Teens in the backcountry

Chris Mayers, 18, gets his early morning turns on Mount Glory west of Jackson, Wyo., on Jan. 6 Ryan Dorgan / Jackson Hole News & Guide via AP

Elsa Smith and Chris Mayers, right, pause to watch the sun rise over Twin Slides west of Jackson, Wyo., on Jan. 6. Ryan Dorgan / Jackson Hole News & Guide via AP

JACKSON, Wyo. (AP) — Chris Mayers dropped into Corbet’s Couloir at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort when he was 5 years old.

The run is on the top of most expert skiers’ bucket lists, but it’s just a stepping stone for most of Jackson Hole’s youth.

“I’ve ridden every run, every lift, every single mogul on that mountain,” said Mayers, now 18.

Riding inbounds wasn’t enough for Mayers, nor is it for most of the kids growing up in an area with such incredible terrain.

Skill-wise the kids can hold their own, but there are other components crucial to backcountry skiing — knowledge and experience. Teen education is a topic that is on the minds of people who work to keep others safe in the backcountry, reported the Jackson Hole News and Guide (bit.ly/2k1U6Rk).

“If we’re going to teach kids to ski these lines so young we also have the responsibility to teach these kids the skills that go along with that,” said Amy Golightly, associate director of Teton County Search and Rescue.

Mayers started venturing into the backcountry with his older brother when he was 13. He participated in avalanche awareness workshops and took an Avalanche 1 certification course in high school. He took a multi-week National Outdoor Leadership School backcountry skiing and winter camping course as well as a Wilderness First Responder course.

“The more knowledge you can gain in the backcountry the more you have,” he said.

After graduating from high school last year Mayers set his sights on becoming a mountain guide and will start an intern program this summer in Argentina.

Getting the knowledge to travel safely in backcountry terrain isn’t always easy, Mayers said. It takes money and a lot of willpower; you have to want to get the knowledge. It makes a big difference.

“In the backcountry bad stuff does happen,” he said. “You can’t control a lot of what happens in nature, but what you can control is the gear that you have and the knowledge you have. The better you’re prepared the better off you’re going to be when something bad happens.”

While an Avalanche Level 1 course is great, it’s not enough. After investing more time into taking backcountry courses Mayers realized that having a plan and digging out a buried partner is only a part of the equation.

“When I took my Avalanche 1 class in high school I had the skills to decide if a slope was wind-loaded or not and have a solid plan for searching, probing and shoveling,” he said. “But I was useless with what happens when you pull that person out. There’s a huge chance that they’re going to have a broken back or broken femur, or they might be in cardiac arrest when you pull them out.”

Mayers hopes that Jackson Hole high schools will consider offering avalanche workshops that are mixed with a medical component like basic first aid and CPR.

“If someone really wanted to save their friend out there they have to have that Wilderness First Responder or first aid,” he said. “It makes such a difference, and I think a lot of people are not prepared for that.”

No matter the skill level, without the right knowledge and experience it’s easy to make a mistake in the backcountry, regardless of age. Age does come into play when it comes to hard decision-making, dealing with peer pressure and assessing known and unknown risks.

“There are always risks when you are in the backcountry,” Golightly said, “and I think those risks are increased when you’re around people that are inexperienced.”

While some people are quick to tell kids to stay inbounds at a ski resort or off Teton Pass, it’s not that simple. Most kids see their parents, older siblings and friends heading out of bounds and it’s natural for them to want to go, too.

“It’s pretty unreasonable to expect them to not go into the backcountry,” Golightly said.

Kids are even more enticed when the social media of their favorite pro skier and snowboarders are filled with snowmobile laps on Togwotee Pass and heli-skiing in Alaska.

A parent’s predicament

Tim Harland, a skier and parent whose 15 years with Jackson Hole Fire/EMS have given him many opportunities to see how things can go wrong, knew it was only a matter of time before his sons Leo, 13, and Carson, 12, would want to start experiencing the backcountry. They’re both exceptional skiers, Harland said, and can ski anything the inbounds terrain throws at them.

“Their skill level is on par with any adult I ski with,” Harland said.

But that’s not what worries Harland. He wants to be sure his children can handle themselves if an avalanche comes down or a friend is hurt.

“Most of us don’t necessarily want to push our kids into these more hazardous realms,” he said, “but realize the inevitability of it, and should our children decide to venture along this trajectory, the least we can do is to prepare them the best we can.”

So for Christmas the boys received beacons, shovels and probes. They enrolled in an avalanche awareness class for kids and now work on beacon search drills in the backyard.

“Not just screen time education,” Harland said, “but they need actual practice, too.”

Even then the boys will be allowed to venture past backcountry gates only with appropriate adult supervision.

