Avalanche Mitigation

Pioneer Academy Students Learn About Avalanche Mitigation, Rescue
Posted on 02/28/2024
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Earlier this month, Pioneer Academy students involved with Project Discovery were able to make a field trip to Palisades Tahoe to learn about avalanche mitigation efforts and rescue. The educational activity is summarized best in the words of Mike Selbey, executive director for Project Discovery, below.

Assistant Ski Patrol Director Steve Hurt of Palisades Tahoe introduced himself by gesturing out the windows in the Funitel ride up to the Gold Coast Patrol Office… “This is my playground, and has been for almost 40 years now.” This admission got the high school students’ attention. He went on to talk about the 30 different avalanche routes that had to be run by patrol every time the slopes loaded with new snow.

In a decent-sized storm, he shared that more than 450 charges might be utilized to see if they can move any unstable snow down the hill instead of waiting for a skier to do it. He also realistically confided that it would be absolutely impossible to remove all risk entirely because we are in the mountains where upwards of 60 feet of snow can fall in a season. And that’s where avalanche rescue comes in and why the students had come to Tahoe.

Hurt’s current position is Assistant Patrol Director of one of the largest resorts in the country. He is tasked with making the call when it is not safe to open specific lifts and terrain. One-part science, one-part art and one-part “feel,” his job, by necessity, involves rolling the dice in some ways every time it snows or blows. What’s at stake? The lives of both his staff and visitors. As we ascend, the students begin to understand the significance of his job and leadership. They also begin to understand that his is not an easy job. By the time we reach the patrol office at the Funitel Unload, the students begin to grasp the complexity and importance of snow safety and risk management at Palisades.

The Pioneer Academy Ski Team is part of a much larger program resulting form a partnership between Palisades Tahoe, the non-profits Ski Ducks and Project Discovery and the Carson City School District. From this ski team to other experiential activities like ropes challenge programs, rock climbing, ice hockey and canyoneering, students learn that there is a whole world beyond their normal daily life and two important facts: 1) that they matter as part of this team, and; 2) that with enough effort, problems can be overcome no matter the size and complexity… it just takes energy and the belief that they will prevail given enough time and effort.

With questions fielded, it was time to go outside and watch the dogs work. At this point another ski patrolman is introduced as Jeff Hartley and his Black Lab in training, Maverick. We walk outside and are immediately blasted by snow and wind, with everything on the upper mountain but the Funitel closed, the mountain is foreboding for the students as a whiteout descends and it becomes difficult to see. Hurt gestures behind him and says “this is where we work and this is often what it’s like. It’s what makes you feel alive!”

After sharing a little more about how patrollers work together to keep the mountain safe and be ready and willing should a slide occur, attention is turned to Maverick who sits attentively at Hartley’s feet, still, but incredibly alert. Both patroller and dog know, it is time to work. Patrol has buried another patroller while Maverick was elsewhere and when Harley gives the command to “Search,” Maverick springs into action running in wide circles with his nose to the snow searching for some scent of a human. Running wildly with all the speed he can muster while still keeping his nose to the ground he suddenly stops, circles back and begins digging. Within a couple seconds we see Maverick’s tail wagging. He has found his subject.

Hartley immediately rewards Maverick and celebrates his find in order to encourage that behavior in the future when it might not be practice but the real thing. After a few more questions, the students choose Dog Cards that the patrol offers with names and photos of the dogs they had watched work. With a hearty round of applause and “thank-yous” the workshop is over.

But it’s not really over because the students take with them knowledge and the analogy that sometimes people have to be rescued in life as in an avalanche. Sometimes you may be the rescuer. Other times, you may be the one needing rescue. They learned once more that as part of a team they matter and that with enough effort, most problems can be overcome. But most importantly, they learned that there is a whole world out here just waiting for them to discover and that the world is their playground.

(Written by Dr. Mike Selby, Project Discovery)

(Photo Credit: Dr. Mike Selby, Project Discovery).