SAFE AS ladies getting hands-on training in backcountry and avy safety. Photo: Courtesy of Jen Schmidt

SAFE AS ladies getting hands-on training in backcountry and avalanche safety. Photo: Courtesy of Jen Schmidt

Four years ago, Elyse Saugstad, Jackie Paaso, Michelle Parker and Sherry McConkey were shooting the breeze over post-yoga coffee. Skier Glen Plake had just survived the Manaslu avalanche in Nepal, and Saugstad herself had survived an avalanche at Stevens Pass in Washington just a few months earlier.

“We started talking about how we really saw a niche that could be filled with a women-specific [avalanche safety] class,” Saugstad says.

So, they recruited Ingrid Backstrom and avalanche instructor Lel Tone and created one. Snowboarder Robin Van Gyn joined the team two years ago.

SAFE AS (Skiers Advocating and Fostering Education for Avalanche and Snow Safety) offers one-day introductory avalanche clinics for women, taught by women. With a nod to their inception, SAFE AS clinics always begin with yoga, taught by McConkey, before moving into classroom and on-hill lessons.

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All SAFE AS one-day avy clinics include yoga, classroom lessons and on-hill training. Photo: Courtesy of Jen Schmidt

Lead SAFE AS instructor Lel Tone is a certified avy instructor, ski guide and lead forecaster for the Sierra Avalanche Center. Everyone at SAFE AS has a minimum Level-1 certification from AIARE, the American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education, and a heap of backcountry experience.

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“You can't learn [everything] just sitting in a classroom,” Saugstad says. “But you do need to learn the classroom stuff before you head out into the backcountry so that you know how to tune in your eyes and ears.”

With more recreational skiers venturing out of bounds, avy courses are more relevant than ever before, and the backcountry is definitely one of those places where knowledge is power.

“Knowing that you don't know what you're doing is never until hindsight,” Saugstad says, reflecting on skiing the Mt. Rose Chutes in Tahoe by moonlight. “I don't remember if we all had all of the proper gear, let alone even discussed what could potentially happen. I just put my full trust in my buddies … I had no idea what I didn't know.”

The reason for Saugstad's blind faith probably had a lot to do with “heuristic traps.” Heuristics are unconscious rules of thumb that simplify our decision-making processes. For example, “I trust my friends.” Therefore, what I do with my friends is safe.

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They’re basically the brain’s way of saying, “Underthink it.” And while this mental process (which is pretty much automatic) saves time and energy, it can also lead us astray. Hence, the “traps.”

Heuristics are frequently to blame for backcountry deaths, even among trained and experienced individuals. “FACETS” is an acronym for the six most common human and social “traps:” Familiarity of terrain, (social) Acceptance, Commitment to a goal, “Expert Halo” (group leader), (first) Tracks, and Social proof (of mad skills).

They are discussed in depth during SAFE AS clinics, along with other psychological hurdles faced by backcountry travelers.

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Professional skier and avalanche survivor Elyse Saugstad says, “Knowing that you don't know what you're doing is never until hindsight.” Photo: Courtesy of Jen Schmidt

Hearing about judgment calls from a group of badass ladies who “always” send it, shows clinic attendees that sometimes going home trumps going big — even for the pros. “It doesn't matter what level you're at. We're still women with the same issues [as them],” Saugstad says.

“It feels pretty good knowing that we are doing something that makes people really stoked and inspired. And being in a male-dominated sport, it's nice to help women feel like they belong and like they can go do it, too.”

Not only does SAFE AS empower women, in many cases, it opens up a whole new realm of possibility, and the organization regularly receives messages from grateful attendees. Saugstad has even had people tell her that they mentally replayed her words in potential life-or-death situations.

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Fashion meets function. Avalanche airbag pack demos at SAFE AS. Photo: Courtesy of Jen Schmidt

“There is so much that's amazing about SAFE AS,” says Tiffany Jones of Jones Snowboards, who now sponsors the clinics. “The women who run it are top-notch professional athletes, backcountry travelers and snow specialists. I've done the clinic three years in a row and will continue every year.

“They touch on everything that is important, from reading the avy report and red flags in the backcountry to social dynamics and case studies on why people make poor decisions, even when they are educated,” says Jones.

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“You go in feeling nervous and come out feeling confident and charged up. It was a no brainer to sponsor this clinic, as snow safety and education is so important to us at Jones Snowboards.”

“What I love most about it,” she continues, “is that it's accessible to most everyone. Anyone who wants to travel in the backcountry should be able to make this fit into her schedule and budget.”

Accessibility is crucial to SAFE AS's mission and the organization feels strongly that its clinics not be cost-prohibitive. It awarded 17 scholarships this season by partnering with the Live Like Liz Foundation, SheJumps, and Coalition Snow.

SAFE AS scholarship recipient Katie Wurdack says, “I attended the clinic at Copper Mountain [where] leaders shared personal stories that filled the room with respect for the mountains and for the strength within the women leading the course. The scholarship allowed me to be present that day. It allowed me to take the first step toward more in-depth knowledge and introduced me to wonderful women who are looking to do the same.”

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Many SAFE AS attendees come back year after year, and often bring their friends. Photo: Courtesy of Jen Schmidt

In addition to its clinics, SAFE AS gives back to the ski community by donating part of its events' proceeds to local nonprofits such as High Fives Foundation, the Sierra Avalanche Center, AIARE’s Avalanche Project and The Northwest Avalanche Center. In four years, SAFE AS has donated almost $20,000.

For more information, check out SAFE AS on Facebook, and be sure to look for another round of clinics in Tahoe and other locations (TBD) in December.

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