Drops of rain slam the windshield as we barrel north from the airport in Bariloche, Argentina. The Patagonian wind catches the three overloaded ski bags strapped to the roof and it rocks our vehicle like a boat on the open sea. The car is destined towards Villa La Angostura, Argentina, a small town situated on the northern shores of Lago Nahuel Huapi in the Argentine Lake District, where I'll spend the next three days leading a local search and rescue group through snow safety courses and showing them how to use the donated beacons they just received from the South American Beacon Project.
Snowbird ski patroller and Ruby Mountain heli guide Alex Taran founded the South American Beacon Project in 2011 when she donated a fleet of beacons to her South American home mountain, La Parva, Chile. After following winter south for the summer for several years, Taran noticed a gap in avalanche education and protocol, with the Southern Hemisphere lagging behind in available technology. Simply put, low wages and budgets make it difficult for ski patrollers to obtain rescue equipment. Although the resort had a small fleet of beacons, it was not enough to give every worker one each time they ventured out the door.
The South American Beacon Project consists of two parts. The first and most basic is physically getting beacons in the hands of mountain workers and showing them how to efficiently use them. The second step provides free avalanche education classes that will reinforce how to travel safely in dangerous terrain.
"The overall feedback we received was positive. People saw the value of the program," says Taran. This spurred her to carry on with the project and enlist the help of others in the industry. She reached out to people like Craig Gordon, forecaster and educator at the Utah Avalanche Center, who developed the Know Before You Go (KBYG) program to bring avy education to a younger demographic. "Alex told me of her time in South America and related how little avy awareness there was in that hood," says Gordon. "We decided to team up and I agreed to provide her with everything she needed to take KBYG to the southern hemisphere."
Most of the beacons donated by the South American Beacon Project come from organizations in the United States who are renovating their fleets. Each of the beacons undergoes a rigorous testing process before it is considered for donation. SABP volunteers bring the beacons that pass the test to South America. Eventually, Taran started talking to companies like Ortovox to procure additional beacons for donation.
Since 2011, the South American Beacon Project has reached out and worked with 20 groups of snow safety professionals. This past season, Taran and the SABP visited with ski patrols from Nevados de Chillan, Farrellones, and Las Trancas, Chile, all the way down to Chalten, Argentina, where they met up with a group of national park rangers.
"These tools will help us a lot by allowing us to deal with avalanches and be able to do the work safely and with more confidence," says Cristian Sepulveda, former ski patrol director of Nevados de Chillan.
Covering a lot of ground and spreading the Buena Onda, or good vibes, ensures that the project will keep rolling. "We are really excited to get these programs in place and get people involved. We also hope to design some beacon training facilities so they can continue practicing what they have learned," says Taran.
Stay tuned and check out SouthAmericanBeaconProject.com for more info and ways to get involved and support the cause.