Area Organizations Come Together to Promote Avalanche Safety for SVSEF Athletes

From the Idaho Mountain Express, December 25, 2015
Even though ski racing rarely occurs on avalanche-prone slopes, the Sun Valley Ski Education Foundation wants its athletes to be knowledgeable on the subject when they embark on powder-skiing adventures.
A grim reminder of that need came last January when two U.S. Alpine D Team racers were killed in an avalanche after training in Solden, Austria.
Early this month, the Sun Valley Ski Patrol and Sawtooth Avalanche Center staff partnered to present an avalanche education program to the foundation’s USSA and FIS team athletes and coaches.
This marks the second year that Sun Valley Co.’s Mountain Community Campaign has used the talents of the Sawtooth Avalanche Center and the ski patrol to promote safety and awareness to the upper-level SVSEF athletes. The Mountain Community Campaign promotes cooperation and safety among all mountain users.
Scott McGrew, head alpine director for the SVSEF, said he firmly believes in instilling snow and avalanche awareness in his staff and athletes.
“As coaches and mentors for our Ski Education athletes, our role goes far beyond teaching them to ski and compete,” he said. “We give them skills to be world-class skiers, but the education that comes through our partnership with the Avalanche Center and the Sun Valley Ski Patrol is what creates the whole picture.  We take this seriously and want our athletes to bring solid judgement and awareness to their experience on skis. This is a critical aspect of what we do.”
On Saturday, Dec. 5, outdoors on top of Bald Mountain, McGrew introduced the racers to Skooter Gardiner, the ski patrol’s snow safety director, who discussed ski area signs and their importance. Gardiner and ski patrolmen Joel Mallet and Matt Curci explained the differences between in-area closures and ski area boundaries.
Veteran patrolman Whiz McNeal discussed snow immersion suffocation, known as SIS, a phenomenon that claims several lives in the U.S. each year. McNeal described past SIS accidents that occurred on Baldy and what the athletes can do to prevent suffocation and survive tree-well and deep-snow incidents both in and out of bounds.
Among those are not wearing ski pole straps while skiing powder, especially around trees. McNeal told the racers that if they’re stuck face-down in the snow, they can pull their goggles down over their nose and mouth to create a small air pocket. They should then dig a larger pocket around their face. Crossed ski poles in the snow can provide a platform to push up from, he said.
Sawtooth Avalanche Center Lead Forecaster Ethan Davis and Avalanche Specialist Matt Wieland recalled personal avalanche experiences and stressed the importance of getting the equipment, knowledge  and training to make good decisions and deal with accidents before heading out of bounds or into the backcountry. They said sound decision-making is a key factor, with the common-sense caveat, “If it doesn’t feel right, then back off—don’t do it.”
The patrol and Avalanche Center staff encouraged questions from the athletes. One racer asked, “How long does it take the ski patrol to respond to an out-of-bounds burial on Bald Mountain?” Gardiner replied that the patrol’s first responsibility is to ensure the safety of guests skiing within bounds. Once skiers or riders duck under the boundary rope, they’re on their own, and rescue falls under the jurisdiction of the Blaine County Sheriff’s Office.
If the patrol does not have to tend to other accidents within the area and has the resources to respond, a patroller must first call the Sheriff’s Office, describe the incident and wait for permission to perform an out-of-bounds rescue. The process results in a lapse of 30 to 40 minutes before a patrol rescue unit can reach an avalanche burial site. Gardiner said that after 10 minutes, a buried person’s odds of survival drop drastically.
Next, the 80 athletes and coaches convened at the SVSEF Training Center to meet with Avalanche Center Director Scott Savage, who showed a recently released video called “Know Before You Go.” It featured stunning footage by Sherpa Cinemas and an impressive cast of skiers, boarders, snowmobilers and snow-safety gurus. The video stresses five basic ideas that can save one’s life in the mountains:

  • Get the gear.
  • Get the training.
  • Get the forecast.
  • Get the picture.
  • Get out of harm’s way.

The film can be viewed at
Following the video, Savage presented a sobering analysis of the Solden, Austria, avalanche tragedy, which occurred on Jan. 5, two weeks after last year’s first SVSEF avalanche session on Baldy. Savage explained the storm cycle, snow conditions, avalanche warnings and forecasts in the days prior to the accident. He said there had been other avalanche burials that week.
Ben Kanellitsas, a personal friend of the two racers, grew up racing with the SVSEF and spent a post-graduate year skiing with them. He is now a student at the University of Denver but serves as an SVSEF assistant alpine coach during winter break. His words to the group were heartfelt and powerful.
“Avalanche danger, for the most part, has been historically overlooked by so many ski clubs across the U.S.—mainly because we don’t associate the dangers of avalanches with ski racing,” he said. “My viewpoint is, unfortunately, quite unique. Ronnie and especially Bryce were very good friends of mine. What I personally learned from that whole ordeal is that avalanches don’t choose when or who they affect. They do not discriminate. Bryce was one of the strongest skiers I have ever met, and to see something like that happen is an unbelievably humbling and saddening experience.
“Fortunately, the SVSEF sees it as their obligation to not only create the next generation of fast ski racers, but also to make sure their athletes learn the risks and can help mitigate future events.”
McGrew said this type of training puts the SVSEF in the forefront of avalanche education for winter sports athletes.
To read or sign up for daily avalanche advisories and mountain weather reports, learn about upcoming avalanche education events or just view general snow, weather and avalanche information, visit