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Passing the Torch

The key to ensuring responsible backcountry travel is to start teaching it to the next generation now.

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It’s early season and I’m putting in a skin track up the east face of Mt. Judah, just outside the Sugar Bowl resort boundary, with my longtime friend and ski partner Jon Rockwood.

“Everyone always says, ‘Carry a beacon, shovel, and probe, and know how to use them,’” he says. “Of course that’s important, but I also think there’s a lot more to it than that.” It’s been a slow start to the season but we’re out here regardless, making laps on one of our thin coverage go-to spots after a fresh coat of snow. “Backcountry safety goes way beyond that,” he goes on to say. “I want to teach these kids the skills and habits they need to avoid using their rescue equipment in the first place.”

Rockwood isn’t just one of my ski buddies, he’s also a guide and the head coach of the Snow Rangers, a youth backcountry skiing program at Sugar Bowl Resort just outside of Truckee, Calif. The Snow Rangers is an immersive backcountry program for kids ages 12 to 18 that offers roughly 55 days of instruction  over the course of the season. “Our program is based on a blend of an AIARE and AMGA framework,” says Rockwood. “But it’s catered to the kids we’re coaching. We keep it fun while still maintaining structure and teaching the important lessons.”

It wasn’t all that long ago that backcountry skiing was a very niche part of our sport. The last 15 or so years, however, it has exploded in popularity and become more mainstream. Advancements in backcountry ski, binding, boot, and safety technology have been ongoing, making it easier than ever to travel through the mountains under your own power. At the same time, social media has somewhat glamorized the backcountry experience, sometimes sending the message that anyone can do it, regardless of how prepared they are. These days, it seems like just about everyone is a backcountry skier—or aspires to be one.

When it comes to the youth, however, backcountry tutelage in the U.S. has been relatively limited, and exists primarily in the form of backcountry skiing parents showing their kids the ropes. In fact, that’s partly how the Snow Rangers got started. David Riggs, a Sugar Bowl skier, ASI (Alpine Skills International) guide, and parent found himself doing exactly that—leading his kids into the backcountry.

“It was a combination of things that all came together,” says Riggs. “Sugar Bowl’s open boundary policy, taking my own kids into the backcountry, and other parents expressing interest in an alternative, non-competitive ski program. It was a great fit.” Riggs took the idea to the resort and the Snow Rangers was founded the following year during the 2009-2010 season. Rockwood became the head coach and continues in the role today.

One thing that really sets the Snow Rangers apart is the frequency and consistency of the instruction. These kids don’t just meet for a couple days of the season, they’re out there nearly every weekend all season long. “We follow a progression,” says Rockwood. “It’s a formal and structured approach that builds upon the skills and lessons learned as we go.” The kids don’t just get guided around either. They are often asked to take the lead. “They don’t learn as much if they just follow us around,” says Rockwood. “We give them some responsibility, have them do the beacon check, choose the route, help with decision-making, ask them to use the skills we’re teaching them.” In the spring, the Snow Rangers finish their season with overnight camping trips to destinations like Tioga Pass and Mt. Shasta. “It’s amazing to see these kids develop as backcountry travelers over the course of a season,” says Rockwood. “These overnight trips seem impossible at the beginning of the year, and by the end of our season it’s no problem for them.”

This winter, the Snow Rangers enters its 10th season of instruction and remains the first and only program of its kind in the country. A few other youth programs and courses have popped up in that time, but none offer a backcountry education as in-depth and involved as the Snow Rangers. “We’ve consistently had 20 to 30 participants in the program each year going on a decade now. I think that’s pretty telling,” says Rockwood. “This isn’t just a fad. These kids are the future of our sport, and I’m happy to know that we’ve done our best to help prepare them for a lifetime of backcountry skiing.”

Truckee–based writer Jeremy Benson hopes to see more young skiers on Tahoe’s skin tracks this winter.

Originally published in the December 2018 issue of SKI Magazine. Corrections: Spelling of AIARE.