Professionals practice skills before entering the backcountry each winter—and so should you. Here’s how.
When pro skier Sage Cattabriga-Alosa left Jackson Hole Mountain Resort on December 9 with a group of his Teton Gravity Research co-stars, they encountered a recent avalanche just outside the resort’s backcountry access gate. The TGR crew immediately switched their avalanche beacons to search and registered three signals in the debris pile. They quickly located the buried skiers and dug out all three—one with a dislocated shoulder and another with a broken femur. After coordinating with ski patrol and search and rescue, the TGR athletes delivered the injured skiers to medical help and a helicopter airlift out of the backcountry.
No, you didn’t miss the headlines. The avalanche was just a drill: a hypothetical slide complete with buried beacons and healthy skiers role-playing as injured victims. The scenario was part of TGR’s annual International Pro-Riders Workshop. The three-day camp reviews basic first aid, backcountry safety, snowpack analysis, and emergency protocols for the film company’s roster of big mountain skiers before they head out on winter shoots. “You know it’s not real, but everyone takes it seriously,” Cattabriga-Alosa says.
Marquee headliners aren’t the only ones who take a skills refresher each winter. Lel Tone, a 20-year veteran ski patroller at California’s Squaw Valley, says everyone from novice backcountry skiers to paid avalanche professionals could benefit from regular training and review. “It’s a lifelong process,” she says. “I’m still learning new things.” Tone teams up with pro women skiers for a series of clinics each winter called S.A.F.E. A.S. (Skiers Advocating and Fostering Education for Avalanche and Snow Safety). This year, they’ve run women’s specific events at Squaw, Crystal Mountain and Stevens Pass in Washington, and visit Colorado’s Copper Mountain on December 20–21. Instructors lead avalanche case study discussions, teach companion rescue techniques, and help skiers learn how to travel in avalanche terrain.
No time or money for a class? It’s easy to review skills with your ski buddies. Bury beacons in a snowy backyard during a dinner party to practice search techniques. And Backcountry Access partners with 40 resorts in North America for free beacon training parks. Snow banks in resort parking lots can serve as training grounds for strategic shoveling practice while you tailgate. Make a habit of reading daily avalanche forecasts, and learn to recognize red flags in the backcountry. “It’s important to practice rescue skills, but even more important is knowing how to avoid those situations,” says Ethan Green, executive director of the Colorado Avalanche Information Center. —Rose Conry
For formal, multiday classes taught by certified instructors, check avtraining.org for a list of more than 100 organizations that offer AIARE avalanche training courses.