In January, 2015 a group of U.S. Ski Team athletes took a freeskiing break after heavy snow canceled gate training in Sölden. They headed off the groomers on a powder-filled slope that looked enticing. Two of them didn’t make it.
Six years later, as clubs around the country prepare for the ski racing season amid the uncertainties of a pandemic, preparation for snow safety off piste has risen up the priority scale.
“Education is a never ending journey, but it’s fair to say there’s far more focus on avalanche safety for ski racers than there was just a few years ago,” said Steve Berlack, a coach for Burke Mountain Academy and chairman of the Bryce and Ronnie Snow Safety Foundation (BRASS Avalanche). His son, Ronnie, along with teammate Bryce Astle were killed in the 2015 avalanche.
Since then, more and more clubs have added backcountry safety to their educational mix for athletes and coaches. Berlack saw that first hand talking to club leaders during early season camps at Copper Mountain this month.
“We work with skiers who can ski anything,” said Coach Patrick Scanlan of Maine’s Carrabassett Valley Academy. “Skill is not the concern – it’s awareness of mountain hazards, which is often lacking or non-existent. They just don’t know any better. For young athletes, knowing what they’re getting into is important.”
Scanlan’s program is in New England, where avalanches aren’t as common. But his athletes travel. Avalanche safety training is now required at CVA.
“What we find is that in alpine, snowboard and freestyle they’re all traveling to big mountain areas,” said Scanlan. “Europe trips scare me a lot where there’s more of a lack of roping and signage – less direction to tell you what you can and can’t do.”
That was exactly what lured the athletes on to a dangerous slope in 2015.
“BRASS is important because it speaks to athletes who travel to these locations,” said Scanlan. “In a typical course, you wouldn’t have that situation. It’s an additional hazard that ski racers face.”
Since its inception in 2016, BRASS Avalanche has focused on bringing new awareness of avalanche safety to clubs, coaches and athletes. Its advocacy work has led to a host of protocol changes and educational opportunities that is starting to move the needle of avalanche safety awareness. BRASS Avalanche has been at the forefront, advocating for change at the national level and down to clubs.
As a result of a BRASS initiative with U.S. Ski & Snowboard, beginning this season, all members 18 and older must take an introductory online avalanche safety course. A longer form education module is now a part of level 100 coaches certification.
In four seasons, the introductory BRASS 101 program has trained thousands of athletes and coaches. The pandemic pushed the program online this season, but over a thousand were trained in initial webinars. More free sessions are scheduled in early December (check schedule at brassavalanche.org).
“We need to include an education about mountain terrain and avalanche safety for our athletes,” said Burke coach Diann Roffe, an Olympic champion. “They may not have the opportunity to learn anywhere else about avalanche safety on piste and off piste. We can be their first introduction to the basic safety elements of freeskiing the mountains.”
At Lake Placid’s Northwood School, Director of Alpine Skiing Terry DelliQuadri knows avalanches, growing up in Steamboat Springs. Does it impact his athletes in the east? He wholeheartedly says, ‘yes.’ “We regularly train in Austria during October and November,” he said, as his athletes gathered around their computers for a BRASS 101 presentation. “We usually encounter large snowfall periods during that time. Without this education, these kids are at risk over there.”
Sun Valley Ski Education Foundation Mountain Experience Manager Lindsay Mann, an AIARE-certified avalanche safety instructor who also teaches BRASS 101, has seen a growing awareness in clubs and foundations for mountain safety and improving education of staff.
“The challenge has always been how do we get this information,” she said. “Resources are there through local forecasting centers – especially for the west. BRASS Avalanche is also a great resource. There will be more online learning this year – we’re already seeing that – with the pandemic and some great opportunities like BRASS 101.”
The 90-minute webinar is taught by certified avalanche educators who also understand ski racing. Core to the presentations is a showing of “Off Piste,” the BRASS-produced13-minute recreation of the accident that features Olympic champions Mikaela Shiffrin, Bode Miller and Ted Ligety. The film has been seen by over a million viewers since its release two years ago.
