Nakiska Mountain Resort

Avoiding and surviving avalanches 101

AST Level 1 course prepares you on and off the hill


Skiers at Fortress Mountain, Alberta
After the classroom the exploration continues out to Fortress Mountain for some field work
DOC POW/SnowSeekers

CANMORE, AB – After almost 20 years of playing around on the snow, it was time: I needed to get educated on avalanche safety and the art of backcountry travel. It’s not very often I get to sit in a desk for a day and listen to someone speak, so it was with great interest that I signed up for the Avalanche Safety Training (AST) Level 1 course offered through the University of Calgary.

Traveling out in the wilderness can yield a host of results. Some trips induce serious perma-grin with epic powder-filled runs, while others stop you dead in your tracks. AST Level 1 provides an introduction to the skills you need to know while traveling in the backcountry and starts your education on what you need to be on the lookout for.

The three causes of avalanche risk

“We need to be very conservative here in the Rockies as terrain and snow are complicated,” explained course conductor Albi Sole. Shaw has been at the helm of the University of Calgary’s Outdoor Adventure Centre for over 15 years and had been a certified mountain guide for almost the same amount of time. “Three things make up avalanche risk: the terrain, snow stability, and the people who are making the decisions.”

If you’re someone who has dropped a line at your favourite resort in the past in search of the POW without thinking of the potential dangers (we’ve all done it at least once), or are someone (like me) who is looking to get into the backcountry, this course is essential.  

AST1 course, Calgary Outdoor Centre
The AST1 course takes you into some fairly interesting territory.
DOC POW/SnowSeekers

Some of the big takeaways from the class day included the science of snow, terrain assessment, and the ‘human factor’. It can be weeks, even months, between planning a backcountry experience and actually bagging X peak or running X powder field. Just like any mountaineering adventure, you have to come in with an agenda (and utilitze it) to mitigate the ‘human factor.’

Humility over stupidity

For example, backcountry skiers or boarders will plan to accomplish X goal, and many refuse to leave without accomplishing it. But if the forces are not with you and conditions are not looking great, even if you have a bad feeling about things, you have to be able to turn to your group and say “it’s not right for us today, let’s go back.”  As Albi put it, it’s much better to be sitting around having some beers and laughs at the end of the day then to be working through your possible last call.

The courses are offered every weekend through the season and include a second, hands-on day that takes place out on the slopes of Fortess Mountain.

My colleague, Rick, has summarized this beautifully in this next piece. Follow the link below to read all about Day 2 and watch a video of our experience in the course.


Day 2 - The skills you need for surviving the backcountry


For more on the course, check out or for additional avalanche information and course listings for your area.  

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