That Could Be Me

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Avalanche Education is the best way to honor Bryce and Ronnie

Bryce Astle in flight
Ronnie Berlack, sending

It’s been three years since Ronnie Berlack and Bryce Astle were taken from us in an avalanche in Soelden, Austria. Their memory stays fresh in our minds with the ubiquitous BA+RB stickers on helmets, the Ronnie Berlack Center at Burke Mountain Academy and the work of the Bryce Astle Foundation in Snowbird. Young ski racers will be “sending it” in Bryce and Ronnie’s names at the Bryce Astle Memorial Western Region FIS series in Snowbird and the Ronnie Berlack U16 Eastern Championship Grand Prix in Stowe. The BRASS (Bryce and Ronnie Athlete Snow Safety) Foundation, created by the Bryce and Ronnie’s parents—Jamie and Laura Astle, Steve and Cindy Berlack—is known throughout the ski racing world and is synonymous with avalanche awareness.

This is naturally a time to think about those young men who shone so brightly, and also a time to reflect on what has changed since that day.

The work of the BRASS Foundation—in partnership with the American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education (AIARE), the National Avalanche Center, the Utah Avalanche Center and the Colorado Avalanche Information Center to educate the ski racing community has been Herculean. In all, BRASS and their partners over the last three years has directly presented the Know Before You Go (KBYG) message, and an accompanying film to roughly 4000 athletes, coaches and parents. This fall that included clinics at six eastern ski academies led by BRASS executive director Michael Silitch, and Blizzard Tecnica Freeride World Tour athlete Jacki Paaso. There have been articles in Powder and Backcountry magazine and on SkiRacing.com.

THIS IS PERSONAL

This past year, Steve Berlack has presented the BRASS and KBYG message to nearly 900 athletes coaches and parents. In November he presented to 300 athletes and coaches in Panorama, where Ronnie competed in 24 FIS races, 18 of them NorAms. Race organizers shared stories about Ronnie, including how he complained so much about the “boring GS’ that they finally moved the start higher. Steve spread some of Ronnie’s ashes along the race run, Old Timer’s. Time, however, has not lessened the impact of the event.

Dedicating the Ronnie Berlack Center at Burke Mountain Academy

The film at this winter’s presentations takes a more personal look at Bryce and Ronnie, their families and the athletes and coaches who were with them that day. It features a reenactment of the day, with the four other athletes involved, as well as their candid, painful reflections on how things could have gone differently.

When the lights go up after a viewing of the film, the eyes in the audience are as big as quarters and brimming like pools of April snowmelt. When Berlack stands in front of those audiences he simply says, “Yeah, it happened.” The impact of this film is profound and powerful because of the one thing every kid, coach and parent thinks as they watch it: ‘That could be me.”

That could be me, sending the kids off to make a few free runs. That could be me riding the gondola, innocently looking forward to a fun ski day in bounds. That could be me looking off the side of a cat track, seeing tracks and deciding to catch a few sweet powder turns. That could be me watching the hillside fall away and take my friends with it. That could be me digging wildly, helplessly, at the rubble with a tree branch. That could be me, with a respirator and an AED still attached to my body. That could be me looking at photographs on the wall, and trying to make sense of the wreckage.

SITUATIONAL AWARENESS IS EVERYTHING

Situational Awareness is “the perception of environmental elements and events with respect to time or space, the comprehension of their meaning, and the projection of their status after some variable has changed. SA involves being aware of what is happening in the vicinity to understand how information, events, and one’s own actions will impact goals and objectives, both immediately and in the near future.”

As Erik Arvidsson says in the film: “If we would have taken just one class we would have learned the difference between on and off piste in Europe. But more importantly we would have known not to ski that terrain in the first place.” Bode Miller who himself was buried in an avalanche in his youth, explains, “It takes all of 20 minutes to learn, and be educated enough to really have an impact on that situation.” The kids and coaches had no idea they could be in any danger while skiing in bounds at a resort, which translated into inadequate situational awareness.

