Education and equipment required: Group says 18-24 year olds face biggest avalanche risk in backcountry

Project Zero targets youth in avalanche death prevention effort. Plus, find out the latest retailer/rep winter safety education resource.
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If your customers are 18 to 24 years old and access the backcountry through ski area boundary gates, Rachel Reich would wants a word with them.

Reich, the project manager of Project Zero, a Denver-based group launched last year in partnership with numerous industry brands with a mission decrease avalanche deaths, will spend this winter reaching out to the above demographic, a group determined to be at the biggest risk to be avalanche victims, and one of the biggest management challenges for ski areas and the U.S. Forest Service.

“They see the sidecountry as a place where they really don’t have to have the right gear or training,” Reich said. “That’s the cultural shift we’ll be going after.”

The identification of this demographic came after more than a year of meetings with stakeholders across all sides of the snowsports industry, and focus groups held by Tim Bennet, executive director of the American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education (AIARE) and founder of Project Zero in 2013.

“We discovered a big gap between where people think they are in their education and competence and where they should be,” Bennet said. “And we know that users 18 to 24 don’t go to traditional outlets for information. We have to reach that audience to change that culture and create a different peer pressure.”

To accomplish this, Bennet hired Reich in early November. Reich is a splitboard veteran who has years of mountaineering and digital marketing experience, as well as photos on her Twitter feed of skiing big lines in Alaska. She knows from her experience that it can be too easy to follow someone else’s tracks into danger, a common sight at resort boundary gates that often lead people to untouched and uncontrolled terrain.

To reach her target demographic, Reich will be developing an educational campaign that leverages social media, local backcountry groups and grassroots marketing efforts in hopes of changing the peer-to-peer conversation, to make it more acceptable to say, “No, I’m not going.”

Reich’s peer pressure message is good news to Ellen Hollinshead, a Breckenridge skier who traverses into the backcountry five days a week between mid-November and mid-July. She believes that the peer pressure discussion, or “the human factor” as it is commonly called, is the elephant in the room and often ignored.

“I feel like avalanche awareness focuses way too much on science and data,” Hollinshead said. “Any time I see an accident happen, it’s the human factor.”

Hollinshead, who has 30 years of experience in the backcountry, said she’s knows what it’s like to be pressured to ski terrain she doesn’t think is safe.

“I really don’t like it when people who push it more than I do tell me, ‘Well, Ellen, I have a higher level of acceptable risk,’” she said. “When saying it that way, they feel empowered. It would be really cool if these groups like Project Zero would say, ‘It’s not a higher level of acceptable risk; it’s a higher level of acceptable death.’”

She emphasized: “It’s important to switch that word from risk to death.”

Over the past 10 winter seasons, an average of 28 people have died in avalanches every year in the United States, according to the Colorado Avalanche Information Center. That number has doubled since 1992, an increase widely attributed to the advancements in gear that help people access avalanche-prone terrain, as well as growth of ski films set in the backcountry. The stakes in this increased backcountry use — and the increased number of deaths from it — include everyone from resort marketing departments to gear-company promoters to avalanche awareness groups to the skiers and riders themselves, Reich said.

“What is the responsibility of avalanche deaths on all these different groups?” Reich said. “Everyone creating a common goal with a collaborative message in the long run will be a great thing.”

The start of that message could arrive this winter. At the SnowSports Industries America show in Denver at the end of January, Project Zero plans to unveil a backcountry code — similar to the skier’s responsibility code — that can be used in education, training and signage. A wide variety of users are helping craft the language, Reich said.

Simultaneously, the country’s major avalanche forecasting centers are talking about creating more consistent-looking educational materials, such as online homepages and navigation, Bennet added. Meanwhile, resorts will be evaluating signage at backcountry gates, especially those that are new this winter. Creating a way to track how many use those gates, and why, is proving more difficult, but it is a goal for the future.

Beyond this winter, Project Zero’s outreach efforts will also be aimed at reaching snowmobilers, who die more often than any other group in backcountry avalanche accidents, according to state avalanche fatality data. Specifically, Bennet said Project Zero wants to reach long-time and native Colorado snowmobilers, who are less likely to seek and receive training than newcomers and tourists.

Project Zero has several online sites to promote their work: Visit http://avysafety.org, and their newest site, http://backcountrystartshere.com, for more information.

Separate education efforts are targeting outdoor and wintersports retailers and sales reps, often the first point of contact for both novice and experienced backcountry skiers and snowboarders. At both SIA and Outdoor Retailer, Verde Brand Communications has hosted its Business in the Backcountry panels and recently debuted a free, six-week online learning and training opportunity for retailers and reps. Programming began on Dec. 2, 2014, with a new topic scheduled to go live every 1-2 weeks through Jan. 13, 2015.

--Ryan Slabaugh 

Avalanche Fatalities By State 2004-2013
Colorado: 54
Utah: 41
Washington: 35
Montana: 34
Alaska: 31
Idaho: 27
Wyoming: 26
California: 18
New Hampshire, Oregon: 2
North Dakota, Nevada, Vermont: 1

Source: CAIC

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