So You Want An Avalanche Job?

Sounds glamorous--work in the mountains--get the summers off. Perfect. So what's the catch? Avalanche jobs tend to pay poorly, they can be dangerous, and the good jobs are hard to get. But if you're still interested, read on.

Let's start with the entry level job for almost all avalanche professionals--ski patrolling

Ski Patroller

Almost all of the highly regarded avalanche experts in the United States have spent several years on a ski patrol at some point in their career. And no wonder. It's by far the fastest way to learn about avalanches. Ski patrollers fill their packs full of explosives each morning, and in the first light of dawn they use explosives, ski cutting, and dig snowpits to assess the avalanche hazard before the public arrives. After doing this day after day for several years, it yields an incomparable intuition for avalanches. Plus, ski patrollers regularly practice both personal and organized rescue techniques. Finally, ski patrollers live their life bathed in the "avalanche culture." They hear the stories, read the publications, and quickly learn, through the master – apprentice relationship, what works and what doesn’t work.

Number of positions available

Nationally, about 400 ski patrollers do regular avalanche control at ski areas that have avalanche forecasting and control programs.  About another 1000 do occasional avalanche control work at ski areas with less avalanche problems.

Where to get a ski patrol job

Unless you’re already very experienced or talented or have connections, you probably will have to wait awhile to get a job on one of the well-known ski patrols. Once you get a job at one of the more famous avalanche areas, it may take a couple years to get assigned to the more challenging avalanche control routes.   It usually takes a few years to move up the ladder to the more challenging routes and to become a route leader.

In general, Maritime areas get the most snow and do the most avalanche work. Continental areas get the least snow and do the least amount of avalanche work. Intermountain areas are somewhere in between.

On the positive side

  • Ski patrolling is a relatively safe way to get avalanche experience because you work in a very controlled environment and follow strict protocols.
  • You receive constant training in all aspects of avalanche forecasting, control, and rescue, through training structures and historically proven mentoring processes.
  • You also quickly enter the "avalanche culture". You learn about avalanches, weather, and terrain by hearing stories from a rich and colorful history.
  • You get to work with the best people in the world

On the negative side

  • Limited health benefits and retirement plans at the smaller operations.
  • At some areas the pay is less than ideal, sometimes much less.
  • You have to spend your non-avalanche control time "posting" (sitting in a ski patrol station) waiting to assist customers who may get injured or require assistance.
  • People think that getting on a ski patrol is the hard part.   The hard part starts when you get the job and have to learn all the aspects of ski patrol work.
  • Ski patrollers operate in a very artificial snowpack that gets explosive-tested and skied up each day.  At times, this offers even more complex avalanche problems, but it often bears little resemblance to an undisturbed backcountry snowpack. Your avalanche forecasting career is only half complete unless you get into the backcountry.

Prerequisites

  • Good skiing skills (you can't do avalanche control on a snowboard so don't embarrass yourself)
  • Excellent people skills.
  • Be able to observe and correct potential hazards to other workers and customers.
  • Be in top physical condition.
  • Self motivated and able to work in an unsupervised environment.
  • Be able to "think fast" and "talk slow".
  • Winter Emergency Care certificate or EMT (usually a 10-day course)
  • CPR certificate

Helicopter Ski Guides

Helicopter ski guides operate on the naked edge of avalanches. They deal with a natural, backcountry snowpack and operate under tight time and financial constraints, not to mention all the inherent dangers of flying in helicopters. They cover a huge amount of terrain in a day and therefore they tend to find instabilities if they exist. This makes helicopter ski guiding probably the most challenging and dangerous of all the avalanche jobs. And only the top avalanche people can land these jobs.

Positions available

About 60 helicopter guides work for reputable helicopter companies in the U.S.. In Canada about 200 guides work for reputable companies. Also, in response to the extreme skiing craze, there has been a huge recent proliferation of helicopter skiing companies in the mountain ranges of Alaska.  Many of these are new companies that operate in very extreme terrain.  This can lead to more exposure to you as an avalanche worker. Finally, several snowcat skiing operations exist in the US and in Canada, which are considerably more tame.

On the positive side

  • You get to ski the best snow in the world.
  • You quickly learn all the subtleties and dangers of backcountry avalanche conditions.
  • You get to fly in helicopters.
  • You get to work with the best people in the world

On the negative side

  • You have to fly in helicopters.
  • In contrast to backcountry skiers and ski patrollers, because of tight time and financial constraints, helicopter guides have  limited time to thoroughly check out  every slope they ski and ride.
  • Helicopter and snowcat guides end up triggering more large avalanches evaluating the avalanche hazard than most avalanche workers.

Prerequisites

  • Many years of experience hazard forecasting and performing avalanche control work on a ski patrol.
  • Many years of experience traveling in hazardous backcountry avalanche terrain.
  • In Canada, helicopter guides must also be certified mountain guides by passing a couple rigorous 9-day avalanche courses with tough examinations.
  • Excellent ski or snowboarding skills.
  • A well developed mountain sense.
  • Be in top physical condition.
  • Excellent people skills.
  • A tolerance for risk evaluation and management.

