SPEAK UP: When It Comes to Avalanche Avoidance, There are No Dumb Questions

BCA ambassador, AIARE avalanche instructor, AK heli guide, National Geographic Ultimate Survivor winner and Squaw Valley patroller Lel Tone leads our S.A.F.E.A.S. clinic at Copper Mountain.

By Emilie Kelly

“Ten push-ups will be required by anyone who says ‘I’m sorry’ or ‘I have a stupid question’ today,” began Lel Tone in welcoming 35 women to the S.A.F.E. A.S. avalanche safety clinic at Copper Mountain in December.

S.A.F.E. A.S. – Skiers Advocating and Fostering Education for Avalanche and Snow Safety – is a Women’s Introductory Clinic on Avalanche and Snow Safety, and attendees ranged from total newbies to seasoned backcountry travellers looking for a refresher course.

“We’re here to help you go out safely with the boys,” offered Janie Merickel, Assistant Director of Ski Patrol at Copper Mountain.

The women attending the clinic were serious about backcountry skiing and boarding, and eager to get the backcountry basics and learn what do to avoid avalanches.

Do you know how to be as S.A.F.E. A.S. us?

Our clinic leaders – North America’s top female ski professionals – were serious about teaching us how to question our gear, our training, our ski partners and our environment.

  • Kylie Petras presented the avalanche forecast in the morning.
  • Lel Tone taught us about assessing the snow pack in the field.
  • Elyse Saugstad reported on practicing proper backcountry travel techniques.
  • Robin Van Gyn showed us how to check beacons prior to departure.
  • Michelle Parker demonstrated how to do a proper beacon search.
  • Jackie Paaso emphasized the need to continue our backcountry safety knowledge over time.

“How do you dress for success in the backcountry?”

Once you GET THE FORECAST, think about how to dress in layers. Do you typically wear mittens to keep your hands warm? Well carry an extra set of gloves, because in mittens, it’s pretty hard to quickly access and operate your avalanche transceiver, probe and shovel.

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Lel Tone and Freeride World Tour competitor Jackie Paaso present a rapid-fire course on snow study and terrain selection.

“Do you know what is means to be fire hosed with avalanche safety information?”

It means you need to get serious and study the conditions not only the night before you go out in the backcountry, but also study the weather forecasts and conditions–and past incidents–all season. The anatomy and stability of the snowpack evolves based on a combination of all the precipitation and weather events of the season. Do your homework and dig a snow pit to study the snow layers where you’re about to ski. It’s the different characteristics of each snow layer that are the source of avalanches.

“Is your backcountry safety gear ready, accessible and do you know how to use it?”

Yes, most women said, I GOT THE GEAR. But many admitted to borrowing their husband’s or boyfriend’s, or recently purchasing gear, and that they did not have a lot of practice using it.  So we broke into groups and learned how to use our avalanche transceivers. We were taught about about beacon signal propagation and how to follow the signal to the buried beacon.


Freeski Big Mountain/Freeride film star Michelle Parker demonstrates how avalanche transceiver signals propagate and how to follow a signal to a buried transceiver.

We raced each other to see how fast we could pull our probes out, throw them out, wiggle and click them into place.


While we love seeing your probe in its BCA-logo carrying case — it would be easier to grab and go if it was folded and ready in a backpack pocket.

Shoveling was next, with a quick demo on proper avalanche shoveling techniques, 1-1/2 times the burial depth downhill from the probe, chopping and shoveling, with your partner behind paddling the snow away.

“Digging is the hardest and most physical part of rescue,” said Robin Van Gyn. “For every meter of snow it’s a metric ton you are moving, so it takes a long time and you’re trying to find a airway and clear it. Create a rotating shovel line, and switch out when you get tired.”


Roxy model, Big Mountain guide and film star, Robin Van Gyn demonstrates strategic shoveling with one shoveler moving snow out the back in deeper burials.

“What gets you in trouble in the backcountry? What are some of the red flags?”

