Elite female skiers, snowboarders relay avalanche safety knowledge at Copper Mountain
Thirty-six women ranging in age from their teens to their mid-30s listened intently to professional snowboarder Kimmy Fasani as a giant picture of an avalanche — one that she triggered — projected on the screen behind her.
“So I drop in,” Fasani said, “I get about four turns in and the whole slope starts sliding. … But I knew my safety point (to snowboard to). And that’s seriously the only thing that didn’t pull me over, because I knew if I went past that point it wouldn’t have been good.
“I learned a huge lesson, and I got very lucky,” Fasani added. “And the guys were like, ‘Yeah, I mean we kind of thought it was crazy that you were going to drop in.’ But at the same time that’s them being confident in my ability and me being confident in my ability.”
Late Saturday morning at the conference center at Copper Mountain Resort, Fasani relayed her personal story of triggering an avalanche in the Alaskan backcountry as part of the third annual Safe-AS avalanche safety workshop.
Saturday’s event was for women of all ages, while Safe-AS will host a co-ed event at Copper today. And as part of Saturday’s event, the elite backcountry skiers such as Alaskan heli-skiiing guide Lel Tone centered their messages to the women around two things: having the avalanche and snow safety knowledge to confidently communicate when out in the backcountry with the guys, and networking here with other females who could become ideal backcountry trip partners.
“A lot of times if you look at the demographics,” Tone said, “it’s seven dudes and one female in our mountain towns. So we wanted to do a special clinic just for women. I teach avalanche courses and there are 17 dudes and four chicks. So why not have an opportunity for women just to learn together? It’s more of finding confidence in their voice.
“And the interesting stat that everybody falls back on,” Tone continued, “is that groups with women in them have less avalanche accidents than the larger groups of men. So we joke that having a woman along in your backcountry group is probably a good thing. But those women need to be able to speak their mind and be active participants in the decision-making process.”
As part of the full-day half-off the mountain, half-on the mountain educational course, Fasani shared her story to help convey to the 36 women in attendance what Safe-AS regards as the “human factors” that surround avalanche danger.
But whether a group is comprised of all guys, all girls or a combination, the elite skiers emphasized that the number-one variable one must bring into the backcountry is humility.
“The incredible thing about this particular group of women who are involved as instructors, they have so many legitimate tales,” Tone said.
“We have all made mistakes,” Tone continued. “We have all gotten caught in avalanches. We have fallen into those human factor traps. There are a lot of stories for us to tell. And I think for us women it’s not, we didn’t go just to take a course to teach courses. We have made a lifetime commitment to working and living in the backcountry and mountains. We all learned a lot of lessons. I think the stories people hear are important, so we can pass on our mistakes to our students.”
This is the sixth year this international collection of famous female professional skiers — such as Tone, Ingrid Backstrom, Michelle Parker, Elyse Saugstad and Jackie Paaso — have toured American snowsport destinations like Copper to relay snow safety and avalanche safety through their one-day course. But this was the first time a pair of snowboarders — Fasani and Hana Beaman — joined the skiers here at Copper.
For the Maine-native and Sweden-based freeride skier Paaso, Saturday’s course serves as the perfect chance for the pros like herself — ones that young and casual skiers and snowboarders look up to — to hammer home that educating yourself about the dangers of avalanches is a lifelong, everyday thing. And that this thirst for avalanche knowledge can and should spread to snowboarders, snowshoers and snowmobilers as well.
“These people that you see in the movies, you see on TV or whatever, they are not just going out there,” Faaso said. “They are taking all of these steps and they are doing it every single year and they are learning. And I don’t — none of us consider ourselves experts because there is always something to learn, and we are sharing that with the girls.”
“Just not to be afraid,” Paaso added. “I think if you have any interest of going into the backcountry — skier or snowboarder or snowshoer, snowmobiler, whatever — go take an AIARE Level 1 avalanche course or maybe dip your toes into an intro course anywhere. Don’t feel intimidated — ‘I’m just getting into this (hobby), this isn’t for me.’ That’s exactly who it’s for, anyone traveling in avalanche terrain.”
As part of the afternoon component, Paaso helped lead companion rescue drills up on the snow. While there, Paaso, Tone and the others passed along the idea of using “Avalanche Eyeballs” and communicating efficiently when traversing dangerous terrain in the backcountry. To Tone, approaching situations in this way is similar to viewing your time in the backcountry with an almost-team sport perspective.
“‘Avalanche Eyeballs’ means that you are in the present moment,” Tone said. “Not with your head down on a skin track thinking about the fight you had with your boyfriend. You are looking around because Mother Nature gives you a ton of clues. You can see the wind is blowing on the ridges. You can see natural avalanche activity.”
And whether guys or girls in her party, the thirst to learn more about the danger of avalanches is the primary characteristic Paaso looks for in her backcountry partners.
Because being a know-it-all could be lethal when out there.
“I think I’ve heard on occasion that people say ‘I know everything there is to know about avalanches,’” Paaso said. “And those are the people I won’t go into the backcountry with.
“Because it terrifies me. There is always something that can be learned.”
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