“All the activities we do under the umbrella of our outdoor program involve some risk,” says Director of the Climbing Program Erik Thatcher. “But not all risks are necessary. The BRASS program helps us to be conscientious risk takers.”
And so opened the Bryce and Ronnie Athlete Safety and Security Foundation’s (BRASS) training for Holderness snow sports athletes and the winter mountaineering team. The mission of BRASS is “to create educational programs, and best safety practices for snow sports athletes to further their physical and psychological well-being.” Their primary focus is on avalanche awareness education.
“BRASS is what helmets were to skiing 10 years ago. I think all back-country adventurers will soon have avalanche training,” says Erik.
During the two-hour presentation to Holderness School athletes, BRASS representatives Jackie Paaso and Cindy Berlack shared their personal experiences and how important avalanche education is, no matter the terrain. Not intended to train people in avalanche rescue or even teach them how to analyze snowpack, the program is meant to build awareness of the unknown. Their “Know Before You Go” campaign emphasizes five steps everyone should complete before heading into the back-country: get the gear, get the training, get the forecast, get the picture, and know how to get out of harm’s way.
Established in 2016, the BRASS Foundation was created in memory of two young US Ski Team athletes, Bryce Astle and Ronald “Ronnie” Berlack, who both died in an avalanche in Europe almost three years ago. In partnership with the US Ski Team, the foundation hopes to work with athletes from the national level all the way down to the junior level.
“I think it’s really important for our families to put together an effort to bring attention to avalanche danger and what can be done to keep other kids safe in ways that Ronnie and Bryce weren’t,” said Cindy Berlack, Ronnie’s mother, in an interview with skiracing.com. “We want to keep young people, or anybody, really, from falling into the trap of not knowing how to handle themselves in avalanche terrain” (Higgins, May 2016).
Holderness Director of Snow Sports Ivar Dahl agrees: "Avalanche safety isn't always a top priority for high schoolers. Having Jackie volunteer her time as an expert in the field was an awesome way for our snow sports athletes to gain awareness of the risks involved with skiing and riding on varied terrain."
In addition to the organization’s connections to Holderness through the broader ski racing community, there are also a number of closer connections as well. One of the skiers for which the organization is named, Ronnie Berlack, grew up in Franconia, skiing with some of Holderness School’s skiers at Cannon before going onto Burke Mountain Academy. Former Holderness Assistant Head of School Jory Macomber, is the chairman of the board, and Holderness alumnus Michael Silitch is the executive director. Alumnus Chris Davenport ’89 also makes an appearance in the foundation’s “Know Before You Go” film.
Erik Thatcher, who spends all winter teaching students about winter wilderness safety and survival and adventure through the school’s Winter Mountaineering program, hopes this will not be the end of our students’ avalanche education.
“Avalanche training may seem unnecessary in the White Mountains of New Hampshire,” explains Erik, “but even a few of the ski resorts in New England provide access to backcountry terrain that has the potential to avalanche, and the White Mountain’s most well known avalanche-prone terrain has already seen a human-triggered avalanche this season.”
Here on campus, students can continue to learn about avalanches through science teacher Alexandra Disney’s Snow Science course that begins in January. Erik also hopes that during vacations some students will take the time to take a class through the American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education (AIARE). During Winter Parents Weekend and March break, there are several local courses for which students can sign up.
In the meantime, Holderness students have the basics, setting them up for safe journeys when the snow flies!