Shrill screams slice through a thin aspen grove interrupting what was supposed to be an excellent day of deep snow, big smiles, and high-fives. Instead, some girl you’ve never met is out of breath at the bottom of an avalanche path frantically asking you for help, and you can’t make out a word she’s saying. All you hear is the screaming. She doesn’t know how to use her beacon, doesn’t know if her friends have them, and isn’t even sure how many people are with her. Scratching your head isn’t stopping the screaming. What the hell are you going to do?
Luckily, for 20 students attending the Snowbird Freeride Avalanche Summit on January 7, this was only a drill. The course—designed for backcountry users with advanced skills and steeper terrain on their mind—was hosted by the Utah Avalanche Center with the main focus of teaching good decision making skills and worst-case-scenario protocol.
The attendees ranged from backcountry neophytes who kill it in-bounds to seasoned veterans with decades of experience. Even professional skiers, such as Olympic Skier turned film star Kaylin Richardson, showed up to further their education. “To be responsible in the mountains, you have to go out and get educated,” says Richardson. “If you can’t rely on yourself to be there for your partner, you’re being irresponsible.” Being responsible, as it turns out, goes way beyond just having a beacon.
Over the duration of the three-day course, avalanche experts from the Utah Avalanche center, Alta and Snowbird ski patrols, and a smattering of professional athletes educated backcountry enthusiasts. Time was split evenly between the classroom and the field, with skills from terrain management and first aid to how to get help from a helicopter. Beyond the real world scenarios such as the panic described above, the classroom discussion was incredibly intriguing as athletes like huck wizard Julian Carr, and big mountain snowboarder Forrest Shearer amongst others shared their own bad decisions of the past and held constructive open dialogues about how their mistakes could have been managed.
This level of discussion amongst some of the world’s most experienced backcountry enthusiasts is proof that not only does everyone make mistakes, but that each mistake is a learning opportunity. When Forrest Shearer showed a clip from Further of himself riding into his own sluff—causing him to be pummeled in a freefall of fast-moving snow lasting hundreds of feet—the group of backcountry skiers and riders in the classroom constructed alternate scenarios and analyzed his decision making.
The end result was an elevated awareness that the backcountry is not only a classroom, but the lines between the right and wrong decisions are forever in flux. That’s why backcountry users need to come together and constantly educate themselves in order to prevent the next accident.
“I take courses pretty much every chance I can get,” says professional skier and Wasatch local Caroline Gleich. In fact, every single instructor and athlete present at the Summit says they constantly take and teach classes. It’s easy to justify. “Think about how bad your parents would feel if you got caught or hurt or died in an avalanche,” says Gleich. “The best way to prevent that is through education.”
As for the screaming girl in the avalanche scenario? “It was scary—not going to lie. It was heavy,” says attendee Chris Poe. “It will affect me in the way that I can look back on my mistakes and realize what I did wrong, but now I know how to assess the situation and take control.”
And knowing is half the battle. If you haven’t taken an avalanche safety course and plan to go into the backcountry, do it. Relying on your friends isn’t enough, because in the event that they get caught in a slide it will be your responsibility to get them home.
Click HERE for a photo gallery of the course.
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