The all-volunteer Tahoe Nordic Search and Rescue Team is best known for heading out into the wilderness in the middle of storms and rescuing those lost in the snow. The group formed in 1976 after a local teen disappeared from the backside of Northstar California ski resort, and his parents’ friends didn’t have a system in place for finding him. Over the years, TNSAR has brought hundreds of people safely out of the wilderness and back to their families. But TNSAR is equally devoted to educating the public — in an effort to reduce the need for more rescues.
For many years TNSAR has gone into our local elementary schools with its Winter Wilderness Survival Program and taught kids the basics of snow safety. For the past four years, team members have also been providing a free avalanche rescue course for local high school kids, called the Winter Backcountry Preparedness Scholarship Program.
Upon completion of the daylong avalanche rescue class, designed by the American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education, or AIARE, the students are certified and ready to assist their friends if the need arises. The most recent class on Jan. 8 this year at Palisades Tahoe included 12 students from North Tahoe and Truckee high schools, Tahoe Expeditionary Academy, and Forest Charter School.
“These kids are excellent skiers, local rippers,” said Logan Talbott, one of the instructors for the course and also a TNSAR board member and an Alpenglow Expeditions guide. “The vast majority have already been venturing into the backcountry. We will not talk them out of doing it; the only option is to make sure they are educated. They are the next generation of backcountry skiers.”
Talbott said that if even one person in a group heading into the backcountry has formal avalanche rescue training, it will dramatically improve the chances for survival for all if an avalanche occurs.
The AIARE Avalanche Rescue Course teaches the kids how to take action. It asks the question: You are out skiing and an avalanche has just buried your friends. Now what do you do to get them out alive?
“We talked a lot about the reality of performing a rescue,” Talbott said. “People die. People get injured. They require CPR. The kids took it very seriously and were very engaged.”
Scott Zettelmeyer, a care flight paramedic from REMSA Health, was a guest at the program telling the students about his experiences rescuing people by helicopter. He also provided the students with a high quality first aid kit that they can add to the backpacks they take with them into the backcountry.
The avalanche rescue course is a full day of training focused on skills such as beacon use, searching, probing, and shoveling. The teens spent much of the time participating in realistic scenarios that will hopefully give the students the knowledge base to act quickly if necessary.
The main focus is on the moments after the avalanche, but TNSAR recommends that anyone heading into the backcountry also take a AIARE Level One class. This three-day course provides extensive training on how to better understand the causes of avalanches and, perhaps most importantly, teaches how to make good decisions in the backcountry.
Correct decision making sometimes means choosing another time to go skiing, or deciding to find a less vulnerable slope to ski once you get there.
The TNSAR started the course because not a lot of avalanche educational opportunities are available to teenagers unless their parents have the funds to send them to a class. In addition, high schoolers who attend classes full of non-skiing adults respond lesswell to the training than when they are with a group of peers.
While many of the students who apply for the scholarship are experienced skiers, the program is open to all. No experience is required. The class is conducted in a fairly small outdoor area and some students joined this year with snowshoes. It’s less about skiing, and more about running through the scenarios of what to do when an avalanche strikes. Applications to attend the program are accepted in the late fall, and the training is held in the early weeks of the following year.
North Tahoe High School student Ty Whisler attended the Jan. 8 class. “It was great to receive the scholarship from TNSAR for teens and fun being with the other high schoolers,” he said. He is now motivated to learn more about avalanche safety, he added.
Support Your Searchers
TNSAR is an all-volunteer nonprofit organization that conducts snow rescues of lost people via ski, snowmobile, and snowcat. Members are the folks who get up in the middle of the night and head out into a blizzard to save lives. The TNSAR also provides the educational programs described in this story. For more information go to tahoenordicsar.org.
Readers can support TNSAR’s activities by participating in the group’s main fundraiser, The Great Ski Race. It has been one of the largest cross-country ski races west of the Mississippi for the past 45 years. This year’s race, on Sunday, March 5, will follow the new 26km course that was instituted last year. It starts and ends at Tahoe XC in Tahoe City. Registration is limited to 700 people, and the event sold out last year. Go to thegreatskirace.com for details and registration.