How Young Is Too Young to Begin Avalanche Ed?

28 Oct

In 2013, 15-year-old Dawson Toth was perched on a ridge watching his best friend, Evan, ski down the north slope of Hero’s Knob, a popular backcountry area in Kananaskis County, Alberta, when he saw the avalanche. “It started at my ski tips,” he recalls. “Then I watched the slide spread across the whole slope.”

The wall of snow engulfed Evan, then both teens’ fathers, who were waiting farther downhill. Once the slide petered out, Dawson jumped off the crown onto the now bare shale below, switched his beacon to search mode, and made his way toward the buried victims. “There wasn’t much going on in my head except that I needed to find my friends and family fast.” 

Luckily, three years earlier Dawson had received training from a guide certified by Avalanche Canada for just this sort of scenario. Within a minute he’d dug out Evan’s dad, whose hand was protruding from the softly packed snow near the top of the slide. Thirty feet down, he saw his own father buried to the waist. But where was Evan? Dawson worked downslope in a grid pattern, and soon his beacon homed in on another signal. When his snow probe struck something roughly five feet below, he and a few helpers who’d come upon the scene began digging frantically. Evan was unresponsive when Dawson pulled him from the debris. But as soon as Dawson cleared the snow from Evan’s mouth, his friend coughed and inhaled rapidly. 

backcountry skiing
Avy training in Jackson, Wyoming. (American Avalanch Institute)

Relatively few teens in North America die in avalanches each year, but increasing numbers of young rippers are likely to head for the backcountry—and into harm’s way. Many guides and educators are pushing for earlier avalanche instruction so that if things go wrong, as they did for Dawson and Evan, teenagers will have the skills to deal with it.

“I liken it to sex education,” says Mary Clayton, a former ski guide and communications director for Avalanche Canada, whose 16-year-old son, Aleks, has started venturing out of bounds. “I know it’s going to happen, so I won’t put my head in the sand.”

Seniors at public high schools in Jackson, Wyoming, take a ten-day snow-safety course as part of the science curriculum; by adding a two-day field session, as dozens of students did during the 2016–17 school year, they can earn American Avalanche Institute Level 1 certification, the first of two levels of recreational avalanche education. High schools in Breckenridge, Crested Butte, and Vail, Colorado, also offer snow-safety courses. And Avalanche Canada launched a youth-focused avalanche-awareness program in 2005 that reached nearly 8,200 kids across western Canada last year alone, some as young as six.

High schoolers who want to earn safety certification go through the same steps as adults: learning basic snow science, digging snow pits, performing stability assessments, using transceivers, and practicing rescue scenarios. In basic awareness classes, elementary school kids may learn some of those skills, too, or stick with things like identifying avalanche terrain. In Jackson, the youngest participants focus on abstinence, says Sarah Carpenter, co-owner of the American Avalanche Institute: “As in, ‘Here’s why you never leave the resort gate without an adult who is prepared.’”

backcountry skiing
Checking conditions. (Marty Schaffer)

We know avalanche education works, says Jordy Hendrikx, who directs the Snow and Avalanche Laboratory at Montana State University. According to data from the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, the number of fatalities remained essentially flat between 1995 and 2016, despite an explosion in backcountry use among skiers, snowboarders, and snowmobilers. But the educators and snow scientists I spoke with expressed concerns about whether a little bit of avalanche education will push young people—who tend to have high risk tolerance and an eagerness to impress their friends—to go further than they would otherwise. 

“Are we enabling people to increase their exposure but also decrease their risk?” Hendrikx asks. Carpenter wonders the same thing: “A lot of high school kids are ducking the rope, building a jump, and sessioning it for hours. So we tell them, ‘Here are the places you want to avoid putting your jump.’ Do I want them to take those same skills and go big-mountain skiing with­out supervision? No.”

Hendrikx, who in recent years shifted his focus from snow science to how decisions are made in the backcountry, is conducting a study with colleagues from Sweden and Norway to better understand the role that status plays in peer groups, including kids who’ve grown up with exposure to off-piste powder shots via social media.

What they might find, at least among some teenagers, is that the tide of social stigma has actually begun to turn against cavalier attitudes. “People used to not think twice about ducking the rope,” says Andreas Massitti, an 18-year-old from Canmore, Alberta, who started competing in big-mountain freeskiing competitions when he was 14—the same year he took an avalanche course. “Now, with kids my age and younger, if you go out there without the gear or on a bad day, it’s like, ‘What were you thinking?’ People give you heck about it, eh?”

Youth Avalanche Safety Courses Near You

Parents: Keep your rippers safe in the backcountry with these youth-specific avalanche-safety courses. Don’t see one near you? Contact the snow-safety nonprofit Know Before You Go to request a free presentation by an avalanche expert. Nicholas Hunt

Alpine Skills International 

Tioga Pass, California 

A five-day touring and mountaineering course for 12-to-18-year-old skiers that covers everything from packing tech­niques to risk assessment. Late spring; $925;

Utah Mountain Adventures 

Salt Lake City, Utah

Students 13 and up who take this three-day course, which combines classroom lectures and field sessions, walk away with American Avalanche Association Level 1 certification. December 27–29; $349;

Selkirk Outdoor Leadership and Education 

Sandpoint, Idaho

Anyone 16 and older can sign up for SOLE’s avalanche courses, but it offers a Level 1 course designed expressly for 16-to-25-year-olds.January 13–15; $345;

The Wild West of Predator Control Is Hurting Humans and Pets

17 Jul

One day in mid-March, Canyon Mansfield took his three-year-old yellow lab, Casey, on a walk into open scrubland behind his house in Pocatello, Idaho. It was the boy’s happy place. About 400 yards from his house, Mansfield bent down to inspect what looked like a sprinkler head sticking out of the dirt. When he touched the goop smeared on top of it, a stream of powder shot out. Some of it landed on Mansfield’s face and jacket, but a brisk wind sent most of the powder toward his dog.

