Educator Expedition: Cutting Edge Avalanche Training

By Jesse Quillian

May 30, 2015


Whiteboard diagram from the avalanche course. Photo by Jesse Quillian.

This winter, a fellow NOLS instructor, Emily Ledingham, and I had the opportunity to participate in the Level 3 Avalanche Course in Jackson Hole, WY. The support of NOLS, through the Instructor Development Fund and the Pete Absolon Memorial Endowment, enabled my participation in this week-long training.

I have been a field instructor for NOLS for almost a decade and have worked in the winter program since 2008. NOLS’ training progression for instructors (Level 1 and Level 2 Avalanche Courses) taught me foundational and more advanced avalanche assessment and documentation skills. The Level 3 Course required me to use these skills in complex terrain and introduced concepts that are at the cutting edge of snow and avalanche science.

It was particularly special to take this course in the Tetons, where I was a profoundly incompetent first-time backcountry skier in 2006! Despite early struggles, I loved the experience of being outside, on skis, in the winter, and knew that I wanted to devote time and energy to this activity. Being able to reflect on my own growth, and passing this course in what has come to feel like my backyard, was empowering.

This course impacted me in a number of ways. I built confidence in a skill set that I have spent years developing; this then enabled a number of small missions in the Tetons this winter with a more nuanced understanding of what was happening in the snow. I was also reminded of how hard it is to be a student and to make decisions with or for one’s peers. It reminded me of the stresses of assessment, of wanting to do a good job, and of the vulnerability that can exist in educational relationships. I took this course just before instructing a NOLS winter seminar (a 10 day course for instructors wanting to work in the winter program), and I brought to that seminar not only new technical knowledge and confidence, but a renewed compassion for our motivated, talented students. 

Liz King skis down a couloir, Zena Wolcott-McCausland waits her turn. Photo by Jesse Quillian.

I also drew upon the knowledge I honed on this course during a spring mountaineering contract in India. It was a high snow year in the Himalayas, and our route spanned, in both time and elevation, a transitioning snowpack. A better understanding of spring avalanche considerations helped me to feel confident about moving forward and ultimately completing a traverse from the Pindari Valley to the Milam Valley.

On the last day of the Level 3, one of the instructors said to me, “Whatever NOLS is doing to train their people, they should keep doing it.” This was both a personal compliment and a compliment to NOLS’ winter program, which does, indeed, hold instructors to a high standard of avalanche education. Ultimately, I both appreciate this course and all of the NOLS seminars, co-instructors, mentors, and friends that helped me succeed on it.

av3-jesse-quillian One of the many lines we skied on the course. Photo by Jesse Quillian.

Written By

Jesse Quillian

Jesse Quillian is the expedition education manager for NOLS and has been a field instructor for NOLS since 2006. She shares a home in Victor, ID with a dog named Ruthie and a cat named Pinguino.

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