Photographs of Bryce Astle and Ronnie Berlack are now prominently displayed around the Soelden Ski Area, honoring the two young U.S. ski racers who died in an avalanche in January 2015, while sternly cautioning others of the severity of avalanche danger across high alpine terrain.
The tragedy spurred the Austrian resort to implement new preventative safety measures, including posting explicit warning signs in English. Soelden's efforts are a collaboration with the Bryce and Ronnie Athlete Snow Safety Foundation (BRASS), which was established by the parents of the deceased skiers in 2015.
Reform of avalanche warning systems and advocating for greater education on avalanche safety are the primary motives of the foundation.
A friendly and informal reception was hosted by Ronnie's parents, Steve and Cindy, co-founders of the BRASS Foundation along with Jamie and Laura, the parents of Bryce, in Soelden on October 24 ahead of this past weekend's season opening FIS World Cup ski races. The event was attended by teammates of Ronnie and Bryce, numerous Soelden representatives, friends, ski coaches and U.S. Ski Team racers Mikaela Shiffrin and Ted Ligety.
"A lot of Ronnie's teammates were here tonight and that was really meaningful," Steve Berlack told POWDER in Soelden. "With Soelden, we want to champion the spirit of moving this safety in the mountains forward as a real bi-lateral effort between the U.S. and Europe. We have very unique and distinct problems, but safety is the end goal.”
"Soelden wants to be the resort that is the leader in the culture of safety," he added, noting the ski area's steep and varied lift-accessed extreme skiing.
Earlier in the day, a memorial was unveiled near the site of the accident that claimed the lives of the U.S. Ski Team developmental racers Ronnie and Bryce, who were 20 and 19 at the time of their deaths.
"The genesis of the whole moment was the caring and generosity of the Soelden community and the fact that they felt enough about memorializing the boys and using that as a catalyst for snow safety for their customers," said Berlack, who is also a coach at Vermont's Burke Mountain Academy. "That was a rewarding outcome for us as parents and also the BRASS Foundation. That was just one small piece as to what they've done. We have a community that really cares, really wants to make a difference and that has been overwhelming to me.”
"We use the tragedy as a bad example of how not to do things," said Soelden Ski Club president Sigy Gruner. "Steve and Cindy and the BRASS Foundation are motivating us to do more and this is just the start. We put the memorial sign on a very popular slope nearby the accident where almost 100 percent of the skiers will pass. It is very important that people are attentive and understand that if you go off the groomed runs it can happen to anyone."
Shiffrin—a two-time overall World Cup champion who began defense of her title on Saturday with a third-place finish—said Ronnie inspired her to ski faster during their time training together at Burke Mountain Academy. Considering their Vermont ties, she has become close with the family.
"What Steve and Cindy and the Astles have been able to do after this tragedy, to turn something like this into something positive that can benefit others and avoid this kind of thing in the future is incredible," Shiffrin said. "What they've done is incredibly inspiring to me and I hope BRASS gets out there and goes viral because it's a very important initiative."
Soelden, which has been home to FIS World Cup races since 1993, is now also hosting memorial races paying tribute to Ronnie and Bryce, another successful initiative of the BRASS Foundation. The spring races are called "Friends of the Mountain."
A thirteen-minute video titled "Off Piste: Tragedy in the Alps" was shown at the Soelden gathering. The video has a re-enactment of the accident, offers safety tips, and includes interviews with surviving skiers who accompanied Bryce and Ronnie in Soelden. Shiffrin, Ligety, Bode Miller, Steven Nyman, and Andrew Weibrecht are also interviewed in the video.
The BRASS Foundation released a comprehensive accident report earlier in the week exploring causes of the tragedy that claimed the lives of the skiers. The 21-page report was written and produced by former Utah Avalanche Center Director, Bruce Tremper. It contains official reports from the Austrian agencies responsible for management of the accident, in addition to analysis and suggestions to prevent future accidents.
On the morning of January 5, 2015, Bryce and Ronnie, accompanied by four other ski racers, entered an un-groomed and uncontrolled slope leading to another groomed piste below. The six athletes had a day off from training due to heavy snowfall at the resort.
It was determined that the avalanche was likely triggered by the group. In the report, it notes that the skiers were unaware that they were entering an uncontrolled area, while the avalanche warning was listed at level three, indicating considerable danger.
The skiers were not equipped with beacons or shovels and Astle and Berlack were found approximately 40 or 50 minutes after the avalanche was triggered, buried under nearly ten feet of snow. They were pronounced dead on the scene, the report indicated.
BRASS is using the report as a tool to advocate for changes in snow safety warning systems, as well as expansion of education to prevent future accidents.
"There is a lot of ground to cover to make sure another family doesn't experience what we have," Berlack said.
"We can be depressed or we can take action and make a difference," said Cindy Berlack.
Berlack admits that the healing process is never complete, however the cooperation between BRASS and Soelden to prevent future unnecessary deaths has been therapeutic.
"The process is what keeps you going–the fact that you can participate in a community like this and impart the values of snow safety education here and on the population of athletes, parents, and coaches in America. That's uplifting," Berlack said. "We're blessed to be a part of this community to stay active, do meaningful things, memorialize the boys, and keep us from sitting around at home thinking about how this shouldn't have happened."