By Noah Berner
While snow-covered slopes offer endless hours of fun for skiers and snowboarders, they can also pose a significant danger, especially to those untrained in avalanche safety.
But one local foundation is working to make sure that young winter sports enthusiasts have the skills necessary to stay safe.
On Feb. 8, the Nickolay Dodov Foundation (NDF) held its 7th annual free avalanche awareness presentation at Bear Valley Mountain Resort for members of the mountain’s youth ski and snowboard teams. The event was open to the public, and all ages attended.
The nonprofit NDF was formed by Bear Valley residents Alex and Natalia Dodov following the tragic loss of their son, Nickolay Dodov, to an avalanche in 2012. Since then, the NDF has been busy educating youth on how to stay safe in the mountains.
“In the last seven years, the NDF has reached out with free avalanche education, presenting the avalanche awareness program ‘Know Before You Go,’ and teaching avalanche workshops to more than 8,000 ski and snowboard athletes, middle, high school and university students, coaches, teachers, parents and all-age mountain enthusiasts,” the NDF website says.
The NDF has already held 10 educational events this winter, covering the state from Mammoth to Santa Cruz to Tahoe. In previous years, events have also been held in Nevada, Montana and Bulgaria.
The presentation was based on “Know Before You Go” (KBYG), a free avalanche awareness program developed by the Utah Avalanche Center, and available through its website at kbyg.org.
At 3 p.m., the Sun Room at the resort filled with children and adults, most still wearing snow gear after having spent the day on the slopes.
The presentation began with a short film that featured skiers, snowboarders and snowmobilers riding through backcountry powder. Shots of riders and avalanches were interspersed with avalanche stories and information on avalanche safety.
Following the film, Bear Valley Ski Patroller Scott Madden gave tips for staying safe at the resort.
“I’m in here … to help you all be aware of the various avalanche dangers within our boundaries,” he said. “There has been, to my knowledge at least, three inbounds avalanches that have killed people (in the U.S. this year).”
Madden encouraged skiers and snowboarders to respect the boundaries of the resort because areas outside of the ropes are an uncontrolled environment unmonitored by ski patrol.
“There are areas outside of our boundaries, especially (on the lower mountain), that are very dangerous,” he said. “Personally, I’ve been caught twice in small avalanches, and it’s amazing how little snow it takes to get you moving along.”
While most avalanche fatalities occur in the backcountry, Madden recommended carrying safety gear even on powder days at the resort.
“Beacon, shovel, probe – get them; wear them; don’t ski alone,” he said.
A beacon is a radio transceiver that can be worn by skiers and snowboarders. In the event of an avalanche, it can be used to locate buried riders. A probe is a collapsible pole that can be easily carried in a backpack and used to precisely locate an avalanche victim. A lightweight shovel can then be used free the rider from the snow by digging horizontally from downslope.
Other avalanche safety gear includes inflatable packs that help riders stay on the surface during an avalanche; AvaLungs that pull air from the snowpack and deposit carbon dioxide away from the body; and Recco reflectors that send out directional signals to help rescue teams locate avalanche victims.
Madden said that he and other ski patrollers would be happy to help train riders on the use of the equipment, and that he planned on organizing a practice area for the purpose at the top of the mountain. For more information on avalanche safety, he advised visiting the website of NDF-sponsor Backcountry Access at backcountryaccess.com.
Avalanche Educator Paul Henrickson said that the best way to stay safe was to avoid dangerous terrain.
“With a little bit of education, a little knowledge, some common sense and some good decision-making, you can enjoy the backcountry for a lifetime safely, and that’s exactly what we are here to help you do,” he said.
Henrickson said that the most dangerous slopes were between 30- and 45-degrees, because avalanches tend to occur naturally on steeper slopes and more gradual angles don’t allow slabs of snow to cut loose and start sliding.
“Avalanche hazard in California is relatively easy; we have avalanche hazard mostly during storm events and shortly after storm events,” he said. “It’s a maritime snowpack. It’s wet; it’s heavy, and within 24 to 48 hours after a storm cycle the snowpack generally stabilizes.”
Henrickson recommended always checking current local conditions at sierraavalanchecenter.org before going into the backcountry.
“The forecast is the easiest way to find out what’s going on with the snow,” he said.
Because riders tend to avoid avalanche terrain when the forecast shows a high degree of danger, most avalanche fatalities occur when the forecast shows moderate or considerable danger, Henrickson said.
“It’s the moderate and considerable days that actually catch the most people,” he said. “Those are the days that are the hardest to figure out.”
It’s important to maintain awareness of your surroundings in the backcountry, Henrickson said.
“If you’re out in the backcountry and there is a hazard, you always want to look at where would you go if the snow cuts loose,” he said. “So, you want to avoid being above trees and cliffs, and you want to avoid being right in the middle of a potential slide path. The safe places to be are on ridges; the dangerous places to be are down in gullies or at the bottom of bowls.”
Henrickson said that even with all of the proper gear and training, those fully buried in an avalanche still have only a 50% chance of surviving.
“That’s terrible odds, so avoid getting caught in an avalanche, educate yourself, make good decisions and don’t get caught,” he said. “The gear only works if you get training and you practice, practice, practice.”
Those interested in riding in the backcountry and on powder days at the resort should take an avalanche safety class, Henrickson said.
“If you feel like you are going to be going into the backcountry or the sidecountry, or you just like skiing Griz on a powder day, take a class,” he said. “Learn how to assess snow; learn how weather is a contributing factor; learn how to travel safely; learn how to deal with group dynamics; and learn how proper rescue scenarios go down.”
There is a huge need for avalanche education for youth in California, Natalia Dodov said.
“We just go whenever no one else can go, and it’s a really great feeling,” she said. “Kids are very smart; they are like sponges; they really think. We really believe it will touch some of them.”
Natalia Dodov said that one of NDF’s avalanche educators, Michael McCarthy, had recently developed a five-hour avalanche workshop for youth to bridge the gap between the KBYG program and a Level 1 avalanche class.
The foundation is bringing the workshop to Bear Valley in March, and in April, the resort will host the 7th Annual Nickolay Dodov Slopestyle Competition, Natalia Dodov said. Several other events are already planned for February, and more are currently being scheduled for March.
Those interested in supporting NDF’s work can send checks to Nickolay Dodov Foundation, PO Box 5035, Bear Valley, CA 95223, or donate through Paypal at nickolaydodovfoundation.com/donate. Donations are tax deductible, and contributors will receive an invoice for their records.