The Freeride Committee (FRC) at the Telluride Mountain School (TMS) took a trip last weekend to St. Paul Lodge near Red Mountain Pass, where they spent three days and two nights practicing avalanche education and safe backcountry skills. FRC is a terrain and avalanche awareness club available to skiers and snowboarders in grades 7-12 who participate in Ski PE.
Throughout the trimester, FRC participants have used Know Before You Go, a free avalanche awareness program, and other curricular resources to learn about travel in the mountains and avalanche safety. They have analyzed weather patterns, kept current on the Colorado Avalanche Information Center reports, and worked with Telluride Ski Patrol digging pits and practicing partner rescue with avalanche gear.
“The club is meant to give kids the education and tools around snow science and backcountry awareness with the goal of empowering them to make good decisions in the backcountry,” trip leader and TMS teacher Ben Gardner explained. “That includes good preparation, planning and knowledge. It’s less about skiing and more about modeling best practices.”
Gardner added that all FRC members agree not to ski in Bear Creek because of the dangers, and all students are kept out of avalanche terrain during hut trips.
“We also took an oath that we’d never go into the backcountry without a beacon, shovel and probe in our backpacks,” seventh-grader Charlotte Guest said.
There were seven students on the inaugural FRC backcountry trip, but this year there were 14 — a mix of snowboarders, skiers and even a snowshoer. Students broke into two groups across all ages called the Thunder Dogs and the Raging Rhinos. And while there was no formal competition between the groups, senior Kyle Soukup contends that the Thunder Dogs “came out on top.”
“No, it was definitely the Raging Rhinos,” Guest replied.
“The three high school kids had leadership roles, tail guiding and sweeping, and helping younger students with their skins,” Gardner explained.
Trip sponsor Bootdoctors supplied students with beacons, shovels and probes, along with backcountry touring set-ups.
Given that most students had never used skins or a touring binding, the day before the trip, the group skinned the Galloping Goose Trail to test and break in equipment.
“Part of the reason the trip went so smoothly is that we took the time to prepare both with avalanche knowledge and with testing our gear,” Gardner said.
Students departed Jan. 31 for Red Mountain Pass, skinning a mile into the backcountry to St. Paul Lodge, where the terrain is moderate, offering enough of a pitch to ski and dig a pit, but not so much to angle over into avalanche terrain.
“As we were skinning up and looking around, people were pointing things out and we were all applying things we had learned during meetings,” Soukup said.
Eighth-grader Jasper Miller struggled to snowshoe to the lodge.
“I had to put my snowboard on my back,” he said. “But I insisted on getting first tracks because I had to use the snowshoes the whole way up.”
“He’s thinking maybe next year he’ll use a split board like I did,” Gardner added.
In front of the lodge is a beautiful slope where students built a backcountry jump and practiced throwing 360s into the fresh powder, while others explored the lodge and played cards.
Both nights the group cooked family style meals.
Early Saturday morning, students skinned up “Backyard,” an open skiing area where they dug pits and conducted snow science.
“We learned with the ski patrol how to use a shovel, beacon and probe, and how, if someone did get caught in an avalanche, to save them,” eighth-grader Breton Hampton said. “Luckily, that didn’t come into play, but it was good to know.”
Gardner referred to the ideal conditions as “right-side-up snowpack,” which he said doesn’t happen often in the San Juans.
“In both of our pits, the softer snow was on top, progressing to harder snow, which is what you want,”
he said. “A hard layer over a soft layer creates slab avalanches.”
In contrast, last year’s trip saw higher avalanche danger.
“This year we had the green light to go see this and that,” Miller said. “Last year, when we were digging the pit, we were focused because it would determine where we were going to go.”
FRC members are looking forward to a second backcountry trip in early March to Silverton, which Gardner refers to as a “celebration of the club and their hard work.”
“Silverton Resort is backcountry terrain; you have to carry a beacon, shovel and probe with you. But we’ll go during guided season,” Gardner explained. “The thought process behind going with guided versus unguided is to give these students access to more snow professionals, to see what making a living out in the wilderness looks like and to expose students to potential regional career paths.”