Colorado Mountain College offering new snow safety certification in Leadville
Colorado Mountain College will soon offer a curriculum suited to its name as well as the snowy, high-alpine environments surrounding the system’s 11 locations.
Beginning next fall, the Leadville campus will introduce a first-of-its-kind winter weather and avalanche safety program known as SWAT — short for snow, weather and avalanche technician. The aim of the course is to educate and train those whose decisions out in the field are frequently the difference between life and death for any number of people out to enjoy fresh lines both at a resort or in the backcountry on a powder day.
“The intent of the program is to give a great deal of depth to avalanche and snow work experience,” said Roger Coit, assistant professor of emergency medical services and outdoor studies at CMC Leadville. “There are a lot of great avalanche safety courses out there that have great curricula, but the strongest selling point for us is a student will be able to track snowpack from start to finish.”
The syllabus for the two-year certificate is still in the planning stages and will also need to undergo both a CMC and state approval process, but can be approached in a couple different ways. New students who meet the general studies prerequisites can begin the four-semester — two rounds of winter-through-spring — program and work toward entry-level careers in the snow industry as one route. Others who already work in the field as, say, ski patrollers, avalanche forecasters or rescue specialists, can pick and choose classes as part of their own professional development.
The program was designed in cooperation with the Boulder-based Colorado Avalanche Information Center (CAIC), the state Department of Natural Resources agency considered by many the region’s source for snowslide predictions. Coursework will include classes on meteorology, observations and snow and avalanche phenomena. Seminars will also run the gamut, teaching techniques for avalanche mapping, management and safety plan development, in addition to methods of data collection and analysis to mitigate risk.
“We’ve worked a lot on it,” said CAIC director Ethan Greene. “As part of partnership with the Leadville campus of CMC a number of years ago, we’ve been working with staff on how best to craft the program, its learning objectives and the flow of the material.”
The setting of the program is also quite ideal.
“The Leadville campus … is a modern college facility, above 10,000 feet in the Colorado Rocky Mountains, and it’s a great place to get good access to all types of terrain that produce avalanches for people trying to learn more about this type of work,” added Greene. “The avalanche operations around Leadville — Summit, Lake, Eagle and Chaffee counties — all have active programs and search and rescue programs, so there are a lot of different ways to get exposure to this type of work, through the college program and interacting with these workplaces.”
Students who go through the program can expect a variety of career options outside of just ski area snow safety work, said Coit. Future professions could straddle both the public and private sectors, ranging from forecasting to data collection for the government or military, observing the hydrology of various sites — mountains, mines and U.S. Forest Service lands.
Those who finish their studies, however, should enroll understanding it’s not a free pass into a dream job on the ski hill. It acts more as a foot in the door.
“Student won’t graduate ready to be a lead forecaster or avy tech at a ski area,” said Coit. “With all of the information and practice they need, they will be well on the way, but still need to enter the career and work up the ladder. But it’s a huge head-start for them as far as skills, current practices, safety knowledge and risk management.”
Although the program will be open to individuals with varying degrees of experience, it will really be geared more toward those interested in or who have previously started into snow-science jobs. Because of the depth of material it covers, backgrounds in being out moving around on peak season winter snow is critical.
“It’s not a program for never-evers,” said Coit. “It could be for the layperson who takes it for their own edification, but more typically people who are looking for, or already started, a career in snow and avalanche work.”
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