Why U.S. Ski Team Racers Are Learning Avalanche Safety

A nonprofit founded by the parents of avalanche victims pushes for snow safety education in ski racing

On October 19th, five dozen ski racers entered Burke Mountain Academy's indoor training facility. Instead of sweating through a core workout or weight session, the Vermont ski academy's students sat cross-legged on fake turf for a two-hour avalanche safety clinic with big mountain skier Jackie Paaso and IFMGA guide Michael Silitch.

The snow safety course was a first for the 47-year-old ski racing prep school, and an indicator of a larger shift to embrace avalanche education in the ski racing community at large.

The Ronnie Berlack Center is a $2.8 million indoor training facility at Burke Mountain Academy. The photo in the banner is of Berlack forerunning the 2014 Birds of Prey World Cup at Beaver Creek weeks before his death on January 5, 2015. PHOTO: Courtesy of Blizzard Tecnica

The U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association encompasses more than 300 alpine clubs and 26,000 ski racers—and it has never before offered free avalanche education to its members. That gap in snow safety education was exposed in 2015 when two U.S. Ski Team athletes, Ronnie Berlack and Bryce Astle, died in an avalanche in Soelden, Austria, while skiing in their free time at a race event. Ronnie was 20 years old; Astle was 19.

"It was a shocker to every program in North America," says Steve Berlack, Ronnie's father, who has coached at Burke Mountain Academy for 19 years.

In the aftermath of the tragedy, Steve and his wife, Cindy, partnered with Bryce's parents, Jamie and Laura Astle, to bring avalanche education to USSA coaches and athletes. They launch the Bryce & Ronnie Athlete Snow Safety Foundation (BRASS) in 2016 in Park City, Utah.

"We all wanted something to come out of this tragedy that would help others," says USSA Vice President of Communications Tom Kelly.

Berlack grew up on the East Coast; his parents say they never discussed avalanche safety with their son. Astle learned to ski at Alta, on the avalanche-prone slopes of Utah's Little Cottonwood Canyon. He started using a beacon on powder days at age 10, regularly skied the backcountry, and only missed an AIARE Level 1 because the dates conflicted with his training schedule.

Unlike North America, where ski patrollers control avalanche terrain within the ski area boundary, in Austria or France, a single turn off-piste can place skiers in avalanche danger. Bryce, Ronnie, and four teammates didn't realize they had left controlled terrain on that day in Austria. None carried a beacon, probe, shovel, or any other safety gear.

"Situational awareness is everything," says Bryce's father, Jamie. "He had no clue if you go off a groomed run there it's like skiing in the backcountry."

BRASS hosted instructors at Burke Mountain Academy to teach the students avalanche safety. From left: Steve Berlack (Ronnie’s father; still a Burke coach but not an instructor at the clinic); Cindy Berlack; Michael Silitch, Jackie Paaso, Pearson Neal. PHOTO: Courtesy of Blizzard Tecnica

Learning from tragedy, BRASS focuses on snow science fundamentals, practical backcountry skills, and the tools to apply both in the mountains.

"Race training is so specific—between the gates," says Silitch, the nonprofit's executive director, who was leading the October course at Burke. "We're focused outside the gates. That's a whole other world."

BRASS has grown quickly. With U.S. Ski and Snowboard, they developed an avy education component to coaching certification. Last April, the foundation hosted 14 USSA athletes and coaches at Snowbird for a free AIARE Level 1 course. They will release a 15-minute film about the Soelden avalanche in November, along with an accident report prepared in partnership with the Utah Avalanche Center. And this fall, BRASS partnered with Blizzard Tecnica to deliver their curriculum to Burke and four more ski academies in New York and Vermont, reaching an estimated 300 student-athletes, whose fitness and technical skills far outweigh their avalanche education. These elite teenage ski racers also have a higher risk tolerance—U-19 downhillers can hit 60 miles per hour on course.

A race, however, is in a controlled environment, on a closed trail with protective netting. Even gate panel attachments are regulated; they release on impact to mitigate injury. Given backcountry skiing's explosive growth—more than six million skiers and snowboarders now enter backcountry terrain each winter—these racers will ski in uncontrolled terrain and they should be prepared.

"This is a demographic right in the cross-hairs of avalanche dangers," says Paul Diegel, a special projects coordinator with the Utah Avalanche Center who works with BRASS. "They're used to throwing themselves into objectively hazardous situations and getting away with it."

Paaso knows that skills gap firsthand. She graduated from Maine's Gould Academy in 2000 and moved to Tahoe four years later. "When I moved out West, I had no idea what I was doing," she said. "I was lucky, and I don't want people to get by on just luck."

Why are ski racers learning about avalanche safety? Coaches say they want to prepare the skiers beyond the gates. PHOTO: Courtesy of Blizzard Tecnica

A ski racer turned big mountain competitor, Paaso only pursued avalanche education after an inbounds slide killed a friend in 2009. At Burke, she shared that loss after one student asked a question about inbounds avalanches. Silitch led students through a discussion of gear, training, avalanche forecasts, situational awareness, and safe backcountry travel, accompanied by diagrams drawn on a whiteboard about the snowpack, weather, terrain, and human factors.

When he asked the Burke group how many have skied Tuckerman Ravine, a popular backcountry zone on New Hampshire's Mount Washington, a dozen hands shot up. One student shared his account of a self-rescue from a Jackson Hole tree well; another said she skied out of small slide in Andorra. To finish, Paaso led the group through beacon drills. For many, it was their first chance to use a transceiver and practice a probe search.

"I want them to have enough information to put it all in perspective," says Cindy Berlack. "To be humble and understand what you don't understand."