Avalanche Awareness Night: Snow Safety and Gear Galore

Sava Malachowski
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It’s critical that anybody involved in making or selling backcountry gear be as involved as possible in educating the community that uses that gear and also providing that community up-to-date and accurate information on safety. At least that’s the way Phil Leeds, one of the owners of Skinny Skis, which has been selling backcountry ski gear in Jackson Hole now for four decades, sees it.

Since the 1980s, the popular shop has been ahead of the curve on educating skiers on how to stay safer in the backcountry via the latest gear and technology on the market.

This year’s event takes place December 11 at the Center for the Arts.

“There’s so much going on in this industry,” says Leeds, an avid backcountry skier himself. “Seeing the latest and greatest gear is just fun.”

In other words, the event, which doubles as a benefit for Teton County Search & Rescue ($5 entry fee), won’t be a lecture about the dangers of backcountry skiing and snowboarding. At all.

Instead, it’s designed to be a fun, informative, and, according to Leeds, “fascinating” look at what’s on the horizon weather- (and possibly avalanche-) wise this season, as well as a peek at (and chance to win) some top-of-the-line gear. Grab a snack and beer while you listen to Jackson Hole meteorologist and longtime event emcee Jim Woodmencey talk about what to expect of this winter’s weather, and Sarah Carpenter, co-founder of the American Avalanche Institute (AAI), share how the early season snowpack will affect the rest of the season.

Carpenter’s talk is especially apropos this year, considering that Jackson Hole Ski Resort has already recorded 98 inches already.  “Usually when we have avy night, we only have a few inches of snow,” Leeds says. “Now that we have feet instead of inches, it will be interesting as all get out.”

Other presenters include Jake Urban, of the Jackson Hole Outdoor Leadership School, which offers avalanche classes, Teton Pass Ambassador Jay Pistono, Bob Comey and Mike Rheam from the Bridger-Teton Avalanche Forecast Center, and Jordy Hendrikx, a researcher from Montana State University who’s studying the fascinating topic of where people go in the backcountry and why.

Prior to the presentations, you can have plenty of fun just fondling the gear, including a $2,200 Bluetooth-enabled probe pole packed with sensors that gather details about the snowpack. There are also transceivers to play with and airbag backpacks (demos start at 5 pm). There’s also a raffle for gear and season passes, which is undoubtedly the biggest of the season (more on that later).

In addition to all that good stuff, we’re especially looking forward to Alex Do’s keynote presentation. A 30-something professional from the San Francisco Bay Area, Do was one of a party of six who planned on skiing Pucker Face, on Cody Peak in Jackson Hole Mountain Resort’s side country, on December 26, 2013. The first of the group to ski the 45-degree face, Mike Kazanjy, triggered a slide and was buried. Even though Kazanjy was found and his airway cleared within 16 minutes, he died.

Sava Malachowski

Do wrote a five-page article about the event, Perspective from a Humbled Skier, in the April 2014 issue of The Avalanche Review. “I think people will really be interested in hearing from Alex because the circumstances that led to them skiing that slope can certainly happen again,” Leeds says. “He’ll be talking about some of the mistakes the group made and the lessons that have been learned. I think a lot of backcountry skiers will see some of themselves in Do’s group.”

Do’s attendance is being underwritten by the Steve Romeo Memorial Fund, named after the Jackson Hole skiing and mountaineering legend. Romeo, a former employee of Skinny Skis and an emcee at Avalanche Awareness Night, died in an avalanche in 2012.

While the event’s early years were geared toward backcountry newbies, in the last decade it’s broadened its appeal. “This event isn’t designed necessarily to educate, but rather show people how much there is to learn and to steer people in the right direction to the resources they might need to learn what they need to,” Leeds says. “It’s certainly possible for someone who is an avid backcountry user to find this stuff online, or email people, but we have it all under one roof on one night.”

Someone new to backcountry skiing can talk with Exum, Jackson Hole Mountain Guides, or the Jackson Hole Outdoor Leadership Institute about avalanche classes. Experienced backcountry travelers can check in with the Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance folks for a refresher about where exactly the winter closure areas are.

And, of course, everyone can buy raffle tickets, which cost just $5 each and benefit the Jackson Hole Avalanche Hotline. Among the hundreds of prizes are passes to all three nearby ski areas—Snow King Mountain, Jackson Hole Mountain Resort, and Grand Targhee—up for grabs, plus transceivers, and plenty of clothing, according to Leeds. Another possibility (although he couldn’t confirm): an AvaTech smart probe.

Because there are so many prizes, the raffle starts almost as soon as the doors open at 5 pm and “goes until the bitter end,” Leeds says. “Of course we save the big prizes for the end.”

Doors open at 5 pm and presentations start at 6:45 pm.

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