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Sliding toward a snow and avalanche studies certificate

First cohort of students in Fort Lewis College working through new program
Andy Gleason stops at the Swamp Angel study plot near Red Mountain Pass with students in the Fort Lewis College snow studies course. The course is one of seven classes required in the Snow and Avalanche Studies certificate program. (Reuben M. Schafir/Durango Herald)

RED MOUNTAIN PASS The wind gusted with such strength that J. Andy Gleason had to shout directions to the students in his class.

“Who looked at the forecast?” he asked.

Winds were gusting from the south up to 40 mph that morning, one student answered.

Gleason, a senior lecturer of geosciences at Fort Lewis College, is a former highway avalanche forecaster with the Colorado Avalanche Information Center. The classroom for his lab is not typical – his students show up to the lab not with notebooks and laptops, but with backcountry skis and avalanche beacons.

Max Shull, a junior at FLC, pulls out his avalanche transceiver and walks inside the circle of a dozen students, stopping at each to check that their device is transmitting. The group discusses the impacts the wind will have on snow conditions, and then the group begins their trudge up into the Senator Beck Basin.

Terrain assessment and slope angle – that was the topic of discussion for the day. Less than 100 yards down the skin track, Gleason stopped the class, pointed to a small rollover and asked how steep it was.

Eli Golzar Anderson guessed 31 degrees.

Others estimated it to be as steep as 40 degrees, but nobody got the answer right: 32 degrees.

Max Shull, a student in the Fort Lewis College snow studies course, performs a beacon check with one of his classmates before a ski tour on April 5 near Red Mountain Pass. (Reuben M. Schafir/Durango Herald)

All of these uncommon classroom accoutrements and procedures are a part of Gleason’s snow science course, which is one of seven required classes in FLC’s new Snow and Avalanche Studies Certificate program.

Three students in his course – juniors Shull, Golzar Anderson and Liz Wallentine – are among the first cohort on track to earn the certificate upon their graduation next year. Although all three are majoring in adventure education, the program is open to students of any major.

Few schools have a program specializing in the science of avalanches, designed to produce graduates with the formal academic training for a career in ski patrol, guiding or avalanche forecasting. The program is a “micro-credential” – something less intensive than a minor that students can achieve in addition to a major course of study.

Aaron Ball, the operations coordinator and a senior lecturer in FLC’s adventure education department, spent several years developing the certificate program based on his own experience as an avalanche educator and a handful of similar programs around the country. FLC’s location and existing adventure education department made the SAS program a natural fit.

“The San Juans are an amazing mountain range (and) our snowpack is interesting,” he said. “… We really are well positioned to help propel students who are at this stage in their life and development into the snow and avalanche industry.”

“When I came into the field, most of the folks were old ski patrollers,” instructor Andy Gleason said. “… I was one of the few who had studied it academically as well.” (Reuben M. Schafir/Durango Herald)

Colorado sees the lion’s share of avalanche fatalities compared to other states (although it also has a high number of people who recreate in the backcountry), and the San Juan Mountains have a notorious reputation for their fickle snowpack.

“It really teaches us to make good decisions,” Wallentine said as she skinned back toward the trailhead. “And that’s a huge part of the course and the classes we’re taking. The pressure is real.”

Snow and avalanche education can prepare students for a number of careers that have, historically, been accessible primarily to those with persistent personal interest in the topic. When Gleason joined the CAIC in 1995, he had completed graduate work on snow mechanics and worked on ski patrol.

“When I came into the field, most of the folks were old ski patrollers,” Gleason said. “… I was one of the few who had studied it academically as well.”

Eli Golzar Anderson, a student in the Fort Lewis College snow studies course, backcountry skies during class off Red Mountain Pass. (Reuben M. Schafir/Durango Herald)
A recent avalanche on April 2 above Lime Creek near U.S. Highway 550. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

But the job market has changed since then. Forecasters are generally required to have a bachelor’s degree related to the work, if not a master’s, and guide services are increasingly looking for candidates with formal education and certifications as well.

Three of the seven courses required to earn the certificate are avalanche education classes accredited by the American Avalanche Association. Students graduate with certifications from the avalanche level 1 and rescue class, avalanche level 2, and professional avalanche level 1 courses.

The cost of these courses often nears or exceeds $1,000 each, but students working toward the certificate receive a highly subsidized rate.

“It’s amazing,” Shull said of the certifications.

The certificate program is built around what Ball describes as a clear progression in skill building and education that is centered in the backcountry environment.

The three students in Gleason’s snow science course who are also in the SAS program said the courses focus not only on the science of snow and avalanches, but on group management too. One course focuses entirely on advanced winter backcountry travel and management.

Max Shull collapses his avalanche probe during class near Red Mountain Pass. (Reuben M. Schafir/Durango Herald)

“The idea is to immerse them in snow and avalanche operation and have them start to understand what are the ins and outs of a program like that – how do they implement their own risk management practices and do their own snowpack analysis, etc., etc.,” Ball said.

For students like Wallentine, who did not grow up skiing or did not spend time in the backcountry before college, this element of the program builds confidence.

“You can learn everything you need to know getting the snow and avalanche cert.,” she said.

The first six students are scheduled to graduate with a Snow and Avalanche Studies Certificate next year.


“You can learn everything you need to know getting the snow and avalanche cert.,” Liz Wallentine, a student in the Fort Lewis College snow studies course, said. The junior is working toward a certificate in Snow and Avalanche Studies. (Reuben M. Schafir/Durango Herald)