Olivero: Backcountry stars take it upon themselves to teach Summit locals avalanche safety
COPPER MOUNTAIN RESORT — The greatest aha moment breakthrough for the collective of Summit County locals at Saturday’s SAFE AS avalanche clinic may just have come off snow.
While the clinic attendees were in a classroom setting, pro skier Michelle Parker asked them to follow her to the back of the room. There, Parker had set up what she described as a tilt board avalanche demonstration. Parker poured cane sugar and flour to simulate different kinds of snowfall layers. Like an avalanche arts and crafts project, the sugar and flour was scattered on top of a few different surfaces, some more slick than others, that Red Bull freeskier Parker had adhered to the wooden board.
Parker then asked one of the students to read the angle of the tiltmeter as she raised the back end of the board up. As the meter crept above 30 degrees toward 35 degrees, the sugar and flour began to crack, showing students just how an avalanche manifests up close and personal.
“It’s so logical to see it in a demonstration like that in a safe area in a classroom,” Parker said. “It starts to click. You see the bed surfaces and how they might react at which degree the slope would slide. Then you get to the anatomy of an avalanche — the flanks, the crown, the bed surface.”
Parker returned to Copper Mountain Resort this weekend with fellow pro skiers Jackie Paaso, Cody Townsend, Elyse Saugstad and others as part of the SAFE AS — Skiers and Snowboarders Advocating and Fostering Avalanche & Snow Safety — Clinic. Saturday’s clinic was the same women’s-only class SAFE AS has operated since the pro skiers launched the clinic eight years ago. Sunday’s clinic at Copper was opened up to a coed format for the first time.
Clinic operator and pro freeskier Jackie Paaso said Saturday she and her pro skier friends have always operated SAFE AS as a women’s-only event because they felt the voices and concerns of women are often not heard or neglected in backcountry groups. However, in recent years Passo and the other pros said they realized many women aren’t going into the backcountry in all-girl groups. Often, they are out there with a significant other, a family member or guy friends, and felt opening it up to include men as well made sense.
As such, they welcomed Townsend along for the weekend, where he provided a man’s perspective on touring and communicating effectively in guy-girl groups.
“They always say, ‘The safest thing in the backcountry is a woman,'” Townsend said. “Statistically you are less likely to get caught in an avalanche with a woman in your group. The main thing we try to stress is, ‘If you think it, say it.’ Because quite often you can fall into silence because it’s welcoming in the backcountry to be quiet, it feels peaceful. But for safety’s sake it is really important to be always talking. You want the group to think larger than the individual.”
Just this past week Townsend released the latest short film as part of his latest, lauded freeski film career: “The Fifty Project.” The project chronicles Townsend’s goal to climb and ski all 50 lines chronicled in the book, “The Fifty Classic Ski Descents of North America.” The most recent chapter, “Peak Obsession,” released on YouTube Nov. 27, took Townsend’s group to Meteorite Mountain and Pontoon Peak near Valdez, Alaska.
The trip was an experience that echoes Townsend’s emphasis on communication in the backcountry. Townsend said on Saturday that typically quiet cinematographer Bjarne Salen spoke up while ascending with the super experienced group.
“As we were getting up toward the summit we started having discussions about if we were going to continue,” Townsend said. “There were some danger factors for the way back down, for the way up — it just was on edge. Then Bjarne spoke up and said, ‘I made a decision 200 feet below that I’m not going to the top today.’
“So at that moment it was very impactful,” Townsend continued. “because he’s generally a quiet guy. He’s very comfortable, generally, in very hard, steep snow situations, situations like we were finding ourselves in. So when he said ‘I’m not going to the top,’ everyone was cool with it. Those are the kind of moments — understanding my partner, understanding his comfort levels in steeps and exposed situations we were in — when he says, ‘I don’t want to go to the top today,’ that for me is a massive red flag.”
Two months later when the group returned and accomplished their goal, Townsend said the conditions they observed confirmed they made the right call and avoided catastrophe.
Last winter Parker coached rising star snowboarder Brock Crouch after the Red Bull rider’s buried-alive experience the winter prior in Whistler, British Columbia. Parker said before Crouch’s accident, which resulted from a cornice breaking beneath his board, the Californian hadn’t had much avalanche education.
After the accident, Parker spent weeks last season working on avalanche safety with Crouch and his good friend and Summit County local Red Gerard. Parker said the young pros had their eyes opened to the dangers of the backcountry.
Crouch overcame his fears and tested his new avalanche skills not on a tilt board, but on a line eerily similar to the one he had his accident. While in Tahoe last year after the avalanche education, Parker said Crouch picked a line with a narrow entryway and blind rollover in between two massive cornices. To ensure success, Parker walked Crouch into his line by communication over the radio, spotting him from her snowmobile through binoculars.
“And he nailed it,” Parker said. “I think for him and I we both saw it as, ‘You stepped it up. You faced your fear. You were in the right position. You had a wealth of knowledge you didn’t have before and you executed that super safely.’”
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