Cultivating better instincts is key to keeping avalanche professionals alive.
A typical ski day starts early at Silverton Mountain: ski patrollers meet in the pre-dawn chill, review the avalanche forecast, and share their personal observations about the snowpack. Then they head out into southwestern Colorado’s San Juan Mountains to lob explosives and trigger avalanches to minimize the risk of a skier or snowboarder setting off a slide. Most of the work is done on-snow and by hand. Patrollers in helicopters drop more bombs on remote slopes. Once the work’s complete, the crew returns to the Silverton base yurt and switches to guide mode—the avalanche controllers and guides being the same cast of characters.
“I am one of the few people training ski patrollers and guides the exact same way because our employees do both,” says Silverton Mountain co-founder Aaron Brill.
And while esteemed services like Exum Mountain Guides in Wyoming and Whistler Alpine Guides in British Columbia employ many a seasoned ski patroller, through necessity, Brill has made it a Silverton standard operating procedure. He believes the approach is critical in keeping snow sports professionals alive. Looking at snow as both an avalanche controller and a guide, he says, gives Silverton employees an intimate knowledge about the snowpack and helps them develop potentially life-saving instincts. Since opening in 2002, Silverton Mountain has seen no in-bounds avalanche deaths.
Now Brill, and Alaskan heli guides Dean Cummings and Reggie Crist, want to revamp avalanche education for professional ski patrollers and ski guides throughout North America. To that end, the group is co-hosting an intensive avalanche training for professionals at Silverton that will take participants—mainly working ski patrollers or guides—out of the classroom and onto the mountain where they’ll release avalanches, study the snowpack, and practice different ways of climbing slopes and descending them. “We are pushing an observational approach, so that in addition to the standardized methodology of ‘head under the snow’ safety and forecasting via snow science, participants will see how we operate,” says Brill.
Some background: traditional ski guide training consists of standard avalanche classes plus courses in efficient uphill and downhill travel; participants don’t learn how to control the snowpack with explosives the way ski patrollers do. On the other end of the spectrum, ski patrollers actively induce avalanches, and then descend slopes in a very specific way, which Brill says results in a lack of knowledge on how to best navigate avalanche terrain—a skill guides hone every day.
That systemic division of labor can put professionals in harrowing, sometimes fatal, situations. Last season a Wolf Creek ski patroller perished in an avalanche while on the clock, as did a ski guide in southeast Alaska. Brill also points to ski patroller deaths within the last three years at Jackson Hole, Squaw Valley, and Wolf Creek, and another fatal slide that killed an Alaskan heli-ski guide in 2012.
“It’s troubling that our peers are dying while working, through no fault of their own,” says Brill. “It’s a hazard of being in the field. But after enough deaths, I now think how we educate people in the mountains needs to be revisited.”
Enter “Practical Protocols For Snow Professionals / Steep Life Workshop: New Steep Terrain Protocol Training for Ski/Snowboard Guides and Patrollers,” a three-day clinic that runs January 24–26. Cummings is an Alaskan helicopter skiing pioneer and snow scientist, and Crist is a former U.S. Ski Team member, X Games ski cross champion, and film star turned guide. The trio embodies a certain lack of conformity. And, according to Brill, they have an inordinate amount of knowledge about how to stay alive in avalanche terrain. “The goal is to take people away from the traditional methodology and say, ‘Here are the tools that we are using … so you can make better decisions,’” says Brill.
It important to point out that the workshop is intended as a supplement to technical training, not as a replacement to it. Instinct in the high country is important, but technical skills in avalanche terrain are paramount for keeping safe, says Doug Chabot of the Gallatin National Forest Avalanche Center. “There’s definitely been an interest in the heuristics—the human factors—of avalanche safety,” says Chabot. “The mistake is thinking that the heuristics are powerful enough that you don’t have to dig a snow pit anymore. Some people are spending less time worrying about the snow and more time learning about the human factors. It’s not either/or. It’s both.”
Brill agrees and says training needs to go even further. He thinks the workshop is a good starting point. As does Gail Binder, lead guide and manager of Monarch Cat Skiing. Binder is sending fellow guide (and Monarch Mountain ski patroller) Aaron Peyrouse to the course at Silverton to enhance his guiding skills. “As ski area avalanche controllers we’re not snow scientists,” says Binder. “We’re explosive technicians. I’d like to see more of our guides and patrollers attend.” —Rachel Walker
Info: To learn more about the Steep Terrain Protocol Training Workshop and to register, click here. Cost: $225 for the 2-Day Workshop January 24–25; $525 for the 3-Day Workshop, includes the additional heli day on January 26 with two drops for helicopter field instruction.