Every year, our sport progresses as new ski and binding technologies emerge to enable us to go bigger and faster, while new lifts bring us to higher peaks and steeper terrain. But with these rapid advancements in technology, one thing remains constant. Skiing is, and always will be, an inherently dangerous activity to take part in.
That's why, over the last decade, there has been an increased emphasis on education and safety within the ski industry. For many, this can be seen in the increasing number of adult skiers getting their Level 1 avalanche safety certification or taking other various safety courses. Others, however, are looking to take on the issue from the ground up, focusing their attention on an often overlooked demographic of the ski population—the youth.
"The biggest risk today is that there are so many amazingly talented kids going out there with little to no snow education," said Chris Anthony, a professional skier and the founder of a 501c non-profit, Chris Anthony Youth Initiative Project, that focuses on the younger generation of skiers.
In the 20 years that Anthony has been speaking to children in schools in mountain towns across the country, first as a Warren Miller athlete then under his own non-profit, he says it's astounding to see how little snow science or safety instruction the kids have access to.
Anthony, a longtime Vail resident, decided to take things into his own hands and searched for opportunities to fund a program. "It took five years because I had no support," he says. "I had the money, but no one, including the resorts, offered any kind of support. No one wanted to admit there was a problem."
Finally, Vail Valley-based Paragon Guides opened their doors to Anthony last year and provided him with access to their insurance and permits to start running classes across Eagle County. The program, called the Glide Project, is run by Anthony's sister, Kelli Rohrig.
Rohrig, who used to coach the freeride team at Big Sky, says that the more students she talked to the more she realized how big the problem was. "When we go and talk to high schools, and even middle schools, 50 percent of kids admit to going out of gates to ski out of bounds. Of that 50, 30 percent are going out of gates by themselves."
One of the Glide Project's main missions is subsidizing the costs of AIARE Level 1 avalanche safety courses for Colorado high schoolers and recent high school graduates. With courses often costing $500 or more, Anthony says he hopes that with the reduced costs, more students won't be turned away from becoming more educated on how and where they are skiing. Rohrig notes that an added bonus of these classes is that the kids are all around the same age, and often friends, and feed off each other's learning. "We've had 13- and 14-year-olds that have gone above and beyond what adults ask and work on in classes."
Anthony and Rohrig say that the Glide Project is not just about avalanche safety, but also general backcountry knowledge. "We know for a fact that kids are going out there," says Rohrig. "We can't deny that. We just want everyone to have access to the education that will help them make the right decisions. They're going out of the gates whether we like it or not, so we might as well give them the right tools."
This preparation of safety-conscious skiers doesn't just have to be at the high school level, either. In late December, SheJumps, a non-profit dedicated to empowering women in the outdoors, ran their first Wild Skills Junior Ski Patrol program at Crystal Mountain, Washington.
The Wild Skills program was founded by Christy Pelland four years ago as a day camp for girls ages 6-12 to learn valuable outdoor skills. Last year, Pelland worked alongside her good friend and Crystal Ski Patrol Director Kim Kircher to develop a program that brings the fun day-camp vibe of Wild Skills to the mountain.
Thus was born the Wild Skills Junior Ski Patrol, which incorporated teaching technical on-mountain situations to girls aged 8-16. The girls heard from Kircher as well as other Crystal ski patrollers about what their job is on the mountain, as well as learned basic first aid and avalanche safety.
"As kids get more confident in their skills on the mountain, they are going to be venturing off and exploring new terrain," says Pelland. "We're trying to give them the best information to make the best decisions."
Pelland says that it's not teaching complex snow science that is important to young skiers, but rather planting in their minds the idea of being conscious of their surroundings and good decision-making skills that will develop as they get older. "It’s the core of everything; education is number one. We're all lifelong learners. Always have the mindset to be continuing your education,” Pelland added.
Learning to be safe in the backcountry as well as in the resort is not something that is instantly solved by taking a course or class, but rather a stepping-stone toward being a more aware, and safer skier. For a lot of young skiers, it's about laying this foundation for the future of their ski career, says Scott Schell, the executive director of the Northwest Avalanche Center, who has begun focusing a lot of attention on providing safety and education programs for youth in their community.
"Looking up at a slope and deciding whether or not it will go is a huge decision, even as a professional," says Schell. "The main focus of teaching younger skiers is general awareness. Showing that the risk is there, and being fully aware of your surroundings."