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Guardians of the Backcountry | UNITED STATES, WYOMING | 12/09/2008, by powderjunkyTahoe Backcountry Ski Patrol, and Jay Pistono, Teton Pass Ski Ambassador.
The Tahoe Backcountry Ski Patrol is a volunteer organization based out of Truckee, California that lists its responsibilities as serving the off-piste winter public and training its patrollers. They have more than 50 active members of men and women hailing from all sorts of backgrounds and professions. Most of their funding is through membership dues and generous benefactors. The Tahoe Backcountry Ski Patrol also raises money by teaching classes. Most of their patrolling takes place in California’s Tahoe National Forest, specifically in the sizeable Castle Peak area north of Donner Summit and on the Pacific Crest Trail.
The Teton Pass Ambassador program, located in Jackson, Wyoming, is more of a one man show funded by the forest service, local retailers such as Cloudveil, Wilson Backcountry Sports, Skinny Skis, and Teton Mountaineering, and a non-profit- Friends of Pathways. Jay was doing some volunteer work on the pass for a few years because he saw how popular it was getting. “A lot of my ski buddies had given up on the pass. It was turning into a bit of a junk show and they wanted to move on to the ‘next best place’. I just thought the pass deserved better.” remarks Jay about why he got involved.
STB: Nobody likes to be told what to do. For most that’s why we head to the backcountry to find freedom and solace. So how do you preach safety in a way that is not intrusive or offensive?Mark: We enjoy and make a point of chatting with other backcountry enthusiasts whenever we’re on patrol, comparing notes on the day’s snow conditions, the current avalanche risk, and where the best snow is to be found. Interacting with others through this sharing of useful and essential information, as well as being good listeners, gains respect from both sides. If it’s apparent there may be a lack of understanding or misinformation on the enthusiast’s part, we’re tactful to line out the facts where appropriate and support them accordingly. Of course not everyone is receptive to our opinions, and that’s to be expected. Perhaps more importantly than conversations, we’re all about setting good AND safe examples while skiing and riding the backcountry, doing what we say and saying what we do.
Jay: No preaching. Safety discussions are situational- there is a truth to each situation and opinion. I try to work that truth for the common good-whether it's seeing someone's dog chase a skier or talking to a snowmobiler blasting around a blind corner, I try to keep my information on an educational basis. There is a way for all of us to have fun and not be selfish about it.
STB: How do you think the public views you?Mark: I think that by far we’re viewed very favorably by those we encounter. We will build on the positive view as long as we continue to be good backcountry “neighbors” by sharing beta, helping when it’s asked for or needed, and leading by example.
Jay: I’m fortunate in that the public seems to really want access to the pass to stay available. I think that they believe having me up there is money well spent. I realize people don't really like being "told" what to do - especially on great powder days when they are really stoked- but most folks are o.k. with the information I have to share. I also know this isn't a fairy tale and some users despise my presence as evidenced by some of the vandalism I deal with (what are you gonna do?).
STB: Are there any incidents that the outcome was better because your organization was there to step in?
Mark: Prevention of an emergency situation ever occurring in the first place becomes our most valuable method of keeping folks safe. We often have encountered a skier or two on their way into the backcountry while we’re on our way out to the trailhead, while the weather is turning sour very quickly, and the sun has dropped. After a quick chat with the visitors we learn that they have never been to the area before, they “think” they know where the backcountry hut is (though they don’t have a map, compass or GPS), and that they are unaware of the impending storm. Reasoning on our part usually gets them to turn around and abandon their haphazard backcountry plans, which not only protects them from severe risk, but saves us from having to participate in a night search for this same party. We’re pleased to find that the average skier, rider, or snowshoer we typically encounter seems prepared for his or her respective trip into the backcountry, whether just making a short jaunt a couple miles down the trail and back out, or overnighting in the meadow, or aiming for a couloir below the peak.
Jay: Breaking up some fights at the parking lot that could have been worse. Talking to people about not dropping in on other skiers. Picking up after other people's pets (the crap on the trail just feels like it lowers the human spirit and the enjoyment of the experience). Tons of requests for people to step out of the trail to do their business. Talking to pirate guides and snowmobilers about being considerate to other users.
