January 5, 2015, is a day that will live forever as one of the darkest in U.S. skiing history. The ski community woke up that morning to news that two of the U.S. Ski Team’s brightest young talents, 20-year-old Ronnie Berlack and 19-year-old Bryce Astle, were killed that day in an avalanche in Soelden, Austria.
As various national news agencies picked up the story and the White House offered their condolences, the questions of how and why two of the country’s best skiers could die skiing in-bounds terrain swirled in the heads of thousands who were struggling to come to terms with the news.
Last month, the Bryce & Ronnie Athlete Snow Safety Foundation — BRASS for short — published their official accident report that chronicled the days leading up to the tragedy and provided a detailed analysis of the conditions and events of January 5, 2015.
The full report can be read in its entirety here.
In short, the report cites a general lack of snow-safety awareness and education of both athletes and staff as key contributors to the tragedy. Namely, a lack of knowledge of the local avalanche forecasts and how the term “off-piste” differs from country to country. In Europe, any in-bounds, un-groomed terrain is largely considered as “off-piste” and not subject to regular avalanche control.
“The only thing that would have saved those guys was supervision,” says Ronnie’s father and BRASS co-founder, Steve Berlack, himself an 18-year coaching veteran. “That being said, I would have done nothing different if I were leading that trip because I didn’t know and neither did they. It’s not Disney World, you have to be careful.”
The BRASS Foundation has also released a 13-minute film this week titled: Off Piste: Tragedy in the Alps that includes a dramatic reenactment of the accident and highlights the various details that could have prevented the tragedy entirely.
Warning: Some images depicted in the video may be disturbing to some viewers.
“We had hoped as an organization that we would have been able to do more in the four years since the boys were killed than we have been able to,” adds Berlack. “We still don’t have any mandated coaches education for snow safety and we’re a snow sport.”
It is the hope of BRASS that the lack of official snow-safety education will soon be a thing of the past with recent conversations and appointments in the community pointing towards positive movement for the foundation’s mission.
Although safety as it pertains to protocol within training or racing venues has been covered to a great extent by U.S. Ski & Snowboard and clubs across the country, the topic of safety outside of the race course has been largely overlooked by the racing community, until now.
Longtime coach and ski guide, Lindsay Mann, was recently hired as the Sun Valley Ski Education Foundation (SVSEF) Mountain Awareness Coordinator as well as a U16 alpine coach. Mann began her work in Jackson, Wyoming, and holds American Avalanche Institute, American Mountain Guides Association, American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education, Wilderness First Responder, and U.S. Ski & Snowboard level 200 certifications and will be responsible for the club’s efforts to educate athletes, coaches, and parents in snow safety and avalanche awareness.
“I was brought in so that I can help bring more avalanche awareness and mountain awareness programs to the SVSEF community,” says Mann. “One of the main goals we are focusing on for this year is to have a classroom session type avalanche awareness presentation in the fall, and in the winter have a two-to-three hour field-based avalanche awareness training session for all high school aged athletes.”
“That is a landmark appointment,” adds Berlack. “That is a club that has five sports saying that this is something that our kids need to know and they hired her to do this, which we couldn’t be happier about.”
In addition to using the BRASS video and accident report in her presentations, Mann has consulted extensively with players in the community like Sawtooth Mountain Guides and Sun Valley Trekking, as well as prominent local ski figures like Zach Crist to fine tune her curriculum for maximum effectiveness at all ages and ability levels.
“We are also putting together an Avalanche I course for coaches as well as an Avalanche II course for coaches since we all know how many coaches want to do these things but how hard it is to find the time to do them during the season,” Mann says. “We’re working with Sawtooth Mountain Guides and Sun Valley Trekking to make custom dates for those courses.”
Mann’s appointment has also caught the attention of new U.S. Ski & Snowboard Director of Sport Education, Gar Trayner, who sees SVSEF’s approach to the topic of snow safety as an example for what is possible at clubs across the country.
“I think doing it in that way and allowing someone to own it within a program and really drive it is a really critical part of learning,” Trayner says. “Staying on top of current knowledge is important, but also sharing that knowledge and driving that culture of learning.”
Trayner is currently working with the BRASS Foundation to develop an effective training module to deliver to coaches across the country and will be looking at appropriate information that is already available to fill that gap in the interim.
“We are endeavoring at every point to give every layer of education available to coaches,” he says. “We’re definitely national leaders as the national governing body and I think when it comes to snow safety, I’d like to be in that same position as very much pioneering and getting involved in as much content generation and dissemination as possible. Really building it into our core curriculum, with it being such a critical part of winter sports, regardless of discipline. We’re super excited to build on the relationship we have with BRASS and hopefully make coaches be in a position to make really good decisions and to empower those decisions with relevant information and training.”
Stressing how important this type of education is to the greater ski racing community, regardless of if they are from avalanche-prone parts of the country or not, will be essential if this information is to become ubiquitous when an individual first enters the sport or choses to become a ski coach.
“A common thread in most ski club’s mission statements is that they are trying to make great skiers,” explains Mann. “Regardless of if you’re a skier in Minnesota or Colorado, you’re traveling to races or training venues where avalanches are real — you need to know about them. Even if you aren’t an elite-level coach or athlete, you’re still trying to develop or become a really strong skier that hopefully one day will ski out West or somewhere where there are avalanches. It’s an important part of understanding the mountain.”
“I think it’s a tragedy that this information and this education component has always been missed,” adds Trayner. “I think people have stuck to what’s on their front doorstep and what they do on a daily basis and what is most controllable and that’s a training or racing environment. It’s a tragic thing, but it’s an opportunity for us to do better.”