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Survivor of Stevens Pass avalanche to speak at Copper Mountain Resort safety clinic

Sebastian Foltz
sfoltz@summitdaily.com
S.A.F.E. A.S. presenters work the on-snow portion of their women's avalanche safety clinic during a session at Squaw Valley. The group will host two one-day clinics at Copper this weekend.
Michelle Parker / S.A.F.E. A.S. |

Making presumptions, ignoring warning signs, falling prey to the herd mentality or an over-eagerness to carve fresh lines — in the backcountry, these missteps can result in fatal mistakes. It’s a feeling that pro freeride and backcountry skier Elyse Saugstad knows all too well. In 2012 she was swept away in a large slide on Stevens Pass in Washington state, a story made famous by a Pulitzer Prize–winning New York Times multimedia piece. The avalanche killed three of the 13 in the party.

“It was horrifying. It lasted for 45 seconds,” Saugstad said of the incident, crediting the safety airbag she deployed from her pack with saving her life. “I don’t ever want to use it again.”

With a growing market catering to backcountry gear sales and more and more people leaving resort boundaries, safety is an increasing concern. Her group of 13 was just outside the boundaries of the Stevens Pass Ski Area when the slide occurred.

“The thing about the avalanche I was in,” she recalled, “there was a lot of experience in the group. We made errors.”

It’s an explanation that reoccurs in a number of avalanche reports. But as much as anything, correcting the problem is about proper education, recognizing the warning signs and not being afraid to speak up or trust your gut.

Her experience is part of the reason Saugstad and a group of her fellow pro skiers and friends formed SAFE-AS — Skiers Advocating and Fostering Education for Avalanche and Snow Safety. The group, co-founded by Saugstad, Ingrid Backstrom, Jackie Paaso, Michelle Parker, Lel Tone and the late freeskier Shane McConkey’s wife, Cherry, formed three years ago with the idea of hosting introductory avalanche safety clinics catered specifically to women. The group will offer two separate one-day clinics this Saturday and Sunday at Copper Mountain Resort.

“We noticed that there weren’t as many females going to level one and level two avalanche classes,” Paaso said of their idea for the program. She further explained that catering a clinic solely to women creates an environment more conducive to discussion.

“We’re trying to get ladies to not be worried about speaking up. We want them to know that it’s OK to err on the side of caution. If you have a gut feeling, act on it.”

Saugstad added, “We’re inspiring women to seek adventures in the mountains just like men are.”

The one-day clinics will serve as an introduction to the basics in backcountry safety, and Saugstad said they are also a fun refresher for anyone with previous experience.

“One of the things you learn in avalanche training is that everyone has a voice. It’s a good idea to not just trust the group,” she said, discussing some of the ideas they will cover along with stories from their own experiences. “Women, when you’re around a group of men, it can be difficult to speak up. We’re empowering them to speak up.”

Each day’s session will start at 7 a.m. with a ski- and snowboard-focused yoga session followed by a class session and on-the-hill training. Sessions include lunch and a lift pass, as well as an apres party and raffle with proceeds benefiting Project Zero — an avalanche safety awareness campaign. The clinics cost $140 per session, $110 with a valid student I.D. Sign-up is available online at safeasclinics.org and limited to 30 people per clinic. Backstrom is the only member of the group who will not be in attendance this weekend. Pro snowboarder Robin Van Gyn is expected to replace Backstrom for the weekend’s session.

More information is available at http://www.safeasclinics.org.


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