STB: Describe a typical shift/day while working/volunteering.
Mark: The typical patrol day starts at 8:00am at our base in Hobart, a Forest Service work center a few miles north of Truckee. The patrollers available on that day are divided in advance in groups of about 3 to 4. The group leader divides other required gear among the other team members, which they will carry in their patrol packs that are generally the size of your average overnighter backpack. This team gear is divided in modules and includes advanced first aid and diagnostic gear, tarp tent or Megamid, extra clothing, blankets. Another team gear item is a multipurpose repair kit which contains parts able to fix loose bindings and broken ski poles, and also emergency firestarter material. Each patroller is already carrying requisite personal gear including a first aid kit, tarp, ensolite pad, metal shovel, avalanche probe, beacon, a 7.5 minute USGS map of the area we’re patrolling, compass, AND a GPS (we train our patrollers not to rely solely on electronic devices). If that’s not enough, we cache additional gear (bivouac equipment and stove, rope/rescue gear, additional first aid) out in some of our patrol areas; when visiting other areas we cache these items in the car at the trailhead. The Leader checks the current avy report for the day online or by phone, then the team dons their patrol vests and heads out via carpool to the Sno-Park at the area to be patrolled. We then decide what to ski, similar to the way normal groups decide, where the best snow is as long as it is safe. We make a particular point of making contact with as many people as we can on the trail, especially those headed for the steeps and those headed in for an overnight excursion. Our agreement with the Forest Service has us patrolling until sunset. On the sweep of the trails on the way out, we try to make contact with skiers headed in to ensure they’re adequately prepared and know where they’re going.
Jay: The pass is really quite a big area. I try to cover as much ground as possible. I don't really have a specific routine because I might spend a few hours checking out a wilderness boundary for snowmobilers one day and digging a lot of snow pits the next. It tends to depend on the amount of new snow- on the big days (we had a lot of'em last year) I focus on the top of the pass because it can get so crowded. Some days it's so full for so long I just work the Phillips canyon area where we get our broadest range of use. I typically go where I can talk/meet /ski/cajole with the most people.
STB: What are the negatives about doing this kind of work?Mark: We’re often the only folks out there kicking and gliding in the rain, or the first ones to set tracks in several feet of fresh Sierra cement. Some patrol days run well into the cold darkness of the winter evening when we’re assisting the Forest Service or other agencies in a search or other operations. However, none of this deters us from coming out the very next day for more of the same, because we know there’s always a decent chance that that will be the day all our skills will be put to use.
Jay: I wish my body wouldn't wear out, vandalism on my truck. I know some folks just aren't going to listen, but resorting to violence is just so disappointing. Dog poop gets on my gloves…
STB: What are the positives?Mark: Quite simply, we love what we do. Even when the snows have gone, our patrol members stay in close contact through the offseason, planning multiday mountain bike tours or even pursuing an endless winter in Chile or Argentina.
Jay: Doing what I believe in.
Two different organizations after the same goal: A safer backcountry for all users. While the shenanigans out at Teton Pass will hopefully fade with time and education, the Tahoe Backcountry Ski Patrol shows what is possible through over 15 years of dedicated service. As backcountry Skiing grows in popularity we will all have to learn how to deal with crowds and a variety of users. Other areas like Colorado, Washington, and Idaho have adopted similar programs as well. My personal opinion is that it is a sad commentary on human nature that with more people comes less tolerance and the need for an authoritative figure. But on the other hand, I am glad programs like the Tahoe Backcountry Ski Patrol and the Teton Pass Ambassador Program exist to keep access open and continue to educate all users involved so all can enjoy the backcountry safely.
FYI: Tahoe Backcountry Ski Patrol is always looking for dedicated and enthusiastic winter backcountry lovers to join the patrol. TBSP is in search of folks willing to learn a new set of skills or two, while spending a handful of weekend days serving skiers, snowboarders and snowshoers that venture out into the winter mountains north of Tahoe. They invite anyone interested in learning more about backcountry ski patrolling to join on a “Ski Along” for a day, as a guest on one of their patrol teams. Click here for more info.