Winter backcountry travel is currently riding a tidal wave of popularity with the lure of unblemished slopes and relative solitude. In the past, migration beyond the boundary rope has traditionally been by mature skiers and riders, who after years of skiing their home resort are looking for the next challenge, or simply to avoid crowded lift lines.
But Whistler’s youth is also catching the backcountry bug.
For the last four Mondays, a group of students from Spring Creek Elementary School have been participating in a Companion Rescue Skills (CRS) course, a curriculum released by the Canadian Avalanche Centre last year. The CRS course is condensed into a single day of instruction with a focus on avalanche burial scenarios, but with students between the ages of nine and 12 years old, a slightly different approach was necessary.
“Having three kids (myself) probably puts me at an advantage,” said Dary Hemmons, avalanche instructor at Pacific Alpine Institute.
“Attention spans are generally shorter than adults, so you can’t overload them. Just give them little snippets and keep the enthusiasm high. If you’ve got a deadpan delivery, you’re going to lose them.”
Hemmons says the teaching method for this age group needs to be in a fun atmosphere, but the kids know to take the course content seriously.
“Every once in a while your delivery has a certain sternness, that the information is really important,” he said.
A ski guide for over 20 years and a course conductor for the Canadian Avalanche Association, Hemmons spends most of his field time teaching aspiring industry professionals. He was contacted several months ago by Gwen Milley, the co-owner of Pacific Alpine Institute, about tailoring a single- day CRS course specifically for children.
“We thought this would be a great opportunity for the boys to learn those skill sets and have an awareness of avalanche terrain,” said Milley. “I think targeting that age group is a positive thing, it’s great for their awareness level. Kids that age are very impressionable. It’s certainly something I’d like to build on.”
Milley organized the course to be held on four Mondays throughout January when local schools are participating in the Whistler Elementary Schools Program (WESP). The five kids that took the CRS course all attend ski club programs throughout the winter and elected to get trained in backcountry safety in place of an extra day of ski instruction.
Over the first three sessions of the course, Hemmons focused on practical training with beacon search scenarios, starting with single burials then ramping up the difficulty to multiple burials with surface clues. The kids all practised recovering buried backpacks using different models of transceivers, probes and shovels, all taking turns being in charge of the rescue.
These “treasure hunts” were what the kids found the most enjoyable throughout their training, with the exception of skiing fresh powder, of course.
“I’ve been backcountry skiing a lot and I’ve always worn a transceiver, but I’ve never really known how to use it,” said Ian Brett, 12, who has ski toured with his parents in Whistler, Squamish and the Duffey Lake area. “This was a good opportunity for me to learn.”
The final day of the CRS course was spent touring and skiing in the Flute Bowl area, investigating crown line profiles of recent avalanches past the boundary and skiing out via Singing Pass, the hiking trail used by backcountry skiers to return to Whistler Village from the Musical Bumps zone. Hemmons not only gave his students the ability to recognize avalanche-prone terrain, but also gave tips on where to find the good skiing by avoiding sun-affected slopes.
With the first child-specific avalanche course garnering excellent feedback from the students, parents and the instructor, Milley is looking to expand the program for next year. Details still need to ironed out with the Canadian Avalanche Centre and participating schools, but the response is looking positive so far.
“My vision is to offer this course to kids in Grades 6 and 7, so that when they are ready to take the AST 1 (2.5 day entry level avalanche course) when they are teenagers, they have the awareness and basic skill sets,” she said.
Prepping these future backcountry travellers before their transition into adulthood is a strategy welcomed by Hemmons, whose children are aged nine, 11 and 14.
“If you get at them before their testosterone kicks in, they’re going to default back to what they know is the right thing to do, not the coolest thing to do. When they’re doing stuff with their peers as teenagers in high school, these might be the kids that make a difference.”
For more information regarding the Companion Rescue Skills course or enquiries regarding future child-specific avalanche courses contact Gwen Milley at firstname.lastname@example.org.