Eddie Bauer guide and Lake Tahoe local Lel Tone has devoted her life to keeping skiers safe in the mountains. From her avalanche forecasting day job on the Squaw Valley ski patrol and her heli guiding gig in Alaska to her role as an avalanche educator and professional avy industry advocate, Tone has made a huge positive impact in our ski and snowboard communities. But her recent effort, the SAFE-AS clinics, is targeted directly at bringing a heightened level of avalanche awareness to women.
This month, Lel Tone, along with her professional skier peers Michelle Parker, Ingrid Backstrom, Jackie Paaso and Elyse Saugstad, brought their new progressive template for women’s avalanche education to our home turf at Crystal Mountain and Stevens Pass ski areas in Washington. Despite low early-season snowpacks, the events drew huge turnouts and were extremely successful in educating an often overlooked or underserved backcountry demographic. For the full recap Lel Tone provided us her personal official report on why she feels so strongly about bringing greater avalanche knowledge to the community of women who ski and shred in the backcountry. —LYA Editor
Images by Lel Tone, Aime Engerbretson and Re Wikstrom
I have been incredibly fortunate to travel around the West this December and work with and meet so many incredible women. The reason for my travels has been to help teach the SAFE AS Clinics. I have been to Snowbird, Squaw Valley, Crystal and Stevens Pass. At each of these venues, we have felt the love of our local ski communities, men and women alike. As a ski patroller at Squaw Valley, and heli ski guide in Alaska, my winters don’t usually afford me the opportunity to visit other resorts. Therefore, this season has been a great opportunity to connect with my fellow ski tribe out there in the West.
SAFE AS Clinics was born in the fall of 2012. SAFE AS (Skiers Advocating and Fostering Education for Avalanche and Snow Safety) is a one-day introduction to avalanches and companion rescue. SAFE AS hopes to capture the attention of young female riders 14 years and older, who might think taking a 3-day AIARE Level 1 course is not necessarily suited for them. Possibly because these courses are too expensive, time-consuming, or beyond what they think they need to know for inbounds and sidecountry skiing, it’s just not for them. But by creating a fun, comfortable and inspiring learning environment for these ladies, SAFE AS hopes that this class might light a spark and inspire many to seek out more information and education down the line.
Co-organizer Elyse Saugstad lays out the SAFE AS mission: “With the progression of ‘sidecountry’ gear that is being heavily promoted through the ski industry, in addition to the growth of backcountry skiing that is being accessed from ski resorts, we feel strongly, as athletes, about the need to promote education. Our goal of administering SAFE AS clinics is to help our mountain communities by bringing awareness and basic knowledge to a burgeoning backcountry user base.”
As I was preparing to leave Tahoe for our last two clinics in Washington state, I received an email from a friend and former Avalanche Level 1 student that moved me to tears and reaffirmed my passion for why I teach these courses. Amie had just days before been caught in an avalanche and completely buried in the sidecountry just outside the Snowbird Ski Resort boundary. She wrote an email titled “Thank you” to tell me, “I do want you to know, that from the moment the slide started, you were in my head, guiding me through. I wish all the knowledge you have given me had kicked in earlier, but I am grateful for everything you taught me. You helped me, you really did.”
Amie joked later, during a phone conversation, that “Lel, you saved my life and you weren’t even there!” Although sweet of her to say, this is far from the truth. Her quick rescue was due to her savvy and quick- acting partners that day, and to her ability to remain calm, deploy her avalanche airbag pack, and remember all the things we discussed and trained for in her avalanche class. Amie has very courageously written a story about her experience and humbly shared, in a public forum, the mistakes made that day..
Armchair quarterbacks may say what they will, but no one who plays and makes a living working in the mountains is infallible all the time. We can only hope that we learn our lessons and take our spankings. I have so much respect for her humility and honesty and, most importantly, thank my lucky stars that I get to see Amie’s beautiful face again.
As I fly home from the Pacific Northwest, the beautiful snow-filled Cascade Mountains out the window, I am so incredibly grateful to be able to make a living working in the mountains, learning from them every day, sharing fun times with clients, students, and friends. I am continually humbled, for no matter how much we learn, experience and know, Mother Nature is always in charge, our ever-constant teacher should we choose to listen.
For more information, check out their page on Facebook “SAFE AS Clinics” or their website http://safeasclinics.wordpress.com
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