Powder Rangers

Sugar Bowl’s snow rangers program represents the future of informed backcountry skiers

This story originally appeared in the October 2012 edition (Volume 41, Issue 2) of POWDER Magazine which can be purchased here.

Words: Jeremy Benson

At 9 a.m., a group of nine skiers gather outside Sugar Bowl's Village Hall for a half-day sidecountry tour. Margaux Paradis is checking beacon signals and instructs everyone to look at their battery life. One skier's beacon batteries are low. As they swap them out, the group leader seizes the opportunity to teach a lesson reiterating the importance of beacon checks. "Everyone into search," says Margaux before she makes her way around the group, inspecting each beacon as she goes. Once she's sure they're all in working order, she ends the check by saying, "Everyone back to transmit." It's a typical start to a group backcountry tour, except for one thing: Margaux is only 13. The rest of the party, except their leader Jon Rockwood, is about the same age.

The group is part of Sugar Bowl Ski Team's Snow Rangers program. Not your average youth ski team, the S.B.S.T. started as an alternative to the competition-centric youth freeride and racing teams. "They're a backcountry program consistent with S.B.S.T.'s mission of developing the whole child--mind, body, and spirit--through skiing," says Dave Riggs, an Alpine Skills International backcountry guide and S.B.S.T. Foundation board member. It was Riggs who developed the program. "Many freeride programs around the country touch on aspects of snow stability, backcountry travel, and safety," says Rockwood, the team's head coach. "The Snow Rangers is the only program specifically designed around it."

They convene on weekends and holidays from December through April, with groups based on age (12 to 18), ability, and previous Snow Ranger experience. Students are required to have their own touring setup. Avalanche safety gear is provided for those who don't have their own. "The season has a flow, and it starts pretty basic," says Rockwood. After working on ski technique early in the season, the groups progress into avalanche awareness and avoidance based on Level 1 avy curriculum. "Then we move into touring, learning the basics of traveling in the mountains," says Rockwood. "We do an introduction to winter camping, building up to the course's conclusion, an overnight ski tour along the Pacific Crest from Sugar Bowl to Squaw."

In its first three years, the program has nearly tripled in size.

"I joined Snow Rangers to get away from racing," says 14-year-old Lem Hambrect, a three-year veteran of the program. "I know that I am one of the only people my age that gets to experience something like this."

Despite continued sales growth in youth-specific backcountry gear, Snow Rangers remains one of the only in-depth programs for teenagers of its kind in North America, with roughly 50 days of instruction throughout the season.

Rockwood hopes the lessons will have a lasting impression on the backcountry-bound youth.

"It's my goal to instill lifelong backcountry practices in these kids, to help them develop good mountain habits," he says.

You know the saying: Bad habits are hard to break. Let's hope the same applies to good habits.