By Tim Hauserman
Lel, front, teaches proper technique of finding a person swept away by an avalanche during a workshop. | Tim Hauserman
A few years ago, I took an Avalanche Level One course. My ventures into the winter woods primarily involve easy touring or skating the groomed trails at cross-country ski resorts, but I was fascinated to learn more about this powerful and dangerous winter phenomena.
My teacher was a spunky, energetic lady named Lel Tone, whose passion for making sure we both get out into the snow, and stayed safe while doing so, was infectious and memorable. I learned a lot about snow science, but even more about the psychology of avoiding getting stuck in an avalanche. Tone’s approach was positive, all inclusive, and down to earth. So down to earth that I had no idea that she was a world-class skier and athlete.
Forty-four-year-old Tone was raised in Switzerland and began skiing at the age of 2. She developed her passion for snow science while throwing bombs for the Squaw Valley Ski Patrol over the past 18 years. She figures that she’s thrown more than 6,500 charges, setting off a ton of little avalanches that prevented the big ones. Once the ski season starts to wind down at Squaw, Lel is just getting warmed up. She heads to Alaska where she has been a popular heli ski guide for 15 years for Chugach Powder Guides and Tordrillo Mountain Lodge.
In other words, she is one badass skier, or paddleboard racer, or whatever other adrenaline-crazed sport she takes on. It’s really all about practicing carpe diem while enjoying the winter wonderland, and she wants to do what she can to help others not only get out there, but return home to be able to do it again. She discovered the best way to make that happen was to teach others avalanche science.
It was Russ Johnson, the Squaw Valley Ski Area avalanche forecaster at the time, who got Lel started on her career in avalanche teaching.
“He encouraged me to teach some courses. I realized it was something I was passionate about. And, that came through in my teaching. If you have a passion for what you are doing, it is tangible, they get it,” she says.
“Learning the whole science part was all new. I came to it from the practical aspect. That is where I developed the passion.”
She’s been teaching avalanche courses in a variety of forms ever since to a range of demographics. Recently, she’s been excited to teach a younger crowd of talented athletes.
“Back-country skiing has become so popular and chic. Some of these 16- and 17-year-olds feel so comfortable in that medium. So comfortable in snow. To a fault,” she says.
Lel wants to make sure that the young skiers out there don’t add their names to the long list of adventurous local skiers who have succumbed to avalanches.
In addition to young people, Lel is a part of a group called SAFE AS (Skiers Advocating and Fostering Education in Avalanche and Snow Safety), which includes some top-notch women skiers like Michelle Parker, Jackie Passo, Elyse Saugstad and Ingrid Backstrom. The goal is simple – getting the word out to women about how to stay out of avalanches.
“We need to reach the female demographic. To give women the confidence to speak up in the process,” Lel says.
What’s next for Lel? Hopefully a lot more powder days, flat paddles and good times in the mountains with friends. She’s also helping to design mountaineering and ski clothes for Eddie Bauer’s First Ascent skiing line.
“They brought me on board as a consultant seven years ago. We had carte blanche to design things that we guides, ski patrollers and winter professionals actually need in our quiver to do our jobs. So, there is a story behind the clothes and they want authentic gear that can be used in the mountain environment,” she says.
And, her name and sparkling face has been popping up in the press of late, including Outside Magazine picking her as a Top Guide.
Yep, she’s one of those bad ass women athletes that Tahoe is famous for. But not when you sit and chat with her over a coffee at Tahoe House, she’s just a fun lady who is interested in talking about her latest adventures, and reminding you to get out there and find your way to carpe diem.
For more information on avalanche forecasts and classes, visit sierravalancehcenter.org, call the hotline at (530) 587-3558 or like SAFE AS Clinics on Facebook. Local classes also are listed in Tahoe Weekly, at TheTahoeWeekly.com and issuu.com/TheTahoeWeekly.
See Lel in action
Lel is featured on one of the teams on the reality show “Ultimate Survival Alaska” airing now on the National Geographic channel.