Avalanche Center Home Update - December 9, 2010

An Update from the Avalanche Center

December 9, 2010
[Previous, Nov 24 ] - [Next, Dec 23] - [Updates Archive Index]


  • Ways to Support Avalanche Safety and Education
  • Current Terrain Quiz Update
  • Fundraising Auction - Next Week
  • Education - Decision Support Frameworks
  • Online Course - Upcoming Field Days

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This is the sixth newsletter of the season. The switch to the new format and service is complete and this is the first time it is being used for the entire list. It seems to work out well, and things like bounced mail will be handled automatically. Unfortunately the formatting uses an interface with much to be desired, takes a lot of time, and writes bloated html code that is difficult to directly edit. Unfortunately this isn't unusual for most of todays web authoring tools.

This issue will discuss some thoughts on decision making tools - how they are being used or misused in classes, what they are really for, etc. This may spark some interesting discussion. Or not. I guess we'll see. First there is some other information and news though. You will also find some mention of equipment on sale if you read through the entire newsletter.

We really need to ask everyone to share some of the holiday spirit and donate whatever you can. The economy is tough. Contributions are down, store sales continue to sag, and too many people just won't use things like Goodshop even though there is no cost and it supports avalanche safety. The only people that are going to willingly support avalanche safety are those that use it. Show your support by donating, using our store for your equipment purchases, using our Avalanche Institute (whether its for a full course or just a module or topic of interest), using the Goodsearch toolbar, and helping us out with your ebay sales and purchases.

The Goodsearch toolbar is free, installs itself automatically, can be hidden using the View -> Toolbars browser menu, and can be easily uninstalled. Even if you remove or hide it later please use it for your holiday shopping. Travel sites such as travelocity participate, so you can donate to us when you make travel plans. And whenever you buy supplies for your office.

You can download the toolbar here:


It's amazing how much some small, local and specialized groups have raised. Their supporters are willing to get behind their cause, even for a small local group. Are you willing to get behind avalanche safety and education? It doesn't cost you anything.

Our latest way for people to help is via ebay. They now recognize us as a non-profit. When I go there via the goodsearch toolbar it tells me that 25 - 37.5% of what I spend will be donated. This is a huge percentage - much higher than any others I've seen. This doesn't come out of your pocket, it comes from ebay. They can afford it. But it's up to you to make it happen. Either use the toolbar or go to Goodsearch, choose us as your charity, then go to shopping and ebay. (The toolbar is clearly easier to use and harder to forget. And it automatically tells you about a lot of discounts and coupons as well.)

As a recognized non-profit on ebay it is now possible for sellers to designate a percentage of their selling price to us. This does come from you and not ebay, but there is an adjustment to the final fee. Another nonprofit benefit is that all of the money from our own auctions comes to us without any final fee taken out. We keep a flow of beacons, one or two at a time, on ebay for the exposure and promotion we get as much as for the revenue. To sell something for our benefit, or donate directly, use this page: https://www.charity.ebay.com/charity/Cyberspace-Snow-and-Avalanche-Center/42453

Sorry to have used so much space for a fundraising, but without some minimal funding we wouldn't be able to offer anything to anyone. We stretch your contributions as far as possible - feel free to compare our budget to that of anyone else in the same area. Many go through in a week or so what we spend in a year.

"Current Quiz" - Avalanche Terrain

This quiz has been mentioned in the last two newsletters. With so much else to do it has not yet been replaced and may not be until after the auction. If you have not yet taken it you still have time. Thirty two percent of those who have taken it so far have gotten 100%, down from 40% as of the last newsletter. The average score is still 89%, the median score is 91%.

The questions on this quiz are taken directly or nearly directly from the Terrain Module (#6) in our online avalanche course. When somebody challenges a module, with the belief that they know the material, this is representative of the quizes required. While there is usually a fee for a challenge it is currently possible to do it for free if you're had a Level 1 course within the past two years. Just contact us about it. (When there is a fee charged you can use it as credit towards other material you want to take if you're successful. If not then you can credit it towards the cost of taking the course.)

Remember that we only get the final quiz scores back, we do not get results on a per question basis. So your feedback is the only way we can assess individual quiz questions. Comments, questions, and criticisms are always welcome. The best place for this is our forums, and we will try to see that anything posted there receives a response.

Fundraising Auction

Next week is our annual online fundraising auction. Time flies, and with all of the other work required to keep this project going it seems like the auction has suddenly jumped out of nowhere. However, that's not really true since the background efforts such as rounding up items has been going on for several months.

At this point it is pretty late to keep actively seeking donations, although we can still accept them. Several new items were waiting at our mail center yesterday. Now we are at a point where promoting it is more important. We've gotten as much industry participation as we can, now we need the participation of individuals to bid on things. You can help by letting others know about the event. Send something out to other members of clubs you're in, post a note or flyer at your local outdoor shop, and post something on your facebook wall.

The auction will run from Dec 14 through the 17th. All items won during that time can be shipped in time for Christmas if payment is made right away.

The auction page is http://www.avalanche-center.org/auction/ - there will be a lot of updating to it in the next few days.

