Avalanche skills essential for back-country users

Alpenglow Expeditions guide Tim Dobbins performs snowpack measurements.

It’s already a full house at Alibi Ale Works in Truckee when Tahoe Mountain Sports business owner and recently-elected Truckee town councilman David Polivy introduces his annual Beers & Beacons event.

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The crowd is a mix of seasoned local skiers, split boarders and snowmobilers who’ve gathered together to dust off their gear and catch up after the summer, along with many who are new to the evermore popular world of back-country winter sports and the life-saving technology that goes along with it.

Kenny Ackerman is a long-time snowmobiler from Truckee who just bought his first avalanche beacon, probe, shovel and airbag pack at Truckee Powersports Supply.

The basic back-country set of beacon, probe and shovel allows people to locate and dig out buried avalanche victims. An avalanche airbag pack is a newer technology designed to be released by a rider caught in a slide in order to keep him or her as close to the surface of the snow as possible to facilitate a rapid rescue. Up until recently, it was out of the ordinary to see recreational snowmobilers wearing this type of gear.

“More often more than not we’re not in serious avalanche country,” says Ackerman, who enjoys snowmobiling in the Jackson Meadows area north of Tahoe on State Route 89. “But you still have to be educated on avalanches. That’s really coming to light the last couple years with all the major slides we’ve been having.”

According to American Institute for Research and Education (AIARE), approximately 25 percent of avalanche fatalities during the past five years have been individuals on motorized vehicles such as snowmobiles and snow bikes. Now AIARE offers courses around the country specifically meant for motorized back-country travelers.

“Years ago, you heard about avalanches, but you didn’t see much awareness of it,” says Ackerman. “In the past, there were not as many people in the back country as there are now. We’re just here to see what kind of information is out there.”

Mark Aston of Reno had recently returned from a snowshoe trek to Elizabeth Parker Hut in Canada’s Yoho National Park.

“I’m a mountain climber in particular, but in the winter I wind up in avalanche terrain quite often,” he says. “When I go out with my buddies, I want to be able to take care of them and them take care of me.”

Aston is signed up for an AIARE Level I course with Alpenglow Expeditions this winter where he will learn how to access potential avalanche terrain.

Every year on average, 27 people die in the U.S. of avalanche-related causes, according to Colorado Avalanche Information Center.

Even when skiing the inbound chutes at Mt. Rose Ski Tahoe, Aston often wears his beacon to be safe.

Last March, a slide within bounds at Squaw Valley buried five people and multiple major slides were witnessed in the Tahoe back country after a dry winter ended in record precipitation toward the end of the season.

While deep snow is welcomed by many, those who travel out of bounds are hoping they won’t need a miracle to survive the next slide accidently triggered by themselves or a companion.

Katie Kuber, a local nurse who lives and recreates in the Tahoe Sierra, is at the event with her friend and ski partner, Mikki Zuiches.

“As recreational back-country skiers we are not practicing as much as we should,” she says. “We should really be getting out there and working on our rescue skills all the time.”

After a detailed explanation of the latest beacon technology by Ortovox brand ambassadors, some of the more eager folks gather outside to brave the cold for a chance to play around with the equipment. The excitement is real as the participants uncover a beacon hiding under a dusty snow bank. It’s only the beginning of the life-long training needed to prepare for that one moment one hope never happens, when the crown breaks and a ski partner is suddenly buried meters below the snow.

“We put these on because we really believe in getting people excited for winter and reminding them that traveling in back country is inherently dangerous,” says Polivy. “We want people to have the skills, the gear and the knowledge in order to minimize the risk of any potential injuries or fatalities when we are recreating. It’s important to know what you are getting into and travel smartly in the back country. Whether you are a skier, snowboarder or snowmobiler, we like to get together and make sure we are prepared.”

Avalanche courses

In the Tahoe Sierra, there are many opportunities to learn about avalanche terrain assessment, travel and rescue skills. Costs range from $300 to $600 for two to three-day courses. AIARE maintains a list of courses at avtraining.org. Among those offering classes in the Tahoe Sierra are:

  • Alpenglow Expeditions | com
  • Alpine Skills International | com
  • Backcountry Babes | com
  • Donner Summit Avalanche Seminars | com
  • Eldorado Backcountry Ski Patrol | clubexpress.com
  • Expedition Kirkwood | com
  • Lake Tahoe Community College | edu
  • North American Ski Training Center | com
  • S.A.F.E. AS Clinics | safeasclinics.com
  • Sierra Alpine Education | On Facebook
  • Tahoe Mountain School | com

Free avalanche clinics

Tahoe Mountain Sports | Airbag Party and Backcountry Tech Night at Reno Craft Beer & Wine on Jan. 9 from 6 to 8 p.m. | tahoemountainsports.com

Sierra Avalanche Center | Free course on avalanche-risk management for motorized users. | sierraavalanchecenter.org

  • Jan. 25-27 in Truckee; registration open.
  • Feb. 1-3 in Truckee; registration opens Dec. 24.
  • Feb. 22- 24 in South Lake Tahoe; registration opens Jan. 14.
  • March 1-3 in South Lake Tahoe; registration opens Jan. 21.
  • March 8-10 in South Lake Tahoe; registration opens Jan 28.