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Colorado Mountain College’s Avalanche Science program gains international attention

Wanting to explore potential career change and pursue something in the realm of avalanche science and forecasting, Tara Vessella enrolled last year in the inaugural class of Colorado Mountain College’s then-new Avalanche Science program, the first of its kind in the U.S.

Tara Vessella, a student in Colorado Mountain College’s Avalanche Science program, takes a break from attending the recent International Snow Science Workshop 2018 in Innsbruck, Austria, to climb some local mountains. The conference offers an exchange of ideas and experiences between snow science researchers and practitioners.

Now in her second year of the two-year program, she’s sure she made the right decision.

“Getting into the field isn’t an easy thing,” said Vessella, a 38-year-old New England transplant who works as a park ranger in northern Colorado. “To have some kind of formal education behind you with a group of really strong mentors that are known really well in the snow safety industry has been a great thing. It’s been awesome.”

The CMC program, taught out of the college’s Leadville campus with field work in the shadow of Colorado’s highest mountains, is gaining national and international attention.

This fall, Vessella and another student, Rich Rogers, attended the annual International Snow Safety Workshop in Innsbruck, Austria, along with two faculty members: Ethan Greene, director of the Colorado Avalanche Information Center since 2005, and Kelly Elder, a U.S. Forest Service scientist.

“We were there to answer questions and help people understand what the program is,” Vessella said. “People saw it as unique, and there being a need for a formalized program. A lot of folks from North America who were there were very much interested as well, because there is nothing really like it. People have always gotten jobs in the industry through educating themselves — having mentors and experience, versus formalized training. People said, ‘I wish that was around when I was getting started.’ ”

The genesis of the program came in 2009 when Greene and Elder approached CMC to propose a collaboration to create an in-depth, professional-level curriculum in avalanche studies. Planning began in 2014, with the first classes starting in the fall of 2017. The program is designed to unfold in two full winter seasons and is comprised of 22 credit hours.

Colorado Mountain College Avalanche Science program students Rich Rogers and Tara Vessella answered questions about the program poster behind them from attendees at the recent International Snow Science Workshop 2018 in Innsbruck, Austria. The conference offers an exchange of ideas and experiences between snow science researchers and practitioners.

Those who complete the two-year program receive a certificate of occupational proficiency as a Snow Weather and Avalanche Field Technician. Additionally, students receive American Avalanche Association professional avalanche safety certification during the course of the program.

“We want to prepare folks that are going to work in one of these sectors, like as a ski patroller or a mountain guide, who have good academic preparation but also with solid practical skills in the snow and in the backcountry,” said Roger Coit, the CMC faculty lead who coordinates the program. “It would be people who are ski patrollers who are aspiring to be more involved with their snow safety program at their ski area. It’s for folks who maybe want to grow into the role of being an avalanche forecaster, folks who want to grow into the role of being a leader, whatever their organizational application is for snow safety.”

The program entails a combination of interactive online work, classroom instruction and field work.

“It’s a balance of online and live,” said Coit, a former patroller at the Monarch Mountain ski area who also has a background in emergency medical services, wilderness medicine and backcountry search and rescue. “That’s the real power of this hybrid delivery model that we’re using. The hybrid model allows us to have students who are already working professionals. Many of our students are ski patrollers or guides or backcountry rangers.”

Having vivid memories of her first family ski outings when she was 3 years old, Vessella grew up associating winter recreation with happy times. As she got older, she graduated to the backcountry, even with its potential risks, savoring “the satisfaction of those powder turns, and the satisfaction of earning your turns.”

What she is learning will inform her own backcountry adventures as well as give her the foundation to pursue a career in the field.

“I hope to never be an ‘expert,’ ” Vessella said. “I think there is always going to be something to learn. There’s always going to be people researching and studying and coming up with new methods and techniques. I think it is a combination of skills and exposures, in the field as well as good mentorship, good skills and good education.”