NEW ACCIDENT REPORT DETAILS 2015 AVALANCHE DEATHS
PARK CITY, Utah - Clarity of avalanche warnings as well as lack of snow safety education and knowledge of the local ski environment by athletes and coaches were primary issues cited in a report detailing the 2015 avalanche deaths of two U.S. Ski Team athletes. The skiers had not seen avalanche warning reports so were unaware of the danger and unfamiliar with the nature of off-piste skiing at the European resort.
A comprehensive accident report was released Monday (Oct. 22) to the public and the avalanche education community by the Bryce and Ronnie Athlete Snow Safety Foundation (BRASS). The report will be used as a tool by BRASS to advocate for changes in snow safety warning systems as well as expansion of education to prevent future accidents.
The report was produced for the BRASS Foundation by noted avalanche safety expert Bruce Tremper, the retired director of the Utah Avalanche Center, and contains official reports of the Austrian agencies responsible for management of the accident.
Bryce Astle (Sandy, Utah) and Ronnie Berlack (Franconia, N.H.) were killed January 5, 2015. They were among a group of six athletes skiing on the Rote Karl run off the Gaislachkogel lift in Sölden. The athletes were in the resort west of Innsbruck attending an on-snow training camp. The morning of the accident, they were free skiing on the mountain after heavy snow forced cancelation of planned training sessions. The report outlines the fact that the athletes did not know they were skiing in an uncontrolled area of the resort and there was no English language signage.
“The accident was a great tragedy for our families and our sport,” said Steve Berlack, father of Ronnie and a ski coach himself. “But we are committed to using this accident as a platform for change so that something like this doesn’t happen again.”
The report outlines precise details of the morning, citing a variety of situations that led to the accident. With new snow, avalanche warning conditions were at Level 3 that morning, on a scale of five, indicating danger was ‘considerable.’ The report cited that the skiers and coaches did not have a distinct understanding of the danger level and that signage at the lift was not clear.
“Our initiative from the accident is to improve snow safety culture,” said BRASS Foundation Board Chairman Jamie Astle, father of Bryce. “It’s a two-pronged approach for us. First, we will look at ways we can influence the avalanche safety community to improve warning systems. Second, we will advocate for greater avalanche education, especially for ski racing athletes and coaches.”
Since its formation in 2016, BRASS has been active in the avalanche education community. Last Spring, BRASS helped fund a series of three-day on-snow avalanche education sessions for U.S. Ski Team athletes and coaches at Snowbird, Utah, certified by the American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education (AIARE).
Earlier this month, Cindy Berlack, mother of Ronnie, lobbied avalanche safety officials at the International Snow Safety Workshop in Innsbruck, Austria. Over 1,000 snow scientists and safety managers were in attendance. Berlack was seeking an evolution of the warning scale used by resorts as well as universal multilingual signage standards.
In Sölden this week, officials will unveil new English-language signage across the resort as well as dedicating a memorial to the two athletes along the road leading to the Rettenbach Glacier race course where the Audi FIS Ski World Cup opens Oct. 27-28.
“The entire Sölden community has rallied around our sons and taken aggressive steps to make their mountain safer for all,” said Steve Berlack. “Cindy found a welcome reception by the avalanche community at the ISSW workshop. We already feel we’re having a positive impact.”
BRASS and Sölden will hold a reception on Wednesday, Oct. 24 to announce the changes leading up to the weekend World Cup opener.
The snow safety foundation will continue its work in America this winter, notably on the educational front. A BRASS-produced film Off Piste, featuring a recreation of the accident as well as comments from noted athletes Mikaela Shiffrin, Bode Miller, and Ted Ligety, will be released to the public in November. BRASS will also prioritize its efforts to bring more educational programs to skiers.