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Backcountry skiers and snowboarders aren’t required to take an avalanche safety course before heading to the mountains. But growing numbers of them appear to think some precautionary education is a good idea. A record 400 people signed up for two levels of avalanche safety courses offered by Whistler Alpine Guides Bureau last ski season and the group is on track to repeat or exceed those numbers by next spring. The courses, which provide classroom and outdoor sessions, cover topics such as snow conditions, route planning and search and rescue techniques. Students include experienced and novice backcountry enthusiasts with a common aim: staying safe and alive in snowy, untracked terrain. Much discussion revolves around gear, including airbag safety systems and a device designed to provide fresh, breathable air to someone buried in snow. Such equipment might buy a person time in the event of an avalanche, but a better option is to avoid avalanche-prone terrain and conditions, says instructor Tyree Trand. And he urges students to rehearse, noting that a few minutes fumbling with equipment can make a difference between life and death. “Your best chance of survival is a very fast, efficient and rehearsed rescue.”

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A student on an avalanche safety course with Whistler Alpine Guides Bureau learns to properly use an avalanche transceiver on December 11, 2012. (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)

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Students on an avalanche training course with Whistler Alpine Guides Bureau race to save a buried transmitter during a mock avalanche exercise on December 11, 2012. (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)

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A student on an avalanche training course with Whistler Alpine Guides Bureau races to save a buried transmitter during a mock avalanche exercise on December 11, 2012. (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)

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Instructor Tyree Trand on an avalanche training course with Whistler Alpine Guides Bureau stands in a snowpit to determine the avalanche safety risk on December 11, 2012. (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)

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Instructor Tyree Trand on an avalanche training course with Whistler Alpine Guides Bureau looks on as his students dig a snow pit avalanche safety risk on December 11, 2012. (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)

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