Like a pilot knows their instruments and diligently conducts safety checks, a skier too should know the ways of the wilderness and the gear that will keep them safe.
Unfortunately, that’s not always the case.
This week, for instance, a skier triggered an avalanche while skiing a line on Echo Peak, in the backcountry southwest of South Lake Tahoe, Calif. The skier was carried over a small cliff and into a terrain trap — a landscape feature where a small avalanche can have large consequences — and buried. Only his mitten was exposed, allowing him to clear an airway in the snow. Otherwise, he was immobile.
The buried skier was part of a group of five others who, between them, carried only two beacons, two probes and two shovels.
One set was stuck in the backpack of the buried skier.
The entire event was caught on video by a group member’s helmet camera and upon inspection revealed a general lack of knowledge about how to properly use avalanche rescue equipment.
That day, the group got lucky. The man lived.
But experts agree, things could have ended badly.
Chris Eckel, a ski patroller at Eaglecrest Ski Area and seasoned heliguide, wants to make sure situations like this one are avoided.
This season, he’s teamed up with a group of certified ski patrollers and expert mountain guides to offer a new workshop at Eaglecrest — called Mountain Savvy — aimed at cultivating mountain awareness and encouraging young backcountry skiers and snowboarders to ride with a backpack full of simple, yet vital survival tools.
He said every member of a group headed into the backcountry, or even just to the boundary lines of a ski area, should always carry an avalnche beacon, probe and shovel.
The first class, in a series of four, kicked off Wednesday in the dim light of the Eagle’s Nest at the top of the Ptarmigan lift where a group of 11 Juneau Ski Club DEVO skiers sat haphazardly on old wooden picnic tables.
Eckel began the class by establishing the knowledge base of the young racers.
“Who knows exactly where East boundary is — where the first sign is located — and who could ski me down all the signs?”
One hand rose. A few more tentatively lifted, only to lower again with definite uncertainly.
“If we hike out the ridge to West (Bowl) … who knows the boundary run — who could walk along it, and then ski me down it?”
One, two, three, four, five … the hands went up — this time with more assertiveness.
“Who knows what a tree well is? And, who’s ever been stuck in one?
Eckel continued to probe the teens. He wanted to know what they knew, and what they didn’t. He wanted to know their nicknames for terrain features and unofficial runs. And he awarded eager and accurate answers with chocolate.
The teens were sucked in and as the volume of voices increased, so did their enthusiasm.
They donned backpacks stuffed with beacons, probes and shovels, as well as food and water. Those who didn’t have gear, borrowed loaner sets from the ski patrol.
Then, it was off to the boundary line of East Bowl for a little instruction on sign identification, navigation and skiing smart with a partner.
Eckel said the curriculum of the class focuses on mountain navigation, tree well safety and skiing with a partner, avalanche terrain recognition, strategies for reducing hazards and “red flag days” — the days to stay out of avalanche terrain absolutely.
The demographic for the class, Eckel said, was deliberate. Instructors want to focus on teens who have enough skill to tackle the steeps and the deeps, but have not yet formed bad habits.
"We're certainly open to expanding the age range, if there's enough interest," Eaglecrest Ski Patroller Burke Bohnjack said.
But for now, the instructors are concentrating on just one age group; the one where they feel they can make the most difference.
London Madrid, 12, grew up skiing the slopes of Eaglecrest. He said he’s skied East and West bowls — both areas on the flanks of the mountain’s boundaries — but that he didn’t know how to use avalanche rescue gear.
It’s youth like Madrid that Eckel wants to see in the class. But he said the class isn’t focused on rescue skills. Instead, the curriculum is all about keeping young explorers in safe terrain.
“My goal in the class is to give them strategies to be in good situations, and have rescue skills as secondary,” Eckel said.
He likened an avalanche rescue beacon to a parachute — it’s not something you necessarily want to use, but if needed, it may just save your life.
Eckel and the other instructors want to instill with these teens that skiing with friends and paying attention to hazards is the thing that will keep them safe.
But, they also touch on the basics of how to use avalanche rescue gear.
Admittedly, it’s hard to cram years’ worth of backcountry experience into four hours, but Eckel said he hopes this series of workshops creates a foundation of learning for these young riders.
“It’s not instant,” he said. “If any of the kids feel like they have it all down, I will have failed them.”
But he does want to get the teens, and ideally their parents, talking about where they ski and what that means.
The Wednesday class consisted of only JSC racers, but the first official class begins today at 10 a.m. Overall, the course is an all-day intensive, running until 2 p.m. and covering much of the in-bounds terrain at Eaglecrest. Other sessions are scheduled for Mondays, Jan. 21, Feb. 18 and March 18 — all days students are out of school, Eckel said.
Cost is $20 to participate and students will need to provide a lift ticket or have a season pass. The class meets at the Eagle’s Nest and participants should bring enough food and water to spend a day on the mountain. If available, students should also bring a compass, backpack and avalanche rescue gear, including a beacon, probe and shovel. Loaner gear is available.
Upon completion of the course, participants get a copy of the book “Snow Sense,” an introductory avalanche text donated by the Juneau Ski Patrol and Eaglecrest Ski Area. They will also walk away with a completion card offering discounts on avalanche rescue gear valid at local retailers. In addition, Eckel said if students email him with what they enjoyed most about the class, they are automatically entered in a raffle for a chance to win a full set of avalanche rescue gear and a backpack to carry it in.
Local donations, such as volunteer instruction from Alaska Powder Descents, have helped to make this course possible, Eckel said.
He also said scholarship opportunities are available for those who may not be able to afford the cost of the course.
“There’s a lot of hazards out there,” Eckel said. “But the goal is not to scare them; it’s to try to give them the tools to make safe choices.”
To register, call the Eaglecrest Snowsports School at 790-2000, ext. 211. Paid registration is required and space is limited. For more information about the Mountain Savvy course, contact Eckel by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
• Contact Outdoors Editor Abby Lowell at email@example.com.