By Sean Zimmerman-Wall
The Chilean Andes are renowned for their scenic vistas, epic terrain and plentiful snowfall. Forming the eastern boundary of the Ring of Fire, these mountains represent a dramatic mix of volcanoes and lofty peaks. While this rugged land inspires the spirit and captures the heart, it leaves the mind wanting.
Enter Alex Taran, an aspiring philanthropist, educator and six-year ski patroller at Snowbird Ski Resort. She has spent the austral winters traveling around Chile in search of good snow and great friends. 2011 marks her fourth year visiting the area, and it represents the inaugural year of the South American Beacon Project (SABP). The project aims to deliver much needed avalanche safety equipment to mountain employees and provides additional snow safety education to those with limited resources.
The SABP was born out of necessity. During her first visit to Chile, Taran worked as a pistera (patroller) for La Parva Ski Resort. On her days off, she would spend time exploring the neighboring backcountry terrain with fellow employees. Venturing to a popular, yet avalanche prone, area known as Santa Teresa, Taran had her first encounter with the lack of knowledge of the average Chilean skier.
“We were cruising up St. Tere and all of sudden our group of four well-equipped riders turned into nearly ten people. Almost none of the additional skiers had avi gear and I got pretty freaked out,” said Taran. The slope they planned to ski was relatively safe, but the fact that no one was prepared became quite unnerving.
“Gringa, tranquila, no tenemos avalanchas en Chile,” remarked one member. Taran knew this was not the case and the overall attitude of the group made her increasingly anxious. Luckily, the day went on without incident, but Taran knew that something had to be done to change the situation. This experience spurred her thought process into how she could make a difference in the region.
“We had started talking to our friends in Chile during the 2010 season in order to determine the response such a program would generate. Overall, it seemed like there was positive feedback from riders and patrollers,” Taran added.
Prior to her visit to Chile this past summer, she organized the SABP’s first fundraiser. Partnering with local companies like The Levitation Project helped the SABP gain exposure and generate interest. After the event, the organization had received enough support to furnish 12 avalanche beacons and several shovels and probes to mountain workers. Arriving in Chile this year with a game plan and gear, she proceeded to organize her resources and spread the word. The trip began with donating a few beacons to the La Parva Ski Patrol. When she was a patroller there four years ago, the crew of 18 patrollers had only four beacons to share.
“Part of the reason most workers don’t have the gear is the cost. An average patroller makes about $250 a month, and most of them have to support families. The money for safety equipment just doesn’t fit in,” said Taran.
While providing beacons is a big part of the SABP, another goal is to create an environment of education. By partnering with local resorts and ski clubs, the organization hopes to reach a wide demographic of individuals that work in the mountains. The broad outreach hopes to prevent deaths, like that of a plow driver that was killed by a massive slide while clearing a canyon road this season. Incorporating the training aspect into the SABP will raise awareness and benefit the communities served.
The educational goals of the project are two-pronged. The first is a very basic avalanche beacon class that goes over the anatomy of the device and shows the user how to effectively perform a search. It also covers rudimentary rescue skills like probing and digging. The second portion is more comprehensive and works to expand the knowledge of the backcountry skier. “We want to emphasize safe travel, one person on a slope at a time, and how weather and terrain can affect route finding,” Taran said.
Initially, the attempt at providing training was met with some skepticism. “It seemed that at first people weren’t accepting. They were like ‘who is this young gringa coming to teach us?’ Eventually, they realized we just wanted to help, and those that were interested found the courses really educational,” added Taran.
Moving from La Parva to other, smaller venues, the SABP continued with its mission. Taran sought out the Patrillas Ski Chile, similar to the United States’ National Ski Patrol, and had a positive meeting. She also visited Nevados de Chillan and Lagunillas, which represent some of the smallest ski areas in the nation. Her interactions with these organizations helped solidify the project’s objectives to deliver quality training and equipment to deserving individuals.
“We are really excited to get these programs in place and get people involved. We also hope to design some beacon training facilities so they can practice what they have learned,” said Taran.
As the snow begins to fall in Utah, the SABP will be focused on continuing to increase its reach here and abroad. The project’s future goals are ambitious, yet achievable, and it hopes that the local ski community will get more involved with supporting the cause. More information can be found at www.southamericanbeaconproject.com. Be sure to check out the site for future fundraisers, project updates and ways you can help.
Sean understands the value of a cold beer after an epic day of adventuring, as well as good friends to share the experience with. When not ski patrolling at the Bird, you can find him on the golf course enjoying a game with his grandfather.