Highway Avalanche Forecasters

Several small teams of skilled avalanche forecasters work for various Departments of Transportation in many of the western states. They carefully monitor the avalanche conditions and they close the highway when avalanche conditions become close to spontaneously occurring.  After the road is closed, they artificially trigger the avalanches with artillery, gas exploders, helicopter, or  hand-thrown explosives.

Positions available

Only about 30 of these jobs exist in the US and they're hard to get. Programs include

  • Washington Department of Transportation
  • Utah Department of Transportation
  • Colorado Avalanche Information Center
  • Wyoming Department of Transportation
  • California Department of Transportation

On the positive side

  • The job is relatively safe, usually higher paying than ski patrol jobs.
  • The jobs usually have health and retirement benefits.
  • There's often more time to improve your avalanche forecasting skills by working with instrumentation, data analysis, and snowpit studies.
  • You get to work with the best people in the world.

On the negative side

  • Extreme stress and exposure to risk during times of high avalanche danger.
  • The politics of road closures can be daunting.
  • Sometimes the supervisors have no avalanche skills and may not appreciate avalanche science.

Prerequisites

  • A solid background in ski patrolling and/or guiding.
  • An intuitive feel for backcountry avalanche conditions.
  • Science background is helpful but not necessary.
  • Good skills with instrumentation and data analysis.
  • Be in top physical condition.
  • Ability to work in a "Government" job placement.

Regional Avalanche Forecast Centers

Several major regional avalanche centers exist in the US including the Northwest Weather and Avalanche Center in Seattle, the Utah Avalanche Forecast Center in Salt Lake City, the Colorado Avalanche Information Center in Denver and the Southwest Montana Avalanche Center in Bozeman. In addition, there are a number of other smaller operations in Sun Valley, Idaho; Moab, Utah and Mt. Shasta, California and some weekend advisories provided in Kalispell, Montana; Missoula, Montana; and Truckee, California.   In Canada there are several offices that have similar positions.

These regional avalanche centers are the interface between avalanches and the public. They provide

  • Information about avalanche conditions to the public through recorded telephone lines, faxes and the Internet.
  • Mountain weather forecasts to the public and to avalanche workers.
  • Avalanche education to the public.

A typical work week includes 2-3 field days—skiing and/or snowmobiling in backcountry avalanche terrain to assess avalanche danger, 2 office days and one day of teaching avalanche classes.

Positions available

Only about 15 positions exist at the major centers and another 15 positions at the smaller centers. Jobs are rare, people tend to stay for many years, competition for the job is incredibly intense but they are great jobs if you can get them.

On the positive side

  • Great mix between time in beautiful backcountry mountains and challenging office work.
  • Relatively good pay, supervisors have benefits.
  • You perform a valuable public service--your work directly saves lives--and programs are extremely popular.
  • You get to ride snowmobiles.
  • You get to teach people about avalanches.
  • You get to work with the best people in the world

On the negative side

  • Centers are chronically under funded. Directors spend a significant amount of time hustling for money and partnerships to keep the operations afloat.
  • If you don't do a good job, people die, so you end up putting in lots of unpaid overtime.
  • You get to ride snowmobiles.
  • In most cases you work for the USDA Forest Service (in Colorado you work for the State of Colorado), so you have to have a good sense of humor and a high tolerance for the intrinsic absurdities of large government agencies.

Prerequisites

People who land these jobs almost invariably have the following background

  • Several years of experience on a ski patrol
  • Many years of experience in backcountry avalanche terrain
  • Excellent mountaineering skills
  • Excellent computer skills (and you need to be a fast typist)
  • Excellent communication skills
  • Good skills forecasting mountain weather from weather maps
  • Be in top physical condition
  • At least a Bachelor’s degree--preferably a Master’s--in a technical field such as engineering, meteorology, physics, geology, physical geography or computer science.
  • Ability to work in a "Government" job placement.

Don't think about applying unless you have most of the above prerequisites, especially the technical science background, because competition is fierce.

Internship Programs

Most operations are begging for interns, i.e. someone who wants to work for free or very modest pay in exchange for experience. Typically, most avalanche operations actively look for people with good computer skills or an engineering background who want to get some practical avalanche experience, or perhaps to fulfill college credit. Internships are also a common way to "get your foot in the door." Many eventually lead to permanent employment.

Prerequisites

Interns must have something to offer. Many operations are inundated with intern requests from people who have no experience or skills, they just want a cool job. So please don't apply unless you have

  • Technical science background, especially computer science or engineering
  • Level I and Level II avalanche classes
  • Good skier or boarder
  • Ability to work in a "Government" job placement.

In Summary

Avalanche jobs are probably the best job you'll ever have--as long as you're willing to live without a BMW, and with some inherent dangers. But even so, you need to pay your dues. You need to work on a ski patrol to develop an intuitive feel for avalanches and spend time in the backcountry to learn about natural snowpacks. Plus, you need to take as many avalanche classes as possible, read the literature about avalanches, and attend avalanche conferences. And if you want to move up the ladder, you need to go to school and get a technical science background.

If you have lots of practical avalanche experience or a science degree, a pleasant personality, are a good skier, are in excellent health, have good computer skills, and are a good communicator...have a little patience and be persistent with your goal.

C'MON IN! The falling snow is calling you.