Safe As Her

A group of influential skiers hits the road to teach women about backcountry snow safety

This story originally published in the September 2014 issue of POWDER (43.1). Marquee Photo: Certified badass Lel Tone leads the S.A.F.E.A.S. stop at Crystal Mountain, Washington. Photo Credit: Re Wikstrom

WORDS: Megan Michelson

“There’s been an avalanche!” Ingrid Backstrom shouts. “I’m missing two of my friends.”

The rest of the group—a handful of women who look simultaneously panicky and prepared—spring into action, asking Backstrom questions about the slide as they pull out their avalanche transceivers, shovels, and probes to begin the rescue.

It’s not a real avalanche, thankfully, but a practice scenario. We’re at Crystal Mountain, Washington, in early December, and Backstrom is accompanied by pro skiers Elyse Saugstad, Michelle Parker, Jackie Paaso, and heli guide and AIARE-certified avalanche instructor Lel Tone. They’re here to teach a sold-out class of women the basics of avalanche safety as part of their traveling clinic, S.A.F.E.A.S., which stands for Skiers Advocating and Fostering Education in Avalanche and Snow Safety. (“We thought about calling it Safe Ass, but we thought that might be impolite,” Backstrom jokes.)

Their goals are to give women a voice, a comfortable learning environment—something the founders say isn’t always possible in male-dominated avalanche courses—to give participants the knowledge and confidence to make their own smart decisions in the backcountry, and occasionally take on atypical logistics for your average avalanche clinic. (“I’m breastfeeding. Can my husband bring the baby up the gondola?” one participant emailed.)

“I ski and adventure with groups of guys all the time. That said, the guys I ski with have a lot more experience than I do and generally take up the leadership role,” says San Francisco resident Kerstin Ulf, who took the clinic at Squaw Valley last December. “So it was good for me to ask a lot more questions to the group and get used to talking through decisions.”

“I noticed that in the avie course I took, I was the only female and that could be the same for other women. It can be hard to speak up in those situations,” says Paaso, 32, who calls Tahoe home. “All of us got together and realized with the rise of people traveling in the backcountry, this was something really important, and as professional athletes, we might have the ability to reach out to more people, especially women.”

The clinic first got its start in December 2012, with a one-off stop at Squaw Valley, California. It sold out, with a waiting list of attendees. In 2013, the tour expanded to four locations and five clinics: two at Squaw and one each at Snowbird, Utah, and Washington’s Crystal Mountain and Stevens Pass. This winter, they’d like to add even more stops.

“I ski and adventure with groups of guys all the time. That said, the guys I ski with have a lot more experience than I do and generally take up the leadership role,” says San Francisco resident Kerstin Ulf, who took the clinic at Squaw Valley last December. “So it was good for me to ask a lot more questions to the group and get used to talking through decisions.”

While traveling last season, the course leaders practiced what they preached: They even adopted smart group decision-making when it came to decide what to cook for dinner. Curry or pasta? They discussed the options thoroughly and eventually decided as a group. Nobody’s voice was unheard. It’s a theme that carries throughout the course.

“It’s OK to say no, it’s OK to turn around,” says Tone during the classroom portion of the daylong clinic. “Everyone has a voice. Everyone has veto power. Agree to respect everyone’s voice.”

Not many avalanche clinics are taught by women who spend their winters shredding huge lines around the world, with many close calls between them. But this one combines the star power of some of the ski industry’s leading ladies with the educational tools that may one day save your life. The $110 courses also offer a support group that starts with early morning yoga and ends with the intimacy of a slumber party.

In the clinic, Saugstad tells her emotional tale about being the lone survivor of the 2012 Stevens Pass avalanche that killed three of her ski partners. During her talk, women pass each other tissues to wipe away the tears.
At one point, Tone shows a video of herself skiing a steep line in Alaska while filming. She gets taken out by her slough in a big point slide, pulls her airbag, and gets partially buried.

“That was the time Mother Nature bent me over and gave me one big walloping,” says Tone. “If you go into the mountains thinking this can’t happen to you, then you’ve got another thing coming. You are never the master with Mother Nature.”

The curriculum of the course is based on AIARE’s standards of teaching, but it might be the skiers’ personal stories that are the most impactful. Says Ulf: “I came out of the course being much more scared of backcountry danger… I’m a lot better now at opting out of certain backcountry missions, too.”

The S.A.F.E.A.S. clinics are on the road again, stopping at Squaw Valley on December 7 and 8, Crystal Mountain on December 13, Stevens Pass on December 14, and Copper Mountain on December 20 and 21. Register here.