The dog’s eyes quickly glassed over, he struggled to breathe as his mouth filled with red foam, and he started having what the boy describes as a seizure. In a manner of minutes, Casey stopped breathing. A short time later, when Mansfield’s father, a physician, arrived and wanted to try to resuscitate the dog, the boy yelled, “No, I think it’s poison.”

He was right. Casey died from chemical asphyxiation after inhaling sodium cyanide powder from the device, a baited trap called an M-44 that kills thousands of coyotes and red foxes each year in an effort to prevent livestock predation.

There are two ways that ranchers and Wildlife Services, an arm of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, control these predators that kill livestock every year. The first is nonlethal, which puts the onus on ranchers to use strategies like fencing, range riders, guardian dogs, and penning livestock to keep animals safe during calving. The other is lethal. Wildlife Services is often enlisted to carry out these lethal strategies, using M-44 traps, snares, footholds, or other traps, as well as shooting the animals—often from the air. Ranchers are not required to try nonlethal predator control before enlisting Wildlife Services to employ lethal methods, and money for the service is pulled from a complex mix of sources, including federal, state, county, and local governments and, through cooperative groups, ranchers themselves.

Every year, these traps kill hundreds of non-target animals, including black bears and, yes, a small number of family dogs and humans. In 2015, ten family pets were killed or euthanized after being caught in snares or traps set by Wildlife Services; six were killed by M-44s that same year. Spring is high season for predation, due to all those lambs and calves, so it’s also the time of year when Wildlife Services places more traps in the field. In March, the same month Casey died, a 15-year-old Deutsch Drahthaar and eight-year-old Weimaraner died after triggering an M-44 in Wyoming, as did a collared wolf, OR48, which tugged on a baited M-44 in Oregon.

According to USDA spokesperson Andre Bell, 15 citizens have triggered the devices and suffered a range of illnesses as a result, including shortness of breath and a burning sensation in the eyes and mouth. Another 24 agency employees were also exposed while handling the device. No human has died from exposure, though a Utah man who triggered an M-44 on BLM land in 2003 after mistaking it for a survey stake claims that exposure triggered ongoing health problems, forcing him to retire early from his job.

It’s time to ban these poisons from public lands. In early April, four conservation groups sued the Trump administration as part of their years-long effort to have M-44s, as well as another pesticide-based device called Compound 180, permanently banned. Congressman Peter DeFazio, a Democrat from Oregon, introduced a bill in late March that would also ban the poisons—something he’s been trying to do for decades. “The use of this device by Wildlife Services led to the death of an innocent wolf, has previously killed domestic dogs, and sooner or later, will kill a child,” he told the Oregonian in March.

Not everyone is on board. Some argue that nonlethal methods aren’t as effective (though recent studies dispute this) and that M-44s are more appropriate and cost-effective than other lethal means. John Shivik, a former Wildlife Services employee who focused on developing and improving nonlethal control practices, says M-44s are “relatively humane” compared to snares or leg-holds, which entrap and often injure an animal for many days before an agent returns.

Regardless of the outcome of the legislation and lawsuits, the tide seems to be turning against lethal methods as ranchers embrace more nonlethal methods. Utah State University and Wildlife Services recently completed a four-year study evaluating the effectiveness of certain guardian dog breeds—Kangals, Karakachans, and Cão de Gado Transmontanos—against wolves, compared to commonly used breeds. The findings are currently being analyzed. Montana’s Wildlife Services (the agency operates through state-based offices, with different policies in each state) is also working with the Natural Resources Defense Council to test the use of electric fences adorned with flags, called fladry, to keep coyotes and wolves away from livestock. Fladry can scare off predators by merely flapping in the wind, and the electric fence acts as a wrist-slap to braver animals.

Ranchers will never be stripped of their rights to eliminate wildlife they believe to be killing their stock in trade, and that includes shooting a wolf or coyote that’s harassing their flock. It’s about as likely as repealing the Second Amendment. But nonlethal experimentation appears to be working. According to a USDA analysis of sheep and lamb ranching operations, the number of sheep and lamb killed by predators on ranches in the West declined from 2009 to 2014, from 634,500 to 585,000. At the same time, the use of nonlethal controls increased. In 2004, only 31.9 percent of ranches used one or more nonlethal method to control predators, compared to 58 percent a decade later.

In response to Casey’s death and Mansfield’s near-miss, the agency placed a temporary ban on the use of M-44s in Idaho and directed agents to remove all of the devices that were deployed. Then, in mid-June, Wildlife Services announced an agencywide review of the devices as well as new rules that require more visible and obvious warning signs to be placed near M-44s.

It’s a start toward addressing what, at times, seemed to be a lax attitude toward these dangerous devices. Last year, Idaho’s Wildlife Services had already prohibited use of M-44s on all federal land in the state, hoping this would “reduce any anxiety that recreationists may feel” about cyanide traps hiding in their playgrounds. The WS-Idaho agent who set the trap screwed up, because the M-44 that killed Casey, as well as another nearby trap, were in fact on federal land. Plus, the Mansfield family asserts that there were no nearby signs cautioning passersby about the poisonous devices—an EPA mandated requirement for using M-44s. “Nobody knew what [the M-44] was,” the boy told a local news station. As the captain of the local county sheriff’s office told Fox News, “He’s very lucky to be alive.”