Death of US ski team skiers in 2015 Soelden avalanche spurs changes
The Associated Press
On the ski lift buildings at the resort in Soelden, Austria, there are now signs that read: Attention! High Alpine terrain. Leave marked runs at your own risk.
Written in English, the warning notices also feature the pictures of Bryce Astle and Ronnie Berlack, two U.S. ski team development members who were killed in an avalanche near the area on Jan. 5, 2015.
They’re becoming the faces of avalanche safety. It’s part of the mission by the Bryce and Ronnie Athlete Snow Safety Foundation (BRASS) to advocate for changes in warning systems along with education to prevent avalanche accidents.
“If this accident was just bad luck, if it was just some really random act of God that would be one thing, we could probably move on and just reflect on how unfortunate it was,” Ronnie’s father, Steve Berlack, said in a phone interview from Europe. “That’s not what happened.
“We want people to see the pictures of these boys, know that their dreams died right there in Soelden. But the dream lives on for others and that’s why we move forward.”
In Soelden this week, there will be numerous events leading up to the season—opening World Cup races. Near the site of the avalanche accident a memorial sign will be placed to honor Astle (Sandy, Utah) and Berlack (Franconia, New Hampshire). The Soelden community has remained supportive, even hosting a memorial race in their honor last spring with about 200 racers competing.
“Every fatal accident in the Alpine environment is a shock,” said Sigi Gruener, the chairman of the Soelden ski club. “Together with the families, we try to come to terms with what has happened.”
A detailed accident report was recently released by BRASS on what transpired that day. It was produced by avalanche safety expert Bruce Tremper, the retired director of the Utah Avalanche Center.
On that morning, a group of six athletes — five from the U.S. team and another from Britain — took advantage of a day off from training due to heavy snow fall. They entered an ungroomed and uncontrolled slope with a pathway to another groomed trail down below.
The avalanche was most likely triggered as a group.
In the report, it states the athletes didn’t know they were navigating an uncontrolled area of the resort. The avalanche warning was at a level 3, out of five, that indicated the danger was “considerable.” They also weren’t carrying avalanche gear such as a beacon or a shovel. Astle and Berlack were found about 40 or 50 minutes later buried under more than 3 meters (nearly 10 feet) of snow. They were pronounced dead on the scene, the report said.
“We are committed to using this accident as a platform for change so that something like this doesn’t happen again,” said Steve Berlack, who’s a ski coach at Burke Mountain Academy.
Like signs in English. On the route the athletes followed that morning, the risks were posted in German.
In addition, mountain protocols vary, too. In Europe, if a skier leaves a groomed trail, they enter an uncontrolled environment, which may or may not have had avalanche control. In North America, trails — groomed or ungroomed — within the outer boundaries of a resort are controlled for avalanches and considered safe to ski.
It reminds Berlack of a conversation he once had with two—time Olympic medalist Andrew Weibrecht.
“He said, ‘This could’ve happened to any one of us. It just hadn’t happened yet,’” the father recalled. “He’s right. It was only a matter of time.”
The families produced a short film titled “Off Piste: Tragedy in the Alps” that will be available in November. The movie includes a re-enactment of what happened, followed by tips to prevent something like this from occurring again. Some of the skiers there that day were interviewed in the 13-minute film:
— “I remember skiing across this face and all of a sudden I just heard cracking,” Drew Duffy said.
— “We stood there and watched them go. Nothing made any sense,” Erik Arvidsson said.
The film also has interviews with big-name skiers such as Bode Miller, Mikaela Shiffrin, Ted Ligety and Steven Nyman about avalanche awareness.
“They were the next generation,” Nyman said. “They could be the guys competing in the Olympics.”
Formed in 2016, the BRASS foundation is helping raise awareness through seminars and programs. Cindy Berlack, Ronnie’s mom, recently had a presentation at the International Snow Safety Workshop in Innsbruck, Austria. She’s hoping to change the warning scale used by resorts along with backing multilingual signage standards. Through presentations, Steve Berlack estimates he’s reached more than 5,000 parents, coaches and athletes, from Chile to British Columbia and around the U.S.
BRASS board chairman Jamie Astle, the father of Bryce, hopes the foundation can “advocate for greater avalanche education, especially for ski racing athletes and coaches.”
That remains a top priority.
“I feel like the base level of knowledge and understanding for the population of adolescent ski racers is exponentially greater because of this accident,” Steve Berlack said. “We all share the same cares and concerns about not only this act, but making sure it doesn’t happen again.”
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Had Hailey Swirbul decided against going to Europe, she would not have finished with a career-best result in Friday’s World Cup opener. Yes, there was a time, and not long ago, when the U.S. ski team member and Roaring Fork Valley native questioned her desire to put on a race bib.