Beacons and Beers offers backcountry advice ahead of ski season | SierraSun.com

Beacons and Beers offers backcountry advice ahead of ski season

Brandon Schwartz, an avalanche forecaster with the Sierra Avalanche Center, digs a snow pit to analyze the snowpack. The center recently benefitted from the raffle sales at the annual Beacons and Beers event at Alibi Ale Works.

With the mountains around the Tahoe region still awaiting winter's first storms, many of the area's diehard skiers and snowboarders gathered at Alibi Ale Works in Truckee to hear from experts on using search and rescue gear in the backcountry.

Roughly 150 people were on hand for the annual Beacons and Beers, presented by Tahoe Mountain Sports, on Wednesday evening, as representatives from Black Diamond, Mammut and ORTOVOX gave presentations on the latest beacons, probes and avalanche rescue techniques.

"We want to remind people that traveling in the backcountry is dangerous, and we want to make sure that people have the skills to be safe," said Dave Polivy, owner of Tahoe Mountain Sports.

The evening centered on the importance of having proper equipment and knowing how to use it before heading into the backcountry.

"We like to call it 'Know before you go,'" said Polivy. "It's just really important to know what you are getting into and to travel smartly in the backcountry. That's what it comes down to for us."

For those just getting into backcountry riding, Polivy said taking an American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education Level 1 Class is essential.

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"We work with Tahoe Mountain School and we offer classes every single weekend," said Polivy. "AIARE, it's an accreditation class for backcountry travel. Really, what it teaches more than anything is safe backcountry decision making. We're not telling you where to go or what to do, we're trying to teach you how to make the best decisions when you are traveling in avalanche or backcountry terrain."

The course is so important, Jared Rodriguez, sales representative for ORTOVOX, said he wouldn't hit the backcountry with anyone who hadn't taken it.

"I would not personally ski with somebody who has not been through a class, because you are basically putting your life in your partner's hands," said Rodriguez, who added that those who haven't taken a class in a while should consider retaking one.

"I took the AIARE Level 1 class about 15 years ago, and then I took it again about three years ago. That class has evolved.

"When I took it 15 years ago it was a lot about snow science and digging pits and the beacon search. The way the class has evolved is to now try and teach you to read an avalanche forecast, make decisions before you are on the mountain, and just how to travel so that you are never caught in an avalanche. And then if somebody is caught in an avalanche, what do you do."

MINUTES MATTER

Rodriguez also stressed the importance of having the appropriate equipment. Having a shovel, probe, and beacon lowers the average rescue time following an avalanche to 11 minutes, and there is a 92 percent chance of survival if someone who has been buried by an avalanche is found within 15 minutes.

"There's definitely a reluctance to spend that additional money to get that additional safety gear," said Rodriguez. "If I were to give any advice to beginners it would be to take the Level 1 class, make sure you get the proper gear, and know who you are skiing with."

For those who are more experienced in the backcountry, Rodriguez said that becoming complacent and over confident are often the biggest mistakes skiers make.

"They don't go out and refresh and practice," he said. "I guarantee there's a lot of people out there who get a new beacon and they don't know the ins and outs of how that beacon is going to handle different parts of the search. We really should be practicing every year before you get out."

The evening also included demonstrations on how to use beacons and probes, and also a raffle benefiting Sierra Avalanche Center.

Justin Scacco is a reporter for the Sierra Sun. Contact him at jscacco@sierrasun.com.