Introduction and comments by Kate Koons • Article by Bill Mark

This coming winter marks the fourth winter of running pro courses. If you are already in the industry or aspiring to be, you have probably either taken a course or are planning to do so. If you are anything like me, taking a professional level course with multiple assessment components makes me instantly start hyperventilating. Years ago, when I took my Level 3 course, I failed my rescue exam the first time through. Before the exam’s start, nervous and anxious, I had sweated through my base layers (it was in the teens). The reality was that I had not practiced enough. So I flailed. Lucky for me, I had a second chance. I asked to not have folks watch me, I took a break in between other testers and came back and did just fine. If I could do it all over again, I would have practiced way more than I thought I needed to. I spent lots of time digging pits because this is what I thought I needed to do. Yet the reality is rescue is the one thing we need to be able to pull out of our toolkit when we least expect and we better nail it.

Many students and aspiring students want to know what they can do to prepare for a pro course. Pro courses are demanding, expensive, and at times can feel stressful. And they are also fun! Both as a teacher and a student, I always enjoy meeting people from all over and learning from everyone. Education is one of the best ways to prepare for any eventuality, and as an avalanche professional, we juggle lots of variables, so taking a pro course is a worthwhile investment.

Bill Mark wrote the following article for the CAA Avalanche Journal years ago and agreed to let us use it here; it is just as pertinent today as it was back then. I’ve also asked the A3 Pro Course Providers to chime in with some advice on how best to prepare. Bill’s original text is below; my additions are italicized.

Be Prepared: The 6 Ps

Prior Planning Prevents Piss Poor Performance. Be prepared, practice and train, well ahead of the course.

We have all likely heard this before. It is an old adage from the British Army. Also known as the 5 Ps, 6 Ps, or 7 Ps. Moral of the story, planning ahead rarely is a bad idea. Sean Zimmerman-Wall, Pro Course Director of AIARE says “Take care of personal logistics early. Taking a professional level course also means taking your planning to the next level. If you are traveling several states away, consider things like lodging and meals. Beyond the additional costs of these items, there is the mental load and physical duress that comes with scrambling to eat every night or waking up in the back of your truck when it is -10F. Consider sharing resources with other students through meal prep, carpooling, and accommodations. Having a place to study and sleep every night is essential during one of these intensive courses. You may also look to see if a course is being offered out of a lodge/hut and includes a meal plan. While this adds upfront cost, the payoff during the course is huge. Anything you can do to increase your mental bandwidth is well worth the investment.”

Get a Training Buddy and Make a Regular Schedule

Ideally it’s someone who’s going to the same course so there’s some additional motivation. It might be someone who’s training for a lower or higher level course, that’s OK too as the sharing of information will help. Often more experienced folks like to participate and assist, see mentorship below.

Make sure you are training on the right things, to the right standard for the course you are about to take (see below).

You may be lucky enough to take a course with a friend or colleague so they can be a perfect partner with whom to train. Or, go out with a friend and have them challenge you during rescue practice or in new terrain.

Standards and Systems: When In Rome…

Find out exactly what is required, standards and course objectives. Start with the A3 website: Talk to someone who has just taken (and ideally passed) the course.Talk to a current instructor (one who has worked in the last 12 months). Find out who you need to talk to ensure you are training to the correct standard and methods or techniques for that course. (Also see Hire a Pro below.) 

Certain organizations have certain standard ways (techniques) of doing things. Be it the CAA, CSGA or ACMG, find out and learn the standard systems and techniques the organization conducting the course uses. Practice and perform this method so you can do it in your sleep, then perform during the course and most importantly on the exam. This is especially relevant for hard skills such as rope systems.

Even the best prepared person might get corrected or shown a different way by an instructor when you perform the skill on the course in a non exam setting. Don’t be defensive or make excuses, you’ve been given a gift on how you can pass the course (shut up and listen). Listen, observe and make that correction when you perform the skill next time.

Yes, I know your way might be a way better tool, you might be quicker or more efficient, but do it the way the organization and instructors want it done, then you will increase the chance you’ll pass. If you really hate the method so much, once you’ve passed the course you can volunteer to be on the standards or technical committee then you can contribute to the change! Often if we think about it the different methods achieve the same goal, but on a course, do what the examiner wants, it’ll help you pass. Examiners want you to pass.

Pro courses are intense, and they are wonderful learning opportunities. The most effective teachers are the ones that keep on learning. Sarah Carpenter, of the American Avalanche Institute agrees, saying “Courses should also be learning opportunities. Remember this. You are not always being tested so clarify testing times vs. pure learning times.”

