Female pro backcountry skiers teach avalanche safety

SOLITUDE SKI RESORT, Utah (AP) — Professional backcountry skier Elyse Saugstad planted her ski boots in knee-deep powder, her pink ski pants and camo jacket turned up-mountain toward seven women equally shrouded in Gore-Tex and dusted in fresh snow. Step by step, she reviewed the best techniques for probing for a body in the snow.

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The whir of the turning lifts had ceased. The little light that penetrated through the swirls of snow falling on the slopes of Solitude Mountain Resort on Saturday was beginning to fade. The foot of fresh powder pulled at the students, calling them to make at least one run of fresh tracks after spending most of the day inside the resort’s Last Chance Lodge.

Still, Saugstad stood her ground. She, as much as anyone, believes in the importance of avalanche safety and education. These women and 33 others like them had signed up for a SAFE AS clinic to learn from some of the world’s most famous and respected big mountain skiers — all but one of which was female — how to more safely navigate the backcountry. Saugstad had no intention of selling her students short, no matter how long it took.

“Our job through the whole day is actually to scare the bejeezus out of you,” Saugstad, 40, later told The Salt Lake Tribune. “We also realize, at the end of the day, the more aware you are and the more you are using all the tools that we give you and teach you that you’ll be able to play in the mountains safely.”

Avalanches are an inherent danger associated with winter mountain sports. Over the past 10 years, an average of 24 outdoor adventurers — including skiers, snowboarders, snowmobilers and snowshoers — have died annually from avalanches in the United States, according to the Colorado Avalanche Information Center. That tally includes only a partial account for this 2019-20 season. Nonetheless, slides have already claimed eight lives this season, including three skiers who died last week after at least one avalanche was triggered within the boundary lines at Idaho’s Silver Mountain.

Another slide in December killed a 45-year-old Salt Lake City chef who was snowboarding just outside the boundary line at The Canyons Village. The CAIC reports 28 people have been killed in avalanches in Utah over the past 10 seasons.

So, when Saugstad and her co-founders considered adding a third weekend to the clinics they had been selling out every year in Colorado and California since 2012, it made sense to bring one into the Wasatch Mountains. Officially called Skiers Advocating and Fostering Education for Avalanche and Snow Safety, the SAFE AS seminars have traditionally been oriented toward women, though Sunday they offered a coed version.

“I think doing a clinic like this makes sense in any mountain community,” Saugstad said, “and Utah was an easy no-brainer.”

The students, who came from as far as Washington and Colorado, eased into the morning with a yoga session. Then the all-star lineup of skiers shook them out of their Zen state with lectures on the anatomy and consequences of big slides.

Lel Tone, a Squaw Valley ski patroller and winner of Ultimate Survival Alaska, addressed the basics of what makes an avalanche, how to identify one and how people typically get caught in one. Michelle Parker, a Powder Video Awards Best Female Performance winner, conducted a science experiment to show an avalanche in action. Ingrid Backstrom, also a multi-time Powder Best Female Performance winner, discussed the imperative of speaking up in a group if something feels off. Freeride World Tour competitors Jackie Paaso and Reine Barkered then sprinkled in a few miscommunication anecdotes.

Some of the students, especially those with more backcountry experience, couldn’t resist the chance to be given their yearly safety refresher by their favorite ski-flick stars. “Not going to lie,” said Nicole Sims, who lives just a few miles up Big Cottonwood Canyon from Solitude and has her Pro 1 avalanche certification, “we wanted to hang with some ripping backcountry women.”

Others, like Jess Pealer, 41, of Sandy, brought no backcountry experience but plenty of curiosity. She rented a transceiver, probe and shovel from REI for the class because she said she didn’t want to invest in her own gear until she had a better idea of what is involved in backcountry safety.

“I want to know what I’m getting myself into. Is it worth it for me (to get my own equipment)?” she said. “And I will.”

Encouraging more women to go into the wilderness was the effect intended when the group initiated the clinics eight years ago. At least, it was one of them. The other, as Saugstad said, was to imbue her students with a healthy fear of the mountains and their power even over the most experienced skiers.

On that, Saugstad speaks with authority. While all the skiers on the panel have a trove of stories about near misses, hers is likely the most harrowing. The last speaker before the group broke for lunch and then headed up the mountain to practice their search and recovery skills, she described an outing that went fatally awry.

She had joined some friends, including other pro skiers and people very familiar with Stevens Pass Ski Resort in Washington, on an outing to that resort’s side country on a bluebird day in February 2012. The group bloomed to 16 by the time they got beyond the resort boundary gates, making clear communication difficult. Despite misgivings about the line that had been picked and the high avalanche danger, Saugstad followed others down a steep, open swath of snow.

After about the seventh person descended the face, the slope gave way. Saugstad was among four skiers caught in its path and pushed to the bottom of a canyon. She was the only one of the four to survive.

After being dug out by other members of the group — an airbag kept her above the approximately 11 million pounds of debris, and one rescuer told her he spotted her via her pink mittens poking up through the snow — she joined the search effort for the others.

Saugstad relayed a sense of urgency and alarm in both the telling of that experience and her instructions on the ski hill. Audrey Schadt, a 28-year-old nurse from Salt Lake City, said she could relate.

“It’s everyone’s worst nightmare,” Schadt said. “But if you prepare — it’s the same thing as, like, when I’m at work. I’m a nurse, and when I meet my patient and walk into the ICU for the first five minutes of my shift, and I look around the room and it’s like, ‘All right, how is my patient going to die today?’ Then I’m like, “All right, this is what I’m going to do if this happens and if this happens and this happens. Great.’ And then I go on with my day and when weird (stuff) happens, you’ve at least thought about it. And when that panic hits you, it’s like, ‘OK, I was kind of anticipating this. Here we go!’”

That’s the approach Saugstad wants her students to have when entering the backcountry, or really any time they strap on their skis or board. So, if her students wanted to practice their probing and shoveling as beers and appetizers awaited them back at the lodge, not even fresh powder would pull her away.