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Freeride Avalanche Summit

12/17/2010
Reggie Crist and photographer Will Wissman lay out proper techniques for safely conducting backcountry photo shoots in avalanche-prone terrain. Gabe Glosband

The Second Annual "Freeride Avalanche Summit" presented by the Utah Avalanche Center kicked off yesterday at Snowbird. With more and more people accessing the backcountry, the summit is strategically designed to educate skiers and snowboarders on how to safely enjoy the backcountry. It combines classroom instruction with hands-on clinics lead by avalanche professionals along with professional skiers and snowboarders.

Participants scored early trams at Snowbird, where they ripped around with pro snowboarders Chris Coulter and Forrest Shearer and pro skiers Ben Wheeler, Gordy Peifer, Hannah Whitney and Reggie Crist before heading into the classroom. In a clinic given by Reggie Crist and photographer Will Wissman on how to factor snow safety practices into photo shoots, Wissman encouraged everyone to make calculated decisions so as to not put themselves in danger, saying: "The line will always be there, but you might not be if you try to ski it on the wrong day."

Participants then moved outside to work through real-life experience drills hosted by pro athletes and avalanche specialists. It should be noted that these exercises can be practiced by anyone, anywhere, who is planning on heading into the backcountry.

Drill One: The chance of saving the life of someone buried in an avalanche decreases with every minute they are under the snow. After 15 minutes the survival rate of avalanche victims drops to 30%. Many resorts have beacon-training facilities -- or areas on the mountain where you can practice finding buried transceivers to get your speed and efficiency up. Coulter led the summit participant training drill in Snowbird's Avalanche Rescue Training Center.

Drill Two: People often practice with their beacons but often overlook the importance of probing. Pro skier Ben Wheeler led a probe drill designed to help familiarize participants with what a real body feels like when a probe hits it under the snow.

Drill Three: Teamwork is key to a speedy recovery of a buried victim. Solitude Snow Safety Specialist Logan Cookler led a group rescue exercise where one person searched with a beacon while others readied probes and shovels to quickly dig out the victim once located.

Drill Four: Whitney, Gleich and Shearer led an intense drill where participants were thrust into a real-life scenario where an avalanche resulted in one injury and two burials, where only one buried person had a beacon. This reinforced the importance of being familiar and comfortable with the operation of an avalanche transceiver, as every minute lost in a high-stakes rescue situation is one in which a potential backcountry buddy might die.

Day two of the summit focuses on acquiring the tools needed to safely assess snowpack conditions in order to make educated decisions on what slopes are safe to ski. To learn (or refresh) these skills for yourself, check the course listings at the American Avalanche Association or the Canadian Avalanche Safety Centre.