Minimizing Risk Through Avalanche Education
Admit it – most ski racers believe that they are invincible. They’re most often the quickest down the mountain, the most competent skiers in and out of the gates, and in the know with all things cool as they pertain to snow culture. The Bryce and Ronnie Athlete Safety and Security Foundation (BRASS) is on a mission to fill one massive gap in what the organization believes is missing in the education of ski racers in the United States: the integration of an avalanche safety culture beginning at a young age.
“Ski teams and clubs are creating incredible skiers who love to ski in powder during their race careers and even afterward,” says Michael Silitch, the new executive director at BRASS. “Our goal is to avoid avalanche accidents through education beginning at the ski academy and camp levels.”
The BRASS Foundation is a nonprofit that was formed after the tragic deaths of Bryce Astle and Ronnie Berlack who were killed in an avalanche in Soelden, Austria, in 2015 while training with the U.S. Ski Team.
The foundation’s goal is to continue to spread its message that ski racers are not invincible and must understand the importance of avalanche awareness education. Racers get to power themselves 80 miles per hour through downhill courses, but they wouldn’t start a speed race without proper training and a course inspection beforehand. Hours and hours of gym time, coaches’ instructions, reviewing video, eating the right meals, and getting enough sleep all add up to enable an athlete to ski at high speeds without fear.
Now imagine skiing up to a cornice that you want to jump off of into some soft powder just six feet below. Would you consider all inherent risks before proceeding? Have you checked the avalanche forecast? Do you have a beacon, probe, shovel, and a skiing partner? How about this one – have you taken an avalanche safety course? If the answer to any one of those questions is no, then your life might very well be in danger by making what seems to be a rather innocuous leap.
Instilling a level of confidence through education is where the BRASS Foundation sees potential to have the greatest impact on the sport. Since January of 2017 when Silitch took the lead as executive director, the nonprofit organization has been growing its board of directors and taking measurable action in the field of racer avalanche education. BRASS has played a key role in offering advice to help change policy at U.S. Ski & Snowboard that reflects avalanche safety education at a young age. Donations to the foundation have been used to teach U.S. Ski & Snowboard athletes and coaches everything from basic avalanche safety 101 all the way up to the more advanced American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education (AIARE) courses free of charge.
Last April, BRASS sponsored a three-day AIARE Level 1 avalanche course for a group of U.S. Ski and Snowboard Team athletes and coaches. They participated in indoor discussions about route finding and terrain management and then applied what they learned on the hill. Adam Loomis, a member of the U.S. Nordic Combined Team, attended the event and explained that besides not having the time to take a course amidst a busy training schedule, money is also a significant factor for many elite athletes who might want to take an avalanche course.
“I think that professional skiers often overlook this need [for avalanche safety courses], and our skiing skills usually far outweigh our decision-making abilities,” notes Loomis. “Realizing this, it’s really important that we start taking avalanche safety more seriously in our community. The loss of Ronnie and Bryce hit everyone in the community hard, and it’s important for us to honor their lives by raising awareness and staying safe.”
BRASS is now in the process of working with Jon Casson, director of sport education at U.S. Ski & Snowboard, to develop interactive e-learning modules that will act as a prerequisite for all levels of coaching certification. The modules will demonstrate avalanche awareness and safety components in a pass/fail format and will be accompanied by video clips and bilateral questions.
“As backcountry access and equipment grow in popularity, many of our athletes will want to explore the out-of-bounds after they exit the competitive side of the sport,” says Casson. “Many kids who grow up back East, where avalanches are not a major concern, end up moving out West after high school or college, and we feel that it’s somewhat our responsibility to start their avalanche education and awareness at the club level to lay a foundation for future education so they can enjoy the backcountry as an informed and educated skier or snowboarder.”
Since its original conception in 2015, the nonprofit has made leaps and bounds toward its goal of planting a foundation of avalanche awareness education in the ski racing community specifically as it pertains to ski academies and clubs. BRASS is in the developmental stages of a partnership with Blizzard this season as Bryce Astle was a Blizzard-sponsored athlete.
“Blizzard/Tecnica is building more and more products made specifically for backcountry skiing that could put people in harm’s way,” remarks Jed Duke, director of product marketing Tecnica USA/Blizzard Sport USA. “As we dig deeper, innovate more, and develop more of the products that will take you farther, deeper, faster, and allow you to enjoy the backcountry, we feel a responsibility and obligation to inform people of the risks and help with the educational process so that people make the right decisions in dangerous terrain.”
Although the details are yet to be finalized, Duke hopes that the partnership will take Blizzard, BRASS, and other leading experts to the East Coast to begin by educating academy and club teams. Eventually, the goal is to have educational resources available nationwide.
In the U.S., skiing within the bounds of a resort provides a sense of safety that does not apply internationally or in the backcountry. Racers with a high level of technical ability often want to push their limits, explains Silitch. It’s the responsibility of BRASS to educate racers so that they understand the unique characteristics of every ski environment they might encounter.
Now that Silitch has assumed the role of executive director, BRASS hopes to benefit from his background as an accomplished mountaineer and ski guide in places like Zermatt and Chamonix.
“I understand what it is that ski racing in the U.S. is missing,” Silitch says. “I believe that education is a big part of my value and my mission. And with that in mind, I’m honored to take on the role of executive director in order to create avalanche education for athletes, coaches, and for all ages really.”
The BRASS Foundation relies entirely on donations to educate U.S. Ski & Snowboard members and coaches. Those who wish to contribute to the organization can contact Michael Silitch by visiting BrassFoundation.org.