As winter nears, safety workshop offered
October 14, 2008
There are inherent risks that come along with many popular recreational activities, and Park City residents are no stranger to the intimate details of the stories that are often recited as token statistics.
Max Zilvitis, a 12-year-old Park City resident is a prime example. He was caught in an avalanche while skiing in-bounds at The Canyons with his dad last December. Zilvitis was trapped under the snow for almost 45 minutes. Zilvitis and his dad stopped near the bottom of the Ninety-Nine 90 run to take a break, when some skiers above them triggered a slide.
"I don’t remember anything from after I was buried," said Zilvitis. He said that he didn’t know much about what he was supposed to do if he got caught in an avalanche, but he moved his body around to make an air pocket, so the snow wasn’t trapped right up against his face. He said that he plans to get educated about avalanche safety this fall.
Next week, there will be an opportunity for everyone in the community to learn about outdoor safety. The North American Outdoor Institute (NAOI), a non-profit organization based out of Valdez, Alaska, will offer a free workshop about avalanche awareness and outdoor safety Thursday, Oct. 16, from 7 to 9 p.m. in the Jim Santy Auditorium.
The workshop will be one of about 650 "Be Snow Smart" interactive lectures that NAOI presents each winter. The organization focuses most of its attention on education in Alaska, but just began introducing the lecture series to the lower 48, explained Dean Cummings, NAOI lead instructor. According to their website, http://www.naoiak.org , the goal of NAOI is to help reduce outdoor injuries and fatalities through education.
Cummings will lead the discussion. His resume includes time on the U.S. Freestyle Ski team, winning the 1995 World Extreme Skiing Championship, 18 years of guiding helicopter ski trips in Alaska, and developing the "Be Snow Smart" program that won the Governor of Alaska Safety Award in 2007-08.
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NAOI was founded because Cummings and his coworkers became increasingly concerned that Alaska had the highest per capita death rate for skiers in the country. They figured that education was the only way to make a difference.
The lecture is aimed at providing practical information, but isn’t a replacement for a certification class, explained Cummings. He said that the information he plans to share will help anyone, from backcountry enthusiasts, to someone driving over a mountain pass or cross country skiing.
Scott House, who teaches avalanche classes for White Pine Touring in Park City, said that attending a lecture like this is a good starting point for most people. He added, though, that attending one lecture isn’t enough to learn everything you need to know about being safe in the backcountry, but it’s a good place to learn about the basic risks and to help someone decide if taking a more in-depth class is something they want to do in the future. Charlie Sturgis of White Pine Touring added that this type of lecture is also a good refresher before the season starts for people who have taken avalanche classes in the past.
Sturgis explained that people in town usually start looking into outdoor safety awareness only after there has been a tragedy, but since most of the classes and lectures are held October through December, the opportunities have usually already passed.
Cummings acknowledged that there’s a lot of amazing, steep terrain in-bounds in Utah, and just because you’re within the ski area boundary, doesn’t guarantee safe conditions. House explained that ski patrollers do as much avalanche control as they can, but just because runs such as Ninety-Nine 90 at The Canyons, and Baldy and Mineral Basin at Snowbird are open, it doesn’t mean they’re completely risk-free. Sarah Lyman, an avid Utah skier, explained that last year was a really unstable season and, "a slab even broke off in-bounds in the cirque at Snowbird."
The lecture could also provide valuable information to avid snowmobile users. House explained that, over the last few years, an increasing number of avalanche victims have been snowmobilers because of the power and freedom granted by the machines.
Cummings’ lecture will cover what he believes are the most important pieces of information that someone needs to know to stay safe. "The accident at The Canyons last year was worse than it should have been because people weren’t following proper techniques," said Cummings.
Cummings said that he wants to help people understand weather forecasts so they can use the information to pick appropriate terrain and snow conditions for a given day. One valuable resource for skiers and snowboarders is avalanche.org, a Web site that provides daily weather forecasts and avalanche conditions, explained House.
The lecture will touch on assessing snow conditions. Cummings said that many people build a snow pit somewhere on the mountain to examine snow conditions, but it’s important to keep in mind that conditions will be different on other parts of the mountain. He will explain a technique he calls "on the go snow assessment," which means constantly reevaluating the snow.
Cummings will explain to the audience the steps a group should take if something happens. Included in this segment of the presentation will be a discussion on the proper use of safety equipment.
For interested individuals who can’t make the NAOI lecture on Thursday evening, White Pine Touring offers a variety of classes this fall, including a short lecture series, PIEPS transceiver training, and certification classes. More information is available at http://www.whitepinetouring.com or by calling 649-8710.