Be a backcountry guru with Avy I, orienteering and more at CMC |

Be a backcountry guru with Avy I, orienteering and more at CMC

Participants in a female-only avalanche clinic practice digging technique at Copper Mountain. Colorado Mountain College offers year-round avalanche training and other courses for outdoor professionals.
Phil Lindeman / |

Backcountry Ed. at CMC

Outdoor Education

What: An two-year associates degree or certificate for outdoor professionals, including educators, ski resort employees and more

Cost: $57 per credit hour (in-district), $373 per credit hour (out-of-state)

Wilderness EMT

What: A one-year certificate program for outdoor professionals, including ski patrollers, park rangers, raft guides and more

Cost: $57 per credit hour (in-district), $373 per credit hour (out-of-state)

For more info on all outdoor programs at CMC, see the Breckenridge-Dillon campus website at

It’s a mantra as old as the Boy Scouts: Be prepared. It’s also one of the most important mantras any powder hound should follow before heading into the great, white backcountry.

“Sometimes, bad things happen to people who are prepared, but, often times, people are woefully unprepared,” said Brian Taylor, an associate professor of outdoor studies at Colorado Mountain College in Breckenridge. “They just haven’t done any of the research before they get in the field, and then they find themselves without the right equipment.”

In the world of backcountry safety — remote skiing, backpacking, mountain biking and the rest — being prepared means much more than double-checking the gear in your backpack. It includes anything and everything related to your excursion: reviewing weather conditions before and during the trip, understanding the terrain you’ll encounter, building an itinerary for your group and folks at home, training for the absolute worst of the unexpected.

“For people who are really new to this, you need to be aware that it can be dangerous out there,” said Jeremy Deem, one of Taylor’s full-time instructors at CMC. “Don’t just jump right into it. Everyone should always have the right equipment, the right clothing, the right skis, the right food and water — everything.”

The right everything

That’s where educators like Taylor, Deem and their peers from CMC come in. At all 10 CMC campuses across the Rocky Mountains, outdoor professionals teach a mix of single-day seminars and semester-long classes to prepare adventurers for long — and safe — trips into the backcountry. These classes range from Avalanche I courses and wilderness EMS to backcountry navigation and outdoor leadership — all under the umbrella of outdoor studies. They’re the type of courses you just won’t find at other colleges, and they’re held on campuses surrounded by the terrain, conditions and veterans that students need for hands-on training.

The classes and seminars are also perfect venues to meet like-minded people — the same people you’ll want with you on the trail. No matter where you sit with wilderness education, both Taylor and Deem suggest finding an mentor who can help with trip planning and preparation, even if they can’t head into the field with you.

“Through these classes, people have made great relationships with other people who have the same base knowledge,” Deem said. “It would be great if you could go out and ski with someone who has 20 years of experience, but, as we all know, those people might not want to go out with newcomers.”

Taylor, who has also been with the Summit Search and Rescue Group for the past 15 years, is a major proponent of pre-planning. He teaches several classes (including backcountry survival and navigation) that go over outdoor logistics. There’s basic backcountry gear — a survival kit, an emergency kit and emergency communication (more than a cell phone) — and other general information, the type you need to understand in a classroom before heading into the wild.

Look at something like snowpack. Colorado is home to a wide and varied amount of terrain, which means snowpack can range from safe to volatile in a single basin. In the Avy I course, students first learn about the physics and construction of snowpack, then learn how to assess those variables in the field with tried-and-true techniques like a snow pit, the technique all avy techs use to evaluate strong and weak snow layers.

“We can’t control the snowpack in Colorado, and we can’t control the terrain in Summit County, but there’s one thing we can always control, and that’s the safest terrain for the conditions,” Taylor said. “It’s the one thing you can control.”

Getting your snow time

Preparing for the backcountry is a whole other beast come winter. Snow is wildly different than the elements you encounter in the middle of July, and education doesn’t end with an Avalanche I or II course. First, you need to get away from the classroom and into the field.

“We call that ‘getting your snow time,’” Taylor said. “A lot of students want to take an Avy I and then get an Avy II a month later, but, if you wait, you can get mentoring from someone at a higher level. It also gives you time to just get out in the field.”

Most of the CMC courses include several days in the field. For avalanche courses, groups travel to close-by terrain like Baldy Mountain and Mayflower Gulch to practice skills like evaluating snowpack, searching for beacons and practicing safe rescue techniques. Other classes, including the full wilderness EMT class, give students hands-on experience with skills like medical evaluation, basic treatment (think things like an impromptu leg splint) and advanced wilderness first aid.

For Taylor, this depth of knowledge is invaluable. He feels more comfortable heading into the backcountry with a well-trained group of people. Not only does it mean everyone is on the same page — it also means he isn’t the only person who can help in an emergency.

“Every person in the group should have wilderness medicine training,” he said. “We’re all about pre-planning and prevention, but again, sometimes bad things happen. You might have a broken bindings or a tweaked knee, and, if you know how to deal with common medical emergencies, that makes everything better. What happens if you’re the one who’s injured or in trouble? This way you won’t be.”

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