The organization maintains avalanche education standards and scientific recording methodologies in the United States. A3 Guidelines for Avalanche Education in the United States provide a common framework for recreational and professional avalanche courses. These guidelines address courses like Avalanche Awareness, Level 1, Avalanche Rescue, Level 2, Pro 1, Pro 2, and ProSAR."

Quite simply, A3 sets the standards for competence. These are the guidelines that educators and instructional programs build their curriculum around. If I was to design an avalanche education program in the US, I'd look to the AAA guidelines for direction on what to teach. But if you're going to give someone a certificate that says they completed X level of training, that training had better include all of the requirements as articulated by the AAA for that level of instruction.

BUT....Where I teach, the activities I employ, the case studies I pick, the color jacket I wear...all of those determinations are made by the instructor (or the guide service/avalanche school they work for.) All of that is an educators' choice and that autonomy is pretty cool.

TL;DR The AAA articulates the standards for each level of avalanche instruction/certification in the US. Avalanche Educators and Instructional Organizations create & develop curriculum incorporating those standards.

Okay, the triple A establishes standards for training. Educational providers like AIARE, create curriculum that meets or exceeds those standards for instruction. AIARE is not the only provider building curriculum but it is the organization I have taught for since the early 2000s

More FYI-

From the American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education

AIARE develops and disseminates avalanche course materials to avalanche educators in the United States, South America and Europe. There are over 120 course Providers and 500 Instructors representing AIARE internationally.

We gather the latest knowledge, research, and ideas in avalanche safety and create avalanche training courses that reflect the needs of today’s backcountry travelers.

AIARE provides ongoing continuing education to our instructor group and instructors maintain currency by attending requisite continuing professional development courses on a regular basis.

We are a 501(c)3 nonprofit educational organization operating as such since 1998.

Our mission is to:

“Saving lives through avalanche education“


The specific goals of AIARE are:

  • Increase the public awareness of avalanches and avalanche safety.

  • Provide high quality avalanche education thereby enhancing public awareness and safety.

  • Provide avalanche instructors with the curriculum, training and tools with which to educate students about the knowledge, methods, and decision making skills necessary to travel in avalanche terrain.

  • Develop an international network of professional avalanche educators, and provide professional development in the form of instructor training and continued professional education.

  • Fund projects that develop avalanche course support materials for educators and students

TL;DR AIARE creates avalanche curriculum and is only one of the many organizations writing curriculum which mets or exceeds AAA standards. AIARE has been around since the late 90s and has a US/international presence. AIARE is the prominent curriculum offered by Colorado based, avy-ed programs

Even more FYI-

There are many groups who develop curriculum based on A3 standards. For 2018, Approved US Course Providers can be found here.

So here it is again.....The Split

How does the Split impact Recreational students?

If you're new to avy ed, you will not feel any ripples. You start with an awareness course and move on to your L1. BUT, post REC L1 is where the Split now calls for your participation in the Avalanche Rescue Training Course. Recreational students must complete and remain current with their Rescue Skills- this cert is also a prerequisite for L1 Rec students wishing to enroll in a Rec L2

This slide from AIARE illustrates the appropriate transition options available to students already in the old progression.

AGAIN, If you're L1 alumni, your next step is a one day Avalanche Rescue Course. It's a little trickier for L2 alumni from the old track. If you are L2 certified and you want to "bridge" over to the PRO track, you gotta take a bridge course-which will only be offered for the next two years. L3 alumni under the old ayatem migrate into the pro track at the L2 tier.

How does the Split impact Professional students?


Some Pro Perspective-

After completing the old US track, I followed up my Level Three with AIARE instructor and Course Leader Trainings and an AMGA Ski Guide course. In addition to these experiences, I counted on annual refreshers and re-certifications, in-house training with my employer and volunteer SAR assignments to keep my skills current, sharp and applied.

The message to those of us who completed the old track was that continued professional development was essential and you are responsible for constructing that plan!

IMO, A3 has improved this message with the release of the Pro Training Prior Learning Assessment Tool above. For Pros facing the Split, the tool is plug and play- Establish where you are at with your professional pedigree and go from there.

I'm personally excited to take PROAVSAR next season as part of my own professional growth!

Pro students also need to be aware who is offering Professional Certification that will be recognized nationally- A3 has developed an "alliance of six professional course providers" facilitating Pro Course offerings in 2018.

"We have been working collaboratively for years to develop a program of professional avalanche education in the United States. At this time, A3 recognizes Pro 1, Pro 1 Bridge, and Pro 2 courses from the six providers above who are proceeding through a rigorous review process. Our goal is to hone course quality and consistency amongst this initial group of pro providers before potentially expanding the program in the future. Other courses may still provide valuable training and/or continuing education, however, they are not recognized as part of the A3 Pro Training Program."

Alaska Avalanche School - Pro 1, Pro 1 Bridge

American Avalanche Institute - Pro 1, Pro 1 Bridge, Pro 2

American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education (AIARE) - Pro 1, Pro 1 Bridge, Pro 2

Colorado Mountain College Leadville - Pro 1 - CMC Avalanche Science Certificate format

National Avalanche School - Pro 1 - NAS format

Silverton Avalanche School - Pro 1, Pro 1 Bridge

Summary Thoughts-

As an educator, I like many things about the split. But here are my three favorite outcomes-

First, it's been clear for years that the training needs of your typical recreational user differ from those on a professional backcountry path.

​Second, I never understood why taking a Level One ten+ years ago gives one a level of confidence and competence.

The addition of the Avalanche Rescue Course, which will meet the specks for issuance of a ​​

I remember my first L1 training in the 90s- Back when there were still instructors taking about how the tides and lunar cycle influenced the snowpack.

A lot has changed since my first Level One in 1995 and if I had just relied on that training from decades ago, I'd still be walking a grid and searching on a 2.275 kHz frequency! Not to mention the liability I'd be to others in the backcountry. The point being, techniques and technology change rapidly. Students need to see Avy Ed as a continual journey of personal growth and skills development....not a one an done experience. And man, the 90s......

Finally, I love how the new system because it leaves the basics intact. Awareness training continues to be the bedrock of any student in the US. L1 training also remains intact.

I admit I'm a little biased here because L1s have historically been my favorite courses to teach. L2 was tough for me personally. A humanities guy, I had to work really hard to understand and absorb all the science in the L2 curriculum- lots of math, measurement and devices like Ram Penetrometers. For someone with lots of ADHD, mild dysgraphia and not predisposed to having great attention to detail, the focus required to record field observations to international SWAG specs was a total buzz kill. Trying to teach the old L2curriculum, when I personally found it so challenging as a student was even tougher. And it wasn't just the math.... there was always that one dude....

You see, in addition to WFR and entry level AMGA courses, the old Level Two was the first real step for students pursuing a professional path. L2 is where you encounter most aspiring outdoor educators and adventure guides trying to make a name for themselves and students typically war story, fight for airtime and essentially bogart already limited teaching time with their impulsive shit tests of the instructor and their classmates.....but I digress. The point here is the Split now gives pros their own ego affirming, name dropping, big word using training track. And the Rec L2 can now concentrate on refining communication, terrain and risk analysis, communication, etc. It will allow us as instructors to chose the demographic we want to work with which will help prevent burnout.

All of this is great, albeit very overwhelming and confusing when first digesting. Just typing this summary out what an exercise in perserverance and I know I'll revisit and refine this entry some more. As always, please reach out with your questions, comments and concerns.

As a professional member of the AAA and Course LEader for AIARE, I was able to quickly train up this fall as a KBYG instructor. Full disclosure,

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