Mother Nature gives us so many clues. When driving to the mountain, do you see wind on the ridges? Then there is probably some wind-loading. Once you’ve arrived, look around:

  1. Do you see any shooting cracks in the snow, signs of previous slides? These cracks can easily propagate with the weight of your group.
  2. Do you see isolated ski tracks that disappear into triggered snow debris? This is a sign to re-evaluate your terrain choice.
  3. What does the vegetation look like – are the trees scalped in half? Is there exposed rock or ice on adjacent slopes? That’s a sure sign of previous snow slide activity.
  4. Do you hear “whumphing sounds” as you are traveling up and across a snowfield? That’s the sound of snow layers collapsing.
  5. Is there rapid precipitation, high winds or rapid warming occurring? Weather can change the avalanche hazard in an instant.


The clinic group observes an avalanche dog rescue drill and conditions at Copper Mountain. Janie Merickel sets her Avy dog Baloo downwind of the burial so he can quickly catch a scent.

“What are the consequences if you or one of your partners get caught in an avalanche? Will you get drilled into a cliff band, or wrapped around a tree?”

You have a choice in the terrain you choose to ski. When selecting a line, have both an option A and option B path where you can safely descending the mountain. Nearly 30 percent of avalanche fatalities are from trauma caused by hitting a tree, or a rock, or being crushed by the force of avalanche debris.

Elyse Saugstad talked about safe travel in open bowls, and reminded us that if the trees are wide enough for us to ski through, they are also wide enough for an avalanche to slide through.  She recounted how her avalanche airbag kept her afloat to survive the Tunnel Creek avalanche at Stevens Pass several years ago and how unfortunate her three ski partners–who were not wearing airbags–were to succumb to trauma-related injuries in that same avalanche.


Freeride World Champion and Tunnel Creek Avalanche survivor Elyse Saugstad shares the importance of always skiing the backcountry with an avalanche airbag, while a stoked Alexei Kissel got a chance to deploy a BCA Float.

Lel Tone advised to “watch your slough – even if it is moving really slow,” and told us about how she was once overcome trying to outski a snow slough that accelerated three times faster once it hit a trench. She recounted how she pulled her airbag trigger to stay above it.


Lel discussed how to travel with air cylinders and showed us how to install and repack an avalanche airbag.

Robin Van Gyn advised: “If you do get caught in an avalanche, try to race out at 45 degree angle. If you can’t swim to the top, grab your pack or coat with your arm across your face, then try to create an air pocket for yourself.

She told us about how she was in Argentina when companion Randall Stacy got caught and buried. His goggles came down over face, preserving his air pocket. He was rescued with an avalanche beacon.

And always carry your orange AIARE avalanche rescue card so you can pull it out and methodically go through the rescue steps when time is crucial.

While it’s essential to know how to do an avalanche rescue, its all about AVALANCHE AVOIDANCE. GET THE PICTURE and GET OUT OF HARM’S WAY. Always keep your avalanche eyeballs open. And always have an escape plan.

“Why are we going here? This doesn’t look safe to me?”

If you are uncomfortable with the terrain, ask everyone in your group why you are going there. Don’t just quietly confide in your friend, or assume your boyfriend or husband has you covered. Everyone has a voice, and our God-given women’s intuition, attention to details and keen eyes for observation are invaluable in judging whether it’s safe to be out in any environment.

“I’m sorry, I’m confused…..”

It’s OK to be confused, as long as you keep asking questions and are serious about getting a solid education in backcountry safety.


Karen Edgerly, left, drops and gives 10 push-ups for saying “I’m sorry” when asking a question at the S.A.F.E. A.S. clinic.  Leo Tone, right, cheers her on.

  • SAFE-AS-JEN-THOGESON-MODELS-BCA-FLOAT-940x1145Backcountry rider Jen Thogeson models her BCA Float avalanche airbag

  • SAFE-AS-EMILIE-KELLY-KAREN-EDGERLY-940x1145BCA evangelists Karen Edgerly and Emilie Kelly enjoy a day out with the girls.

S.A.F.E. A.S. full day clinics consist of a half-day in the classroom and a half-day out on the mountain practicing snow safety and use of avalanche transceivers, probes and shovels.