The future of avalanche safety

Whistler's youth getting educated on responsible backcountry travel

Good backcountry habits start early. That's the message from Gwen Milley, co-owner of local avalanche course provider Pacific Alpine Institute (PAI).

"In a ski town like Whistler, (these kids) are the future ambassadors for the backcountry," said Milley.

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"You've got to start them young so they learn how to behave out there, how to respect the backcountry. I think the younger they start, the better off they are growing up in a ski town."

This week marks the start of the second Companion Rescue Skills Course (CRSC) put on by PAI specifically geared for youth between the ages of nine and 13. The CRSC is typically a one-day course - endorsed by the Canadian Avalanche Centre - that covers the basics of self-rescue in avalanches and is used as a stepping stone for the 2.5-day Avalanche Skills Training (AST) Level 1 course. Last year, PAI ran the pilot youth version of CRSC over four half-day sessions during the month of January, conducted by local avalanche instructor Dary Hemmons.

"The feedback from both the parents and kids was great," said Milley. "This year it's a little more formalized but in the same format. It's gaining momentum and I think next year we'll see a whole other group of kids come in. Right now it's (gaining recognition by) word of mouth and parents are happy to have their kids in it."

This year there are two full, separate groups heading out on all four Mondays, with students aged 10 and 11 taking three-hour sessions in the mornings and 12- and 13-year-olds setting out into the field in the afternoon. The focus of the course is to hone the students' self-rescue skills by locating mock victims with transceivers, pinpointing with probes, then digging the victim out with efficient shovelling techniques. The final Monday (Jan. 27) will be a field trip for all the kids into the Whistler backcountry adjacent to Flute Bowl to be introduced to safe terrain navigation. The CRSC for youth is intended as a bridge for younger kids to gain familiarity with avalanche safety equipment before they take on the more-involved AST Level 1 as teenagers.

"The idea is for kids to go into the backcountry with their parents or a guide and have their skill sets at a level so that if something did happen, the kids would know what to do," said Milley. "I'd feel comfortable taking my kids into Flute, Oboe and Cowboy Ridge, terrain that's not super exposed but still fun."

Last week, Matthew Turner, 13, became one of the youngest in Whistler to complete an AST Level 1 course after expressing his backcountry interest to his parents.

"I just find that the (sooner) I do the course, the more knowledge I'll have while I'm out there," said Turner.

"I'm 13 now and when I'm 20 years old I'll have a really good handle on things because I learned about everything while I was so young."

Turner spent two full field days in the Musical Bumps area learning self-rescue techniques, basic snow science and terrain navigation, as well as two evenings in the classroom learning theory.

"We compared our (classroom) learning to outside, we looked at the types of snow, if it was faceted, if there was surface hoar," said Turner.

"When I was doing the course I almost forgot that I was doing it so I could ski. There's so much knowledge (to learn)."

In the future, Turner hopes to travel deeper into the Musical Bumps area and eventually work up to completing the Spearhead Traverse. When ready, he also hopes to head out into the backcountry with his friends, without a guide or instructor.

"Going out with your friends would just be like what skiing is meant to be," he said.

For more information on the CRSC for youth go to www.pacificalpineinstitute.com. For more information on the youth AST Level 1 visit www.whistlerguides.com.

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