Now in its third season, the Bryce and Ronnie Athlete Snow Safety (BRASS) Foundation in conjunction with the American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education (AIARE) are continuing their efforts to better educate the ski racing community about the dangers of avalanches, by putting on level one certification clinics for the athletes, coaches, and staff of U.S. Ski & Snowboard through two sessions last month at Snowbird, Utah.
By now you’d be hard pressed to find someone in the greater ski racing community who doesn’t know the story of Bryce Astle and Ronnie Berlack, two promising members of the alpine development team who were tragically killed in an in-bounds avalanche in Soelden, Austria, on January 5, 2015. The BRASS Foundation was started in the aftermath of the tragedy and has had the mission of educating the ski racing community about the risks associated with skiing in avalanche terrain ever since.
The official accident report was published late last year by the BRASS Foundation and cited a general lack of snow-safety awareness and education of both athletes and staff as key contributors to the tragedy. BRASS’s efforts in conjunction with AIARE over the last three years have been focused on mitigating those risks for athletes traveling abroad to train and compete during the winter to places where the term “off piste” may not mean the same thing as it does here in the United States.
Over a dozen athletes and staff took part in each of the two clinics at Snowbird where students were subject to three days of intensive, hands-on learning that included the proper equipment needed for backcountry travel, snowpack analysis, how to interpret short and long-term weather reports and translate that information into avalanche risk, backcountry trip planning, and basic avalanche search and rescue procedures.
“I was really impressed with the course,” says U.S. Ski Team member and 2017 World Junior Champion Sam Morse. “I thought it was super informative and I feel way safer going out there and being able to plan a trip and route-find and stay out of harm’s way a lot easier.”
The course’s three instructors, Sean Zimmerman-Wall, Bruce Engelhard, and Nicholas Nason, walked the students through all aspects of safely navigating backcountry terrain and guided daily tours into the backcountry where athletes were able to put their classroom work to use in several real-world scenarios.
“I had not taken any classes before,” admits Morse. “I had done the basic BRASS awareness presentation with the video they put together and that was it. I have been in the backcountry a handful of times, nothing super serious. Maybe a few trips hiking into Tuckerman’s Ravine or doing a little touring in Norway this spring with the team. I always knew there was danger in the backcountry but I never knew how to quantify it.”
Morse was a teammate of Astle and Berlack and was on the trip where they were killed. Although he was not skiing in the same group that Astle and Berlack were that day, the experience weighed heavily on the Maine native and he was happy to finally get formal training in how to help prevent a tragedy like that from happening again in the future.
“It was definitely kind of a full-circle experience for me,” he explains. “I’ve been processing the grief and shame of that event and it was really good to go and take this course and realize what really went wrong that day and what our mistakes were. It took me a long time to take this course, just mentally getting back to a point where I was willing to do it. It was a really cool experience for me just emotionally to come full-circle and face the hard facts because I knew they would hit on it in this course. I owed it to those guys and the families to take it.”
The weight of the Astle-Berlack accident was ever-present throughout the courses with Astle’s mother, Laura, making a brief statement about how important this education is on the first morning of the clinic. “I want to thank you for doing this because I don’t want your families to get that four AM wakeup call like we did,” she said.
“Knowing the lineage of how the program got going is enough in itself to humble people and makes them see value in taking the course,” says Zimmerman-Wall, who currently serves as the AIARE Professional Avalanche Education Program Director. “They can see themselves in Bryce and Ronnie, maybe making a similar decision to ski that slope that day.”
Zimmerman-Wall has been involved with professional ski guiding since 2010 and has been instructing avalanche safety courses since 2012, in addition to working as a ski patroller since 2009. He says that although backcountry experience may be limited with the athletes, coaches, and staff that attend the BRASS courses, the preparedness and willingness to learn is what sets the group apart from the majority of students they see throughout the year.
“There are no shortcuts to becoming an Olympic-level athlete and they treat their avalanche education the same way,” he says. “They’re not there to check a box, they’re not there to come in and just take their level one, they really take their education very seriously and put the same level of effort into their level one course as they do into their training regimens to become elite-level athletes, coaches, or staff to support those people. I’m really impressed with the work ethic of all of the people in the BRASS courses.”
BRASS has also been spearheading the efforts at the club level, encouraging athletes and staff at all levels to at the very least become aware of the risks of skiing in avalanche terrain through presentations to programs throughout the year.
Last December, an in-bounds avalanche at Jackson Hole in Wyoming involving a group of athletes from the Jackson Hole Ski Club highlighted the need for this type of education all the way down the development pipeline.
Jackson Hole Ski Club Head U14 Coach Kevin Keane was traversing in the Expert Chutes — which had been bombed for avalanches earlier that morning by ski patrol — with a group of six athletes when a 150-foot wide slab broke free and swept the group down the mountain. Four of the six athletes managed to ski out of the avalanche but two athletes and an additional recreational skier were buried. Keane has a level two avalanche certification and sprung into action immediately. Thanks to his quick actions and the fast response of the Jackson Hole ski patrol, nobody was seriously injured that day.
“I did the certification on my own when I first came to Jackson and wanted to get into that, it’s kind of natural to want to go into that backcountry scene here,” Keane says. “We’re a pretty tight-knit community so it’s really for everyone’s benefit. We’ve done clinics through our club with all of our kids, usually over the Christmas break period when they are out of school and have more time on their hands.”
Ski racers are in a unique position in the snowsports community. Their skillsets put them in unique category where they can easily find themselves in dangerous situations but also have the technical abilities to ski out of them. For this very reason, avalanche education becomes even more important.
“I think avalanche education is absolutely crucial,” adds Morse. “I think we have a tremendous amount of ski talent and can get ourselves into tricky situations a lot faster than regular people can because we see these lines and say, ‘We can go ski that!’ But we don’t necessarily have the other side of the education. I’ve been really impressed with what BRASS is doing to try and educate ski racers as a whole and I would love to see all ski racers take their avalanche one.”