“Where we are at as parents,” he said, “we want to be able to let our kids experience things on their own after we’ve been able to produce parameters that allow for success. I want to make sure that my kids and their contingent of friends are well educated, versed and prepared for the potential pitfalls that could occur in the incredible backcountry environment that we are so fortunate to have access to.”

Don Carpenter, co-owner of the American Avalanche Institute, doesn’t think there is a right or wrong time for kids to go into the backcountry, but believes parents need to think about it.

“I think it’s a conversation for parents to have with their kids,” he said, “in terms of what they feel is appropriate and how much time have they put into their education and gaining experience and practicing skills.”

For parents who don’t ski, that conversation can be harder.

Jackson Hole High School senior Daniel Tisi, 18, and his brother Jackson grew up skiing, but their parents didn’t. The brothers learned from ski lessons and friends, but when they wanted to start exploring they couldn’t just follow dad up the boot pack.

“They had to trust us because that’s not really their environment,” Tisi said.

His parents wrote a list of requirements that had to be completed, like avalanche classes and equipment. Tisi also had to go with people who were more experienced until his parents trusted him to go alone.

Getting halfway there

The Jackson Hole Ski and Snowboard Club has a policy that it does not take kids out of resort boundaries or into any sort of uncontrolled terrain.

But that doesn’t mean that its leaders aren’t trying to educate their athletes about what lies beyond, Advancement Director Jeff Moran said.

The club keeps the topic of backcountry travel open — adults host avalanche awareness workshops, hike inbounds with kids, talk about decision-making and read the snowpack with them.

Up the Headwall and into Casper Bowl and the Crags is an environment that’s avalanche-controlled by Ski Patrol but still has a backcountry feeling, Freeride Program Director Rob LaPier said.

“It’s a good way for them to start to consider what it takes to go into that terrain,” LaPier said. “They know they are away from ski patrol so they have to consider that.”

Unlike Teton Pass or Grand Teton National Park, the gates leading to the backcountry from Jackson Hole Mountain Resort don’t require much work to access. There’s no tour required, or even a boot pack, just the trust that the skier or boarder has the right knowledge.

“If a group of teenagers wants to go out a gate there’s no one telling them to read the information,” Moran said. “The challenge isn’t necessarily getting into the backcountry, but having the skills to get in and out safely.”

There’s another approach that many teenagers take while using the backcountry, Moran said. That other approach includes digging out jumps to backflip from instead of digging snow pits. They often film segments instead of noting field conditions.

“I haven’t heard of a lot of kids just trying to go on a tour,” Moran said.

Educating a new generation

Over the holiday break a handful of organizations partnered to provide affordable avalanche education at Snow King Mountain Resort for kids age 10 to 18 years old. Ride Safe: Youth Avalanche Awareness Workshop consisted of two three-hour sessions — 90 minutes indoors and 90 minutes on snow.

The Dec. 26 workshop was sponsored by the Jackson Hole Ski and Snowboard Club, the American Avalanche Institute, the Steve Romeo Memorial Foundation, Snow King Mountain Resort and Dave Cernicek with the Bridger-Teton National Forest.

It’s not a certification class, more of an awareness course, said Carpenter, who put together the curriculum with the American Avalanche Institute.

“At that level in my mind it’s more about an initial spark,” he said. “The main thing we’re trying to do at that age level is make it fun and get them interested.”

Most of the kids in the classes had taken the course or gone into the backcountry with their parents.

Driscoll Larrow, 14, sat in a snow pit at the top of Snow King that Carpenter had dug out.

“What are we hoping to learn from this?” Carpenter asked.

“We’re trying to find out where the weak layer is,” Driscoll said as he started to test the snowpack.

Driscoll patted a shovel on top of an isolated snow column in the pit. Halfway through the test the column broke away.

Carpenter yelled for the groups to switch places, and Driscoll and Martin Wilcox, 14, headed over to the beacon search station.

A beacon was hidden out of sight under a few feet of packed snow, and the boys were instructed to follow the signal and then plant a probe. They put the probe into the snow where they thought the beacon was and started a grid search.

Driscoll felt the probe bounce back, meaning it wasn’t just hitting solid ground. The boys started digging, recovering the buried beacon.

Tillie Rossetti, 13, started going into the backcountry with her parents when she was 8 — skiing Mount Glory and Chivers Ridge.

“I mostly like the untracked snow,” she said.

She had taken a few classes before the Ride Safe program and had dug pits and practiced searches.

“Most of the things I’m learning right now I’ve already learned,” Tillie said. “But it’s good to have a refresher.”

Repetition is key with kids, Carpenter said.

“A big part of it is hearing these things early on and again and again,” he said. “We’re getting them excited about it.”

Starting avalanche education at a young age gives an advantage to the next generation of backcountry skiers and snowboarders, Golightly said.

“They’re more likely to become good stewards of the backcountry themselves when we create a culture of skiers who are educated.”

Information from: Jackson Hole (Wyo.) News And Guide, jhnewsandguide.com