Teens learn how to avoid avalanches Steve Udd, left, a parent of a student in the program, and Gwyneth Lyman, 16, send small roller balls of snow ahead of them as they navigate a steep slope on snowshoes during an avalanche awareness field trip for teenagers, at Mount Baker, Wash. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)
Teens learn how to avoid avalanches
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Walker Smith has been skiing in-bounds at resorts since he was young. But lately, the Seattle teen has become more interested "in getting tracks where no one else has really gone."
 
He knows backcountry travel comes with avalanche risks, he said. So under a brilliant blue sky recently, he and a dozen teens hiked out into the snowy landscape. They were outside the boundaries of Mount Baker ski resort. They were there to learn how to identify avalanche terrain and spot warning signs.
 
"It's not 100 percent safe in the backcountry. So you have to know about all the dangers," said Smith, 17, a member of the Mountaineers Adventure Club. It is a Seattle-based teen program that partnered with Northwest Avalanche Center to organize the avalanche awareness field trip.
 
As more young adults head out of bounds to ski, snowboard or hike in the winter, experts are targeting their message about avalanche safety to an even younger audience. They're trying to reach kids early - in middle or high school, sometimes even in elementary school - to build their knowledge about snow and avalanches.
 
"They're young, they're impressionable. They don't have a pattern of bad behavior yet. By spending more time on youth, we feel like we can make a difference in changing behavior," said Scott Schell. He is program director of the Northwest Avalanche Center, a Seattle-based non-profit and federal government partnership.
 
The center issues weather forecasts and avalanche warnings. It also offers about 200 free or low-cost education classes each winter to church groups, schools, shops and other organizations. About one-third are geared toward teens or young adults.
 
"We feel that working with younger people is the way to affect behavior down the line," since they're likely to be lifelong users of the outdoors, Schell said. "We tell them that most of the time it's safe and sometimes it's not. Learning when it's safe and when it's dangerous is one of the key takeaways."
 
At least 14 people have been killed in slides so far this season. The three most recent deaths happened Jan. 24 in Washington and Wyoming. The month of January was the deadliest for slides in nearly 20 years. This is according to the Colorado Avalanche Information Center. It is the central archive for avalanche accidents in the country. On an average, 27 people die in avalanches across the U.S. each year. The center doesn't track the ages of all fatalities, but avalanche deaths typically involve men between 20 and 45, the center said.
 
After a 2003 avalanche killed three young men in Utah, the Utah Avalanche Center created a free avalanche awareness program for middle and high school students. The hour-long program includes a high-energy video. It helps them understand how to have fun in the mountains while avoiding avalanches.
 
Better gear, more media coverage and rising lift tickets at resorts have made the backcountry more accessible and appealing to a wider range of people.
 
A lot of the kids may not go into the backcountry, but the idea is that "when someone talks them into getting into the backcountry 15 years from now, they'll have this knowledge that they've stored away," said Paul Diegel, executive director of the Utah Avalanche Center.
 
More than 200,000 students in Utah have been exposed to the "Know Before You Go" program over the last decade. And the program has spread to other states.
 
In Jackson, Wyoming, the American Avalanche Institute, which targeted high school students, has expanded its program to middle schools as well. It runs several free avalanche programs for kids 10 to 18, which is funded by the Steve Romeo Memorial Fund.
 
Lessons are shorter with more hands-on activities. The goal is repetition and learning progresses through the age groups. "We try and send our younger, hipper instructors who are easier to relate to," said Sarah Carpenter, co-owner and teacher at the American Avalanche Institute.
 
The message to younger age groups is to stay in bounds and avoid the backcountry, Carpenter said. But with older teens, "our goal is not to preach abstinence. As the kids get older, they're going to go into the backcountry."
 
The goal is to give them good habits and skills to build a foundation, she said. The message is, if they duck under a rope or venture out of bounds, the conditions are going to be very different.
 
For the teens, ages 14 to 18, with the Mountaineers Adventure Club, the day began with a review of the avalanche forecast, which said conditions were moderate.
 
Eric Gullickson, an avalanche instructor with the Northwest Avalanche Center, led the group as they set off, snow crunching under foot. They headed toward Artist Point on Mount Baker. It is about 130 miles northeast of Seattle.
 
As they hiked, Gullickson asked the group what the difference is between snow inside ski resorts and out of bounds. The teens chimed in that ski resorts control the snow by grooming it and skiers and boarders are packing down the snow.
 
"The snow is always changing so you always have to be assessing," he said. "As you're walking around, keep an eye on the slopes. In your mind, think: 'Do I want to go there? What's a good place to go?'"
 
Gullickson then used a shovel to dig a snow pit. He carved a 6-foot vertical face in the snow to reveal the layers of snowpack. The teens moved closer as Gullickson pointed out the hard layer of snow between two soft layers.
 
"It's good to know," said Rowan Forsythe, 15, of Seattle. "The more knowledge you can have, it's another tool."

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CRITICAL THINKING QUESTION
Why is learning how to avoid avalanches better than trying to survive them?
Write your answers in the comments section below


COMMENTS (5)
  • davidd-4-bar
    2/11/2016 - 11:44 p.m.

    Learning how to avoid avalanches better than trying to survive them because if you avoided the avalanche you wouldn't need to know how to survive it. And since "The snow is always changing so you always have to be assessing," paragrph20. I found this article interesting because I never really knew much about avalanches and I love the snow.

  • ryanh-ver
    2/12/2016 - 09:31 p.m.

    Why do they think that if they get more information to younger kids heads about an avalanche that this would change all of their behavior when they are on the slopes.

  • dukes-lew
    4/20/2016 - 12:47 p.m.

    More teens need to learn about avalanches. It really helped me learn about them.

  • Steve0620-yyca
    8/10/2016 - 06:20 p.m.

    I think that it is great how the teens learn how to avoid avalanches. An avalanche could suddenly occur while you are skiing or snowboarding. If teens learn how to avoid avalanches, they could help themselves and others from danger. An avalanche could also destroy or ruin some systems on the mountain. I hope that the teens could avoid further avalanches and help others to avoid them too.
    I think that learning how to avoid avalanches is better than trying to survive in them because if you avoid the avalanches, you are not in danger. On the other hand, if you learn how to survive in avalanches, you have a chance of injury or death. It is better to avoid harm rather than trying to get out of harm. Even if you learn how to survive in the avalanches, it still can destroy many things. The avalanches also might cause a mountain to be unavailable for people to go to.

  • abroc-wim5
    10/21/2016 - 12:43 p.m.

    I love how people are spreading awareness about avalanches. I feel that there should be more awareness to teens all over the United States. Yes the south of the United States doesn't get snow, but many people travel to the mountains for vacation. I do think avoiding avalanches is better than surviving them, however teens are going to go out and want to explore. I'm not saying teens should make a stupid decision and go out into an avalanche risk zone. I do think us, teens should learn how to avoid avalanches, but if someone ever does get caught in an avalanche, I think teens should be taught survival skills to survive.

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