Why do ski instructors need to learn about avalanches?

Sam Taylor digging a snow pit checking for avalanches with BASI 1 and BASI 2 instructor trainees

Digging a snow pit to check the snow layers.

When looking at ski instructor courses, you’re likely to notice that almost every course includes an element called “avalanche / mountain safety” or similar. So why do trainers think that learning about avalanches is relevant to instructors who usually work on the piste? Sam Taylor explains all.

The simple reason is that snow is unpredictable and dangerous. With the growing popularity of skiing off-piste we need to make sure that we are best prepared as possible and one of the first steps is taking an avalanche awareness course.

If anyone ever tells you they know everything about avalanches and the dangers of skiing off-piste, they are sorely mistaken. Its a constant learning process and should be continuously revised and practiced. This is one of the reasons why we include it in our BASI 1&2 Residential courses, ISIA Programmes and ISTD Training.

What will we cover?

It’s best to start at the beginning! In the sessions we cover the basics of whats needed to ski off-piste. This includes what the kit required is, how to use it, understanding the weather and how it affects the snow. We also cover group management as this is something people often forget – you could have all the knowledge and tools but if your group is scattered all over the mountain, you’re going to have difficulties.

How do we learn?

We will spend time learning how to use a transceiver, shovel and probe. These are the most important bits of kit when skiing off-piste. Not having even just one of them could cost someones life if you or them are caught in an avalanche. So we take time to practice, practice and practice some more.

One of the best ways to see what the snow is doing is digging a snow pit. You can see an exmaple of this in the top picture. This allows us to look at the layers and see how consolidated they are. We can test this by doing a “shear” test to see for ourselves how weak or strong the layers are. It involves credit cards, strangely enough!

Once we have had plenty of time with the kit you will be expected to a search and recover a transceiver hidden under the snow. Even with your new knowledge it’s harder than it looks.

Following this we shall look at the weather, snowfall, temperature, wind direction, slope orientation, and the terrain. All of these are different triggers that can cause avalanches, so spotting the danger signs and using discretion is vital. Furthermore knowing the importance of how you even being on the mountain affects the snow is really important. We want to prevent the simple mistake of an avalanche being triggered by a member of the group you’re with.

Sam Taylor BASI ISTD Level4 explaining snow pits to students on the avalanche course

It’s always important to keep an eye on conditions, even when training.

How do we put this into practice safely?

Now we have an understanding on how to use the kit and make an educated guess if its safe to ski offsite, we can go get stuck in. But we never rush into off-piste –  there are still many things to consider before heading into the backcountry;

  • Do we have a safe number of people in the group?
  • Do they all know how to use the kit? Are all transceivers on and have full batteries?
  • Are there terrain traps to consider?
  • Where are our “safe” places to stop?

The questions don’t stop once we set off – it’s a constant process of analysing the conditions, managing the group and making sure everyone is safe.

So why is this essential to you?

First of all, all skiers should have a basic understanding of the mountain the ski on. It’s common sense – you wouldn’t start driving without knowing the rules of the road!

Secondly, if you wish to continue your career as a ski instructor, you’l be expected to pass Mountain Safety exams at BASI Levels 3 and 4.

Lastly, once you’re an instructor, you may have clients who want to ski off-piste. So the ski school needs to be confident you have the skills and knowledge required – otherwise they will pass your clients to someone who knows their stuff. Ultimately you are in charge of looking after their safety – this is a lot of responsibility so making sure you are prepared and have the knowledge is key.

Being confident and prepared for off-piste comes with experience, so it’s best to start learning ASAP and importantly, refresh your knowledge whenever you can. At New Gen this is why we want to make sure you have all the tools you need to become the best instructor you can possibly be, and you and your clients being safe is our number 1 priority.

I’m looking forward to skiing with you this winter! Check out our courses to see how you can join us on an off-piste adventure.

Sam Taylor skiing off piste with gap students