Facebook Twitter

Utah skier’s 2015 death spawns avalanche awareness campaign

SHARE Utah skier’s 2015 death spawns avalanche awareness campaign

SALT LAKE CITY — Sandy resident Bryce Astle might have been a medal contender in the 2018 Winter Olympics if he had been warned of a potential danger at a European ski resort.

But on Jan. 5, 2015, he was caught up in an avalanche at Sölden in Austria, claiming his life and that of Ronnie Berlack of New Hampshire.

The two were in Europe with the U.S. Ski Team, training for the Europa Cup. That day, six of them went out to hit freshly fallen snow just for the love of skiing when they went down an ungroomed face of the mountain, triggering the avalanche.

Since then, the families of both young men have worked to raise avalanche awareness and formed the Bryce and Ronnie Athlete Snow Safety Foundation, which they call BRASS.

The group released a short film earlier this month, the foundation's keystone project for the past three years, called "Off Piste: Tragedy in the Alps."

The film re-enacts the emotional, frantic efforts to save Astle and Berlack, told by members of the ski team with them that day. It also showcases both of their life stories and achievements — family members sharing fond memories, professional ski coaches and racers applauding their talent and potential.

One purpose of BRASS and the video is to educate skiers on precautions they can personally take.

The video cites five steps from the nonprofit group Know Before You Go to prepare for skiing and other snow activities in uncontrolled areas.

• "Get the gear" — a transceiver, probe and shovel.

• "Get the training" — take an avalanche safety class.

• "Get the forecast" — find out the forecast at avalanche.org before going out.

• "Get the picture" — pay attention to surroundings.

• "Get out of harm's way" — ski down unmaintained areas one at a time.

The other part, Astle’s parents say, is to make sure coaches are educated and telling their athletes about avalanche dangers — especially for Americans skiing in Europe.

The six young skiers at Soelden resort on Jan. 5, 2015, hadn't taken these precautions, but, according to Bryce's dad Jamie Astle, they had no reason to even consider a possible avalanche.

"The kids didn't know that they needed to check the avalanche report because they were skiing inside a resort," Astle said. They didn't know they were going "off-piste."

Off-piste is a skiing term for an uncontrolled area. In the U.S., it means going out of a resort's boundaries, usually through a gate warning skiers that they are entering the backcountry at their own risk. Within the boundaries of the resort, everywhere is generally open to skiing and is avalanche-controlled.

However, the meaning is slightly different in Europe.

"If you go one inch off of a groomed run, it's basically like skiing out of bounds here in North America," Astle said. "The kids had no idea that they were skiing in an uncontrolled environment."

He said if his son had known this, he would not have ventured down the open face where the avalanche occurred.

BRASS also put together a detailed accident report for the 2015 tragedy, tailored more toward coaches and leaders in the ski racing world.

The Astles hope the report will provide important information to those in charge, and that there will be requirements made for U.S. Ski Team coaches to take snow safety training.

Laura Astle is proud that BRASS, and particularly their video, could save lives.

She added that through the foundation's efforts, Sölden ski resort has placed warning signs on areas like the one where he son and Berlack died, and a memorial at the actual site of the avalanche.

"Sölden has really stepped up to the plate," Laura Astle said. "They're changing the culture and doing things to make it better, which we're really, really happy about."