Get a Mentor Early

If you know you are going on a course, find someone (or a few folks) that you can talk to. It is worth finding someone you can share your mistakes and be able to open up to. You may want to consult a more experienced person, who may be available to debrief your day of work in the mountains from time to time especially after significant events.

Don’t wait until the month before the course, start the season before. Mentors are a great way to become a better mountain professional and to successfully pass courses. Experience has shown those who find experienced mentors often perform better at courses (and make better decisions). You may have a number of mentors on different topics. They can be at your workplace, in your hometown, or on the phone. Try using your spouse as a sounding board.

This not only pertains to pro courses. We could all do with having mentors in our life for a variety of reasons. Seek out someone you respect and like, but also someone that can challenge you. Often our best mentors are the ones that push us to our finest and most effective learning edges.

Personal Reflection

Take the opportunity to look at your work day in the mountains and reflect on what you did well today and what might you have been able to do better? For some, making notes helps. During the CAA L2 Module 1 program, students are urged to use learning journals, this works for some and not others. The key is to think and learn on a daily basis. Debrief your day with others (See “Get a Mentor Early” above.)

Jim Donovan, Director of Silverton Avalanche School, encourages all students to identify your weakness and then train to that. “Maybe you don’t dig a lot of pits, or maybe your note taking is lacking. Identify these early on and practice well before your course.”

Train on the Hard Skills

On an exam there are often rote skills you will need to perform to a standard, e.g. transceiver tests, snow observations (profiles), crevasse or rope rescue skill demonstrations. You should make time to practice and to be excellent at these hard skills before the course starts. Then, when exam time comes around it will be low stress and easier to pass these “hard skills.”

This means that when you are at the course you can spend your valuable time and energy on learning, watching and refining the “soft skills” like mountain travel and awareness. You now have the ability to demonstrate and perform at your best for the other more-difficult-to-demonstrate skills such as the elusive “mountain sense.” 

There is nothing more frustrating for you (and the instructor team) to see someone flailing on a transceiver exam with a new device that has not been practiced adequately. (See notes on knowing your equipment below.)

While I’m on the subject of mountain sense, I have some thoughts on this age-old question for both candidates and instructors: How can you demonstrate “mountain sense” as a student, and how can you mark it as an instructor? It’s my opinion that you can go some way towards learning it through mentorship and experience, but I strongly believe that it’s in a similar vein to music, you can teach anyone to play the guitar but you need the innate ability in the first place to be really good at it no matter how hard you might practice or be coached.

All Pro Course Providers agree that practice makes perfect, or at least close enough. Having worked multiple Pro courses, it is obvious who has practiced their rescue skills and who has not. Those who have practiced have a strategy and they stick to what they have practiced. Those who have not practiced are slow, inefficient, and lack a plan. Don’t be like me, practice until you can find those two beacons (and bring them to the surface) in well under 7 minutes.

Melis Coady, Director of Alaska Avalanche School, says “Practice your transceiver search multiple times, noting each time what you can improve. This should include physical items such as making your transceiver easier to access or developing a framework for when to remove your skis or pacing, breathing, and timing issues. Find your problems and fix them before you test.”

Know Your Equipment

If you know you are going on a course, look at all your gear: from skis, bindings and skins, snow safety gear, shovel, probe and transceiver, rescue equipment (improvised toboggans, rope rescue gear). Does anything look close to being worn out, do you have any pieces missing, does anything need replacing before the course? If so, replace it and use the equipment well before the course begins. Break in those new touring boots well before the course.

Maybe you’re one of those people who is always prepared and you check your gear after each tour. That person would not be me, but before I show up to work or take a course, I take inventory of my gear and ensure it to be in working order. I’ll often bring back ups and a repair kit. During my Level 3 we were all booting and suiting in the parking lot getting ready for a long tour and one of the instructors was walking around asking if anyone had an extra pair of skins. In my mind, all I could say was… thank god it was not me. Turns out it was one of the other instructors who is a beast of a man. So like any good mountain man, he cut down some pine boughs, collected some ski straps and strapped those boughs to his skis. I continued to thank some higher power all day as I tried to keep up with him that it was not me!

Take a Trip

Where is the exam being conducted? Is it in your back yard? Is it in a different snowpack and climate zone? No matter where the course is, it’s always good to take a trip away to train in other areas to broaden your experience. Travel in terrain and snowpacks you are not

familiar with.

