Your buddy took an avalanche-education course in Utah, you took one in Tahoe, and somehow your rescue skills aren't on the same level. Here's why: Unlike Canada and Europe, the U.S. has no standardized curriculum for avalanche education - despite the fact that the American Avalanche Association established guidelines for avalanche classes in 1998. Take a class in Reno and you might learn a risk management system. Do your studies in New Hampshire and your decisions might be based on the red-light, green-light school. What you don't have is a guarantee that your ski buddy is up to speed on the quickest, most effective ways to save your hide.
The American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education (AIARE) is looking to change that. "We need to continue to look at new research on how people learn and why they get in avalanche accidents," says AIARE's executive director, Tom Murphy. "Some avalanche educators think standards will be too rigid, but when it comes to avalanches and powder fever, you've got to have a common ground."
AIARE focuses its curriculum on a decision-making framework in which backcountry skiers plan alternative options - say, skiing a mellower, 25-degree slope instead of that avy-prone bowl. Currently, 34 programs in the U.S. use AIARE handbooks, which include a pre-trip decision-making flowchart that you fill out before breaking trail.
"This program was developed from the guide-level down," says instructor and former American Mountain Guides Association president Dick Jackson. "It's a fresh approach. The old way assumed that someone in a Level I course didn't know enough to learn the decision-making process. AIARE is just the opposite - it's very hands-on."
For more information, see avtraining.org.