Avalanche Education - Decision Support Frameworks

One of the developments in avalanche education in recent years has been the incorporation of "decision support frameworks" into Level 1 classes. These go by other names as well, sometimes implying something more than support for a decision ultimately made by a person. There are rule based systems, checklist systems, general frameworks, and even a numerical ratio in the case of the Munter reduction method. While these tools can be extremely helpful, especially to those new to the backcountry, there have been some shortcomings in the way they are covered in avalanche courses. It's an area in which the online course allows us to take a new approach.

The first problem is simply one of some instructors trying to keep up with the latest trendy development. In one case such an instructor has posted numerous comments on this topic online. Each season they seem to be teaching a new and different framework. So this years students are not familiar with the same material as last years students. In some cases acronyms are involved and it becomes clear that last years students are not familiar with last years material either, because they've forgotten what the acronym means. Our solution to this in the online course is just to cover all of the key methods in use or commonly referred to. Obviously this is impossible in a traditional course simply due to time constraints. After learning a bit about the background, strengths, weaknesses and context of various systems students can decide for themselves which they prefer. We have an entire module dedicated to this, and it is one of the longer ones.

A second problem is that unclear expectations are sometimes set for these tools in general. The term "decision support frameworks" is very appropriate because this is what they do - support a decision. In the end the decision is up to you, and you need to make it and own the consequences. The tools help emphasize and prioritize various factors, but they do not give you an answer. Not any more than a snowpit or stability test gives you an answer. In the past a main concern over teaching the Rutschblock test was that students would see a numerical result as an answer and not just a piece of information, and one with many limitations at that. There has been a lot of discussion, heated and personal at times, over whether certain frameworks "work". We don't ask whether a stability test works, at least in a yes/no sense. We shouldn't be asking that with these tools either.

In an interesting comment in a forum recently one very experienced individual wrote that students should be able to go beyond the "rule based" systems and become more "process oriented" in their decision making as they progress after their class. He didn't feel this happens often enough. When they are taught correctly and in the right context these frameworks should encourage and assist in this progression, not hinder it.

These frameworks help organize and analyze information that needs to be collected, they do not shortcut that need. For the best results they need the best inputs. (As programmers used to say - "garbage in, garbage out".) This is why our module is one of three "second tier" ones requiring the completion of the weather, terrain 1, snowpack 1, and human factors 1 modules. Without learning that material first one cannot expect to make good use of these frameworks. (The other two modules at this level are trip planning and snowpack 2. The first for reasons analogous to those just presented, the second because it is advanced technical material that is not even covered in many Level 1 courses anymore due to time constraints and other priorities.)

Obviously this approach would take a lot of time in a classroom environment. It was never attempted in the traditional course that the online version grew out of. Guidelines call for 24 hours of instruction. Half or more of this is in the field. Some of the rest is typically lost to transitioning into and out of the field, breaks, waiting for people, etc. The result is that students learn what they are told and what they see, but are all too often are not gaining the background to understand other conditions and situations that they encounter later. And in too many cases they fail to leave with the background necessary to move on to what at least one person calls "process oriented" decision making. When this shortcoming is combined with the presentation of a framework as a tool that makes decisions it is easy for them to turn to the tool for their answers rather than guidance.

Avalanche Education - Avalanche Institute Level 1 Course

The first field days available for the online avalanche course will be in central Oregon December 18-19. Each field session is one day and we anticipate demand only for the first one at this time, so it is a choice of one day or the other and not a full weekend. Field sessions are free to anyone who has passed the prerequisite modules, either by taking the course or by challenging the module quizzes. You are not limited to one, you can attend multiple field days over time for exposure to different conditions and terrain as well as for review as long as your certification is current.

Upcoming field days are Jan 2 in the Central Sierra, Jan 8-9 in Central Oregon again, and Jan 18-31 (whatever days are requested) in Utah.

For those considering our online course remember that for some limited but not yet determined length of time a course discount of up to 80% accompanies all beacon and airbag pack purchases.

Other Notes

We will be putting most of the store inventory we have on sale for members. That needs to be done after this newsletter gets out, and there is the auction to get set up as well. But if you're a member you can log in and check back to see what's new on the sale page over the next few days. Prices will generally be more or less 20% off suggested retail. Members never pay any shipping either.

Remember that we now carry ABS packs. This still needs to get set up online but we have some in stock and can order anything we don't have in stock. Inquire if you're looking for one, and spread the word. As with everything we carry we will match anyone elses price, and a pack purchase from us makes you eligible for a large discount on the Level 1 course.

One goal that has been on the back burner for a while is to get more people involved. The next newsletter will begin with promotion for the auction but will also include some suggestions for how you can help in your own area if you are interested, and a request or two for specific skills we can use at the moment.

The name "Avalanche Institute" was adopted 4-5 years ago when we began work on this feature. It reflects the fact that we will be offering more than just the Level 1 course, much more over time. Including unique advanced topics. Others have since decided to ride along on this name and are calling their operations "Something or Other Avalanche Institute". We have no affiliation with any such program - just so you know.


We are up to 654 friends on Facebook (56 more than we had as of the last newsletter). Are you one of them? If you are have you suggested us to any of your friends?

Jim Frankenfield
Executive Director

Avalanche Center Info