Are you fascinated by snow avalanches and curious about how they work?
Are you frightened by avalanches and interested in learning more about how to avoid them?
Do you love being in the mountains in the winter and want to know more about what goes into the avalanche bulletin?
Are you dreaming of pursuing a professional career in avalanche risk management?
Are you interested in avalanche safety research?

If you answered yes to any of these questions, then this course is for you!


Snow avalanches claim about 10 lives in Canada every year. Most victims are backcountry recreationists, but avalanches also threaten villages, utility lines, resource operations and cause traffic hazard and economic loss by blocking critical transportation corridors.

In this course, you will get an interdisciplinary overview of avalanche risk management that covers the physical processes involved in avalanche formation, the characteristics of terrain threatened by avalanches, the methods used for assessing avalanche hazard and mitigating the risk, and the medical aspects of avalanche survival.

After this course, you will have a comprehensive understanding of how avalanche risk affects Canadians and how it is managed in different contexts, such as commercial guiding, ski areas, transportation and public safety. The material taught in this course will either deepen your understanding of what you might have learned in an Avalanche Skills Training or CAA course or provide you with an academic starting point for a professional career in avalanche safety by giving you deep insight into the inner workings of avalanche safety in Canada.

The course is instructed by Pascal Haegeli, Associate Professor at SFU’s School for Resource and Environmental Management. Pascal has been an avalanche safety researcher and developer for more than 15 years. Among his contributions are the development of the Avaluator, research on the effectiveness of avalanche airbags, and several studies on decision-making in avalanche terrain. He currently holds the NSERC Industrial Research Chair in Avalanche Risk Management and leads a research group of about 10 graduate students pursuing a wide range of avalanche safety topics. Click here for more information on Pascal’s research.

Group of mechanized skiers in Columbia Mountains (Roger Atkins Collection)

Course Content Details

Recently cleared access road (Ethan Greene collection)
Public avalanche forecast regions in western Canada

The material covered in this course is a combination of natural and social science topics that relate to the formation of avalanches and the management of the associated risks:

Part 1: Avalanche Formation

  • Overview of avalanche risk in Canada
  • The anatomy of avalanches
  • Avalanche terrain fundamentals
  • Snowpack formation
  • Snowpack processes associated with the formation of avalanches
  • Introduction into numerical snowpack models
  • Slab avalanche release

Part 2: Avalanche risk management – planning

  • Avalanche risk management framework
  • Introduction to estimation of extreme avalanche runouts (observations, statistical models, dynamic models)
  • Avalanche terrain classification
  • Avalanche hazard and risk assessment for planning
  • Long-term avalanche risk mitigation approaches

Part 3: Avalanche risk management – operations

  • The principles of avalanche forecasting
  • Conceptual Model of Avalanche Hazard and avalanche problem types
  • Operational risk assessment
  • Decision-making in avalanche terrain (modes of decision-making, heuristic traps, human factors)
  • Public avalanche hazard communication
  • Facilitating better decision-making (decision aids, Avaluator, targeted training)

Part 4: Avalanche accident rescue

  • Mechanics of avalanche death and survival
  • Avalanche rescue and safety equipment

The course also includes a group project where you apply the concepts discussed in this course to a specific avalanche safety context (e.g., backcountry recreation, transportation corridor, ski area, public avalanche safety) and weekly avalanche conditions discussions.

Learning Outcomes

Once you complete this course, you will be able to:

  • Describe the avalanche risk challenges in Canada and identify the key stakeholders of the avalanche safety community.
  • Conceptualize avalanche risk as a multifaceted phenomenon whose management requires an understanding of both the natural system and the human activities interacting with it.
  • Summarize the fundamental processes contributing to avalanche hazard:
    • Snowpack processes associated with avalanche formation
    • Fracture mechanics principles that describe avalanche release
    • Features of avalanche terrain
  • Discuss the components avalanche risk management (identification, analysis, evaluation, treatment) and relate them to the general concepts of risk and risk management.
  • Explain the human factors contributing to avalanche risk and the societal dimension of avalanche risk management.
  • Characterize the nature of different avalanche risk management situations and link effective mitigation solutions building on the concepts and principles covered in this course.
  • Understand the necessary steps for pursuing a career as an avalanche safety professional or bringing their recreational avalanche risk management skills to the next level.
  • Demonstrate the ability to work collaboratively and communicate effectively.

More detailed learning outcomes will be provided at the beginning of the course.

Avalanche threatening village in Europe.

Course Registration

The course will be offered in the 2022 Spring term (Jan. 7 – April 11) at Simon Fraser University (Burnaby Campus).

The course material will be presented in a way that is accessible to all students interested in avalanches:

  • Students interested in winter backcountry recreation
  • Students interested in the management of natural hazard
  • Students interested in avalanche safety research
  • Students interested a professional career in avalanche risk management

A background in calculus and statistics is desirable, but interested students who have not had courses in these areas are strongly encouraged to email Pascal Haegeli to discuss options.

Students from other universities (e.g., UBC) can take the course for credit at their home institution as a visiting student at SFU. Click here for more information. Please also check with the advisor at your home institution for how top make this work.

If you are not a student at all, it is possible for you to take the course by applying to SFU as a non-degree seeking or mature student. However, it is unfortunately complicated, expensive and takes some time.

For any questions about this course, please email Pascal Haegeli for more information.