When Dean Cardinale uncovered yet another pair of dead backcountry skiers—these two buried just a few feet beneath the snow, the skiers' friends all around—he decided he had seen too many fatalities. Something needed to change.
Cardinale, the Snowbird ski patrol director, president of Wasatch Backcountry Rescue, owner of World Wide Trekking, and the U.S. representative for the International Commission of Alpine Rescue, took to education. But in the avalanche courses he started teaching he was surprised at how incapable his students were using their transceivers.
"There were all these different people in the course with their gear and they were good skiers," says Cardinale. "But they didn't know how their beacon worked and didn't have a good way to practice."
So, in 2005, Cardinale raised money through the WBR to purchase the $10,000 Rescue Training Center, the first in North America. Designed by Swiss Manuel Genswein, the RTC offers a free, solar-powered way to simulate beacon searches.
The site has three degrees of difficulty. Hit 'beginner' and you'll have to perform a single burial search. Select 'intermediate' and you'll have two victims to find. Choose 'expert' and you'll have to search for an unknown amount of targets, between one and four. When you make contact with a probe of your final victim, a siren sounds. A timer on the station tracks your time. Snowplows regularly track-pack the area to mimic avalanche debris and so users can't see previous participants' footprints.
"The public might goof around in the backyard, but really don't put it out there where they do a sufficient practice drill," says Cardinale. "You go over to the training center and first of all there's that element of competition, you see your time—that's the real important thing—and you're marching around in ski boots just like you would be."
Because of its popularity, WBR has since purchased three more RTC systems in Utah: one at The Canyons, one at Solitude, and another at Snowbasin. Sun Valley also has one, and other ski resorts have similar beacon practice centers.
"It was just awesome to see how many people used it," says Cardinale of the Snowbird center, which is located off the bypass road below Powderbirds. "It gets a tremendous amount of traffic."
Wasatch Backcountry Rescue is a registered 501c3 organization dependent on donations. To contribute to their efforts, go to WBRescue.org/Donations/Donations.