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Avalanche mitigation specialist Lel Tone on the importance of a continuing snow safety apprenticeship

March 19, 2021

Beyond the classic implements for avalanche safety, Alaska heli-ski guide, AIARE instructor, and Squaw avalanche mitigation specialist Lel Tone is clear about the importance of one of the more mental aspects of safety management: humility.

Alaska heli-ski guide, AIARE instructor, and Squaw avalanche mitigation specialist Lel Tone believes that backcountry education is an ongoing pursuit. The learning process may start formally with a Level 1 avalanche course, but she believes that each skintrack lap is an opportunity to engage in an apprenticeship to the mountains. That's why she dedicates her time to passing on the invaluable information she's acquired over her two-decade-long career through instructing avalanche courses and introductory clinics for the next wave of skintrack aficionados. 

"We're learning every day and seeing things we've never seen before," Tone notes of the ongoing educational process that every skier and rider signs on to when they choose to engage in winter backcountry travel. "Those of us who've worked in the mountains for years and years know that we're still apprentices to the mountains."

"Deep" After an epic AR (Atmospheric River) event in Tahoe in January 2021 with five feet of fresh makes for some deep trench town and lots of strategic shoveling.

When it comes to the importance of ongoing education, she references the key role of the "model, mentor, measure" strategy for avalanche education and the long-term progression of safety skills in the backcountry. "We really try to do all of this in the one-day SAFE AS clinic: model what a good rescue should look like, mentor them through the process, and then test them in their skillset. And I think people really appreciate that." 

The SAFE AS program she teaches is intended to be either a pre-Level 1 introduction to backcountry safety or a refresher for those who took a Level 1 in the past. "It's action-packed. Expect to get a lot of information. You're going to get firehosed with information." 

Her other suggestion for introductory avalanche safety students: "Be prepared to participate and ask questions. There are no stupid questions." She notes one of the essential tools a backcountry skier and rider can bring into the backcountry: an inquisitive mind. "We want people putting themselves out there and saying what they think." 

When asked what she would tell new-to-backcountry travelers to bring for a safe day in the mountains, Tone notes that her go-to items include a large down jacket, a stuff sack full of extra gloves, a hat and other warm layers and, of course, the necessities: "rescue gear: beacon, shovel, probe, fluids, food and that kind of thing, but a good repair kit and a good multi-tool like a Leatherman is key."

"Blowin' shit up" BCA Ambassador @leltone doing a little digging out after the storm and a little target acquisition for her new gig as the avalanche forecaster for the Union Pacific Railroad.

And about her favorite BCA tools to travel with, she notes, "I've been playing with the Tracker S a lot. It's what I purchased for the entire Truckee-based Union Pacific railroad crew, and I love the simplicity of it. I was a huge holdout with the Tracker2 just because I knew it so well and I knew its personality, but I'm digging the Tracker S. I also like the Stealth 300 Carbon, the 3-meter probe, for someone who is a professional rescue worker. I feel like anyone in the profession needs to have a 3-meter probe, no questions. The B-2 with the extension is my go-to shovel. I'm digging snow pits, and I need it to be a good blade size."

The calm before the storm...Before the last big storm hit the Sierra, skiing was on the scratchy side, and avalanche conditions were dormant. Perfect time to get the dogs out for a little hot lap. @leltone getting chased down by Grace on Rubicon Peak.

But beyond the classic implements for avalanche safety, Tone is also clear about the importance of one of the more mental aspects of safety management. "I like to bring my humility any time mother nature is calling the shots," she explains about this mindset-based tool. 

"I like to bring the idea that it's not really up to me what happens today; it's up to what we are being given. Having a Plan A, B, and C, and being flexible and humble in the backcountry is more of a philosophical thing that I try to bring with me."