U.S. Ski & Snowboard has adopted a number of programs to address the health and safety of its athletes and staff. “Through our partnership with BRASS and the Utah Avalanche Center, we have taken a 360-degree approach to avalanche safety advocacy by not only providing education directly to the athletes, but also to those who have day-to-day contact such as club coaches, volunteers, administrators, and officials,” said U.S. Ski & Snowboard President and CEO Tiger Shaw. “We hope by creating more awareness about the risks associated with backcountry skiing and riding, we can work to reduce the opportunity for tragedy within our cherished community.”
Its new initiative to make avalanche safety a prerequisite for membership has brought education to thousands, many for the first time. Over 1,600 coaches have taken the course as a part of Level 100 certification.
One of the actions undertaken by U.S. Ski & Snowboard is an internal policy that mandates athletes are not permitted outside resort boundaries without a local guide and being properly equipped with safety gear. In Europe, where boundaries are less defined, coaches are required to get an avalanche safety report and convey it to athletes, defining where they can ski and where they can’t.
“U.S. Ski & Snowboard has developed a good template,” said Berlack. “But each club needs to evaluate and adopt its own protocol that is clearly understood by athletes and implemented every day by coaches.”
Scanlan is starting to see coaches recognizing the challenge. “I’ve heard a lot of coaches admit their ignorance,” he said. “They didn’t know the European avalanche ethic was different than in the USA.” He advocated for giving coaches more tools, understanding the difference in off piste in Europe and the need to check avalanche forecasts.
“Thanks to BRASS, the message is clear,” added Roffe. “Educate the coaches and educate the athletes with basic knowledge and help prevent future accidents. This is doable, and we can start now.”
Roffe says that coaches are starting to really understand the importance of snow safety education. The next target should be parents.
Some clubs are no stranger to avalanche education for athletes. At California’s Mammoth Mountain, on-snow certification has been pushed for elite athletes for many years using local AIARE instructors. A few years ago, the initiative was expanded to include introductory education for younger skiers, according to club leader Ben Wisner.
In the Mammoth program, a day is set aside for education with local guides and ski patrol presenting age-based snow safety education to younger skiers. The club is also working with outside snow safety nonprofits to help reach students in local schools.
“Education has increased, with presentations at the U16 Junior Championships as well as the requirement for training to join US Ski and Snowboard and these BRASS 101 presentations,” added DelliQuadri.
As with any educational program, sometimes the most vital elements are those that are unknown.
Said Scanlan, “One of most important messages is to be aware of what you don’t know.”
SNOW SAFETY TIPS FOR CLUBS
1. Ensure every athlete and coach takes an introductory safety program like BRASS 101 (brassavalanche.org). Look at resources at your regional avalanche forecast center. A great online option is the popular Know Before You Go (kbyg.org) program.
2. Establish a snow safety protocol for your club outlining rules for off piste skiing or riding while on club training or competition programs, as well as ensuring your coaches are knowledgeable and check avalanche forecasts daily.
3. Encourage your athletes and coaches to get the gear – transceiver, probe, shovel at minimum.
4. Get your club coaches and athletes on-snow training through AIARE or comparable programs. It’s $400 well spent!
U.S. SKI & SNOWBOARD PROTOCOL
The following protocol has been adopted by U.S. Ski & Snowboard. Clubs can use this as a starting point for developing their own protocol.
While outside the United States, no staff member or athlete on U.S. Ski & Snowboard supervised projects may ski or ride outside the controlled and supervised training environment without a local guide and appropriate snow safety equipment.
Within the territorial boundaries of the United States, no staff member or athlete on U.S. Ski & Snowboard supervised projects may ski or ride outside resort boundaries without a local guide and appropriate snow safety equipment.
“Controlled and supervised” means those areas designated by local snow safety experts as areas appropriate for the training of U.S. Ski & Snowboard athletes. U.S. Ski & Snowboard staff leaders must consult local snow safety authorities when they arrive at resorts to determine which areas must be avoided during a particular event or camp. The information obtained must then be conveyed to all staff and athletes. Those areas determined not to be appropriate training environments may not be accessed by staff or athletes without a local guide and appropriate snow safety equipment (minimum beacon, probe and shovel).