Colorado, U.S. avalanche educators dream bigger despite growth in past decade

Antonio Olivero
Summit Daily
United States Ski and Snowboard Association (USSA) Sport Education Director Jon Casson leads a coaching class Friday, Nov. 17, at Copper Mountain.
Hugh Carey / |

When Jon Casson first skied the Rockies in 1995, a young 20-something from Washington, D.C., his previous weekend trips to hills in West Virginia and Maryland didn’t exactly provide him ideal avalanche education.

The 22-year-old thought avalanches were just like a hurricane: once-a-season natural disasters.

“I didn’t realize that hundreds of them happen every single day,” he said.

Casson and his brother hiked Loveland Pass on that sunny bluebird 3-foot powder day. And when Casson, now the sport education director for the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association, thinks back to that snowy situation, though he avoided an accident, he doesn’t sugarcoat self-criticism.

“We dropped this, like, 10-to-15 foot cornice into 3-feet of powder,” he said. “And do you know what my brother’s instructions were? ‘If there is an avalanche, just try to swim with it.’

“It was not until years later,” Casson continued, “when I was doing some mountaineering in Seattle when I realized, ‘Oh, that was pretty dumb.’”

To Casson, that naive, newbie 20-something version of himself from 1995 is the exact type of person USSA and the Bryce and Ronnie Athlete Safety and Security (BRASS) Foundation should be targeting.

The foundation — one focused on increased avalanche awareness, education and advanced athlete safety investments — was launched a year and a half ago after U.S. Ski Team athletes Bryce Astle and Ronnie Berlack were killed in a January 2015 avalanche at a ski area in Soelden, Austria. They were two of a half dozen USSA athletes who were caught in the snow slide while free skiing in-bounds.

At Copper Mountain Fire Station on Thursday, BRASS-influenced avalanche safety and education effectively served as the exclamation point on a day-long club coaches conference. Casson led the session that was attended by 25 local club coaches as part of USSA’s four-stop regional club excellence conferences. It ended with a 30-minute crash-course in the BRASS Foundation’s “Brass 101” course, one heavy on “Know Before You Go” avalanche safety principles.

Casson emphasized how the video, a mix of humor and stoic seriousness meant for younger athletes, is worth the time for everyone from skiers to backcountry snowboarders to snowmobilers.

“I would have never done that (in 1995) if I had seen this video,” he said. “I got lucky. There are probably others who don’t. So when we do events like this, it is our one opportunity to get face-to-face with our coaches and leaders and tell them what we believe. And that’s why it’s a great opportunity to introduce the Know Before You Go program because athlete safety should drive everything that we do.”

Athlete, and casual recreator, avalanche safety also is driving everything the Colorado Avalanche Information Center and its fundraising arm, Friends of the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, as they prepare for their 10th anniversary celebration Dec. 2 in Breckenridge. Along with the Utah Avalanche Center, CAIC launched the Know Before You Go program in 2004.

Friends of CAIC, through its annual CAIC Benefit Bash, has raised $668,000 since it launched a decade ago. This year’s event will take place from 5 to 10 p.m., on Dec. 2 at the Breckenridge River Walk Center. The event’s $50 admission covers dinner, drink tickets and other amenities. All proceeds go to support CAIC.

Money raised through Friends of CAIC will go to an improved second version of the CAIC mobile phone application that launched in 2015 and has since been downloaded by 10,000 users. Friends of CAIC executive director Aaron Carlson said the app may be ready to launch in a couple of week with a cleaner, easier interface and improved incorporation of backcountry zones, weather forecasts and tables.

Carlson said this year’s budget for estimated expenses for the Know Before You Go program also is up $5,000 from last year, to $25,000.

Colorado Avalanche Information Center currently has nine backcountry forecasters and eight highway forecasters throughout the state, but Carlson said he would like to see 20 CAIC backcountry forecasters throughout the state.

Crunching the numbers — on average it costs about $50,000 for a seasonal forecaster — that would require about another $550,000 of fundraising on an annual basis.

“We have a huge area here in Colorado that needs to be covered,” Carlson said. “And there are a lot of different mountain ranges within the state.

“My big audacious goal?” he added. “I’d love to see two forecasters per zone.”

Carlson also stressed that CAIC isn’t biased toward one user group, such as skiers.

“As more and more people travel in the backcountry,” he said, “whether elite athletes or never-evers, we need to find the middle ground to get them the info they need.”

Addressing that middle ground, especially in a day and age of increased exposure on social media to the thrills of the backcountry, is a primary focus of CAIC executive director Ethan Greene. Greene said the popularity of winter backcountry recreation, across all sectors, has increased since Friends of CAIC launched a decade ago.

As such, all different backcountry user groups are being reached out to, namely snowbikers on timbersleds. Greene said they are traversing tricky backcountry spots different than traditional snowmobilers, as they are more apt to try to get sideways somewhere.

“Up until two years ago, the only one fatality on a snowbike was in Montana about a decade ago,” Greene said. “But in the last two years, we’ve seen people killed on these timbersleds, and that’s a new user group. They’ve been around for a while, but they are getting into avalanche terrain more.

“And it’s really a matter of finding ways to reach out to them and the messages to help them,” Greene said.

With inches of snow dumping Friday night on the Interstate 70 corridor that bisects Summit County, everyone from skiers to snowshoe hikers to timbersledders will be out on fresh powder soon enough. And with the increased backcountry popularity, one of the local coaches in attendance at Copper on Thursday night said along with embracing education, avoiding accidents comes down to accountability.

“We are in a community where it is a serious deal and it is not just out of bounds, in my opinion,” said Fred Horvath, Team Breckenridge’s Lead Development Coach. “There are times in the ski area when we need to be aware of conditions and slopes and have that avalanche awareness even in the resort itself.

“The bottom line is that we shouldn’t be in that environment unless we really know it’s a safe environment.

“A tourist that doesn’t have the knowledge, experience, gear?” Horvath added. “They shouldn’t be out there. Period. We shouldn’t be promoting it.”