Deaths of Promising Ski Racers Spotlight Avalanche Risks | NECN

Deaths of Promising Ski Racers Spotlight Avalanche Risks



    Safety experts say avalanches do happen in the Northeast, though usually on a smaller scale than in the Alps or Western U.S. states . (Published Tuesday, Jan. 6, 2015)

    The deaths Monday of U.S. Ski Team development squad members Ronnie Berlack, 20, and Bryce Astle, 19, in an avalanche in Austria, spotlighted the dangers of sliding masses of snow.

    Berlack, from Franconia, New Hampshire, and Astle, from Sandy, Utah, were part of a group of six skiers who were descending from the 3,056-meter Gaislachkogel when they left the prepared slope and apparently set off the avalanche.

    Berlack, who trained at Vermont's Burke Mountain Academy, and Astle were swallowed by nine to twelve feet of snow, authorities said, while the four other skiers were able to escape the powerful slide unhurt. Berlack and Astle likely had promising careers ahead of them on the World Cup circuit and in other competitions, coaches have said.

    Skiers and fans paused to remember the pair before a World Cup slalom race in Croatia Tuesday.

    Neil Van Dyke, the search and rescue coordinator for the Vermont Department of Public Safety, said snow slides, or avalanches, do happen in the Northeast, though Van Dyke noted they tend to be on a smaller scale than in the Alps or in the Western part of the United States. Van Dyke told New England Cable News the woods of Mt. Mansfield in Vermont are a prime spot for these, as well as the area around Mt. Washington in New Hampshire.

    "Avalanches are a tremendous force of nature," Van Dyke said. "They can generate really high speeds and a tremendous amount of mass that can create an environment that's really hard to believe."

    Van Dyke participated in the recovery of 23-year-old Alec Stall in 2005. Stall was filming video of extreme off-trail skiing in the Stowe area, when an avalanche swept him off a ledge and 300 feet to his death. Van Dyke said to his knowledge, that incident was the only Vermont avalanche fatality in recent memory, though he said others have been injured from significant amounts of sliding snow and ice.

    Avid back-country skier Pete Milne of Waterbury, Vermont told NECN he carries gear with him in the woods, including a homing beacon, in case someone in his group gets buried in snow. He said a shovel is a must, too, because you'd have to start digging as soon as possible, and not wait for rescuers. "If everybody in your party has this stuff, it keeps everybody a little safer," Milne said.

    Ronnie Berlack and Bryce Astle were reportedly not wearing avalanche beacons.

    Back in Vermont, Berlack's friends, teachers, and coaches at Burke Mountain Academy told NECN Monday that the class of 2012 graduate had an energy, upbeat attitude, smile, determination, and impressive performances on the mountain that will continue to inspire the school. 

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