Over time every community, and corresponding culture, goes through paradigm shifts. Sometimes these alterations are glacially slow (note: by pre-anthropogenic climate change rates) and sometimes they happen with the expediency of a firecracker. Over the past five years, as skiers trade in lift tickets for tech bindings, the skiing community has experienced a profound refocusing of energy more akin the aforementioned explosive.
Consciously addressing the rate of change is important because we need to ask whether or not the skills required to ski in avalanche terrain can be acquired at the same rapid pace that our collective desire to ski steep, powder filled, backcountry lines deepens. Board members of the White Mountain Avalanche Education Foundation (WMAEF) feel that the skills and techniques needed for safe travel take years to acquire and therefore aren’t well matched for the ever growing culture of instant gratification. While the desire to explore out of bounds and un-patrolled areas is becoming ever present, the ability to do so safely only comes from years of training and experience.
Fortunately the backcountry skiing industry has seen a noticeable uptick in participation in recreational avalanche education courses. While the old model was to have a “close call” then go learn (praxis then theory), the new model is almost the inverse, learn and then go experience (theory then praxis). However, the people attending avalanche education courses often aren’t an accurate representation of increasingly diverse user groups. One population that is noticeably under served are skiers under the age of 18. The reasons for this are multifactorial, however, the one variable we at WMAEF want to address is the financial barrier created by the typical high cost (especially if you are a teenager) of formal avalanche education classes.
As board members we feel a deep responsibility to do our part to increase access to basic backcountry skiing and avalanche safety skills. Thus, this year, with the help of Synnott Mountain Guides and Acadia Mountain Guides, we hosted two backcountry youth avalanche awareness courses. Both classes were very well attended, with some students travelling around the northeast.
Each course began with a one hour presentation of basic backcountry information; for example how to collect snowpack data, how to put a trip plan together, and how to recognize avalanche terrain (amongst numerous other topics). After the presentation both groups skinned to the Hermit Lake shelters where we were greeted by USFS Snow Rangers with warm drinks and a place to get out of the wind for a few minutes. The Snow Rangers were gracious enough to take time out of their busy schedules to provide first hand experiences on what it is like to gather information in a harsh winter environment and then produce a usable avalanche forecast. After our fingers and toes were warmed, and calories consumed, we went back into the field to demonstrate basic snowpack analysis tests, and how to perform a companion rescue. While this is a lot of information to digest in a single outing, both groups did a phenomenal job of paying attention, asking good questions, and fully engaging in each field component. At three o’clock we all pointed skis downhill and both classes were treated to ideal conditions on the John Sherburne Ski Trail.
Over the past few years the topic of “mentorship” has received a lot of attention within the avalanche industry. As professionals we have asked in earnest how we can do a better job of fostering the relationships necessary for long-term learning in what are inherently complex and dynamic alpine systems. At WMAEF we are proud of our efforts to address this issue by creating opportunities for us to share our collective knowledge with the next generation of backcountry riders. Our hope is that our youth courses facilitate strong peer-to-peer partnerships as well as mentoring opportunities for kids who are just entering the sport. As we mentioned during our course debriefs, we are always here as a resource and we look forward to continuing to help kids safely recreate in the mountains for many years to come.
Thanks again to all those who participated and helped make the courses possible. Please join us at The Eastern Snow and Avalanche Workshop next year for a full multimedia recap made possible by Cait Bourgault and board member, Joe Klementovich. Ski safe!
Words by: Blake Keogh (WMAEF Board of Director and Youth Avalanche Awareness Instructor)