Arrive a few days early near the course venue so you can find out from the locals about the weather, snow and terrain as well as get a day or two in the field to look for yourself.

One of the coolest parts about becoming more prepared through education and training is to travel outside your home range. Jim Donovan, from SAS, says “Know the venue. It can be very helpful to go to a new zone that you are not familiar with. Do some research on the area, snow climate and the types of avalanche problems you may encounter. Bookmark and read the forecast daily prior to the course to understand trends you will encounter.”

Hire a Pro for a Day

If you don’t have the benefit of training buddies or mentors close by, take a trip and hire an instructor from the program you are taking to get honed up a month or two before the course. If you know some others taking the course get a group together to reduce cost. Have a list of questions that you want answered so you get the best value for your day out. This is by no means an exhaustive list, just a few ideas, but above all…

You might be thinking “hire a guide in addition to paying for a Pro course??” While it is an investment it could be a well worth one! Jim Donovan, SAS, shares, “When you hire an instructor or a guide, it can be more straightforward. Make sure you know what you need to work on to maximize your time.”

Be Prepared, Train, and Practice

This is the personal opinion of the author and not of any organization such as the CAA or CSGA.

All educators agree that if you do these three things you will set yourself up for success. Melis

Coady says that the last piece of advice is to relax. You’ve been doing this stuff for a while now. Once the course begins, “drive it like you own it.”

I’ll add a few more bullets to Bill’s article:

  • In this day and age, technology is a part of the avalanche world whether we like it or not. Having a computer or tablet will make your pro course much easier. You will be asked to fill out am/pm forms online, read the forecast daily, and enter your snow pit data into Snow Pilot. Bookmark pertinent weather and avalanche sites prior to showing up for the course and have familiarity with them.
  • Solid systems make your work consistent and less stressful. Do your pits the same way each time. This will save you necessary time and headache.
  • Most importantly, remember self care. Most of us mountain people have an amazing capacity to absolutely thrive when doing the things we love, and often self care gets thrown to the wind. It’s easy to get fried. Being able to recharge at the end of the day will allow you to engage better each day. And drink water!

Bill’s advice rings true for any sort of exam or assessment-based course, of which there are more as many industries, not just ours, move towards more necessary certifications. For the avalanche industry, we have seen many benefits through implementation of the A3 Pro program. Before the pro-rec split, avalanche education was siloed to its specific sector of the industry. Today you can expect to be in a room full of professionals and aspiring professionals from a variety of jobs within the avalanche world. I have learned so much from colleagues who are forecasters and patrollers, and hope that I have been able to offer them something as an educator and guide.

As we move into the fourth winter of this standardized educational approach, we are continuing to create a shared language as well as shared expectations of one another. While we will always have specifics that we need to train to and learn for our jobs, our basic training should have base consistencies.

As we all navigate through this uncertain time of Covid, perhaps you’ll find some more time for preparation, goal setting, and self reflection before the winter is upon us.

As for me, I’ll be moving on from my job as the A3 Pro Training Coordinator, which I began (as the third individual to hold this post) in December 2017, the first month we ran pro courses. It’s been a fascinating three years of working with smart, engaged, and passionate individuals, and has been a great learning opportunity to help manage a program that has brought a lot of challenging change to our industry. Challenging because, let’s admit it, humans don’t like change initially. Yet I think this has been a great move and am excited to see the program grow in years to come. I’m moving on to work for the US Antarctic Program as their Field Risk Manager, overseeing field risk and response for scientific research. I’ll still manage to squeeze in an avalanche course here and there, so I’ll be seeing you around.

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Kate Koons
Kate Koons

Kate Koons is a lifelong learner who will be the first to laugh at herself. She will be leaving her job at A3 this fall, yet she won’t be far from the avalanche world. She’ll continue to teach pro courses and ski guide when she can fit them in. More than likely, you’ll bump into her somewhere in the Tetons on her skis or trail running.

Bill Mark
Bill Mark

Bill Mark has been working in the winter sports business for almost his entire career, beginning as a ski patroller in the mid 80’s in New Zealand. He was the Ski Patrol Director on Blackcomb Mountain for the last 7 years of the last century, then moved to Mike Wiegele Helicopter Skiing where he is now a Senior Lead Guide. He continues to take, teach and examine ski industry courses. Since the mid 90s he has been instructing for the Canadian Avalanche Association (CAA) Industry Training Program and teaching and examining courses for the Canadian Ski Guide Association (CSGA). He holds the CAA L3 and the CSGA L3 and Ski Touring module certificates and is an ISIA certified ski instructor.