Bryce and his Blizzards
Ronnie and his team

HOW CAN WE HELP?

With it’s 30,000 plus members, US Ski and Snowboard is the natural conduit to skiers and their families, and has the opportunity to make significant steps. The KBYG and BRASS messages have been delivered at Regional Club Excellence conferences, and US Ski Team athletes themselves help deliver the five KBYG principles:

  • Get the Gear
  • Get the Forecast
  • Get the training
  • Get the Picture
  • Get out of Harms way

Before you go out for a snowy adventure. watch this video!

 

As for the athletes who are in Europe, maintaining a stash of avalanche gear in Europe was deemed impractical, given their geographic dispersion at any one time. Instead, powder skiing policy errs on the side of caution, requiring a local guide. Staying indoors on a powder day isn’t the long term answer—education is. Jon Casson, US Ski and Snowboard’s Director of Coaches Education is completing training modules for coaches certification. They will be ready for a soft launch this spring, and part of the certification requirements by next fall. Another proposal is trip leader certification, perhaps a one day course with some online computer based training on the front end, that is more comprehensive than the KBYG awareness, but less of a time commitment than the three day AIARE Level 1 training.

While the education efforts are critical, there is no requirement yet for any athletes to have a basic level of training. Casson says the online educational component could be made available to all US Skiing members, which would be hugely valuable. Could parents also be urged to complete it with their kids? Could the KBYG weatherproof pamphlet dispensed at BRASS presentations become standard material in every coaches backpack, every team room, and every vanload of skiers? Little efforts could help a lot. Casson’s sense of organizational obligation is clear. “We’re teaching kids to be passionate skiers for life so we need to give them a base level of education when they are young, before they take off on their own.”

LOOKING IN THE MIRROR

Looking back, Casson’s own experience illustrates the need. At age 22, while driving cross-country he and his friend stopped atop Loveland Pass to make some “free” turns in fresh powder, without a thought of avalanche conditions. When Casson recently took his AIARE Level 1 training, the lightbulb went off: “I was that guy in the highest risk profile, with a high skill level, high risk threshold and low backcountry knowledge.” Since then, Casson has seen that lightbulb go off with coaches during presentations, just like it did with him.

The Soelden accident often prompts my own reflection. I grew up as a ski racer on big mountains in the west, then traveled the world, skiing side-country, out-of-bounds, helicopter- and cat-served areas behind the velvet rope…and I knew nothing. I learned more in one morning of a photo shoot on Loveland Pass, post retirement, than I had in my entire racing career. That’s not right. I was lucky. We were all lucky. When I think of the chutes we hiked to in Argentina, the off-piste stashes of powder in Austria, and so many impulsive treks for a little bit of adventure in so many places, it makes me shiver.

I now have two teenage ski racing boys who know much more about avalanche safety than I did at their age, largely through the efforts of BRASS as well as their curiosity and concern for Bryce, Ronnie and those who knew them. But they are teenage boys at the top of the risk profile for pretty much everything and especially avalanches. Their good judgment is a work in progress. They need oversight and direction.

As with race safety, evolution follows tragedy. Such has been the case with fixed finish posts and interval timers, the proper height of safety skirts on A net and the prioritization of ample B net. The time for avalanche awareness is now. Following these tragedies, there is hope and positive meaning in the lives that get saved as a consequence, and in saving more parents from enduring the pain the Berlacks and Astles live with every day. The appeal from Laura Astle says it best:

“Don’t let this happen to you and your family. Get educated, get out there, so we can keep skiing for Bryce and Ronnie, so their legacies live on.”

For more information on BRASS, to request a presentation or to find one near you go to BRASSfoundation.org.

Photos from Brysastlefoundation.com and BRASSfoundation.org

Bryce, ripping at Squaw Valley
Ronnie, ripping in Aspen

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