Kid-Savvy: Backcountry Ski Education Programs for Kids


From technical skills to backcountry safety, programs are cropping up for your kids to learn the basics of backcountry skiing. 


BROMLEY/SUGARBUSH — While the realm of backcountry skiing is the fastest growing segment of the adult ski population, it has not been a big part of youth programming in Vermont or throughout the sport. Rather, training for youth has been focused on Nordic or alpine youth programs, or teaching within the family.

For decades, Vermont Nordic skiers outfitted their children with skinny, waxless skis and went to ski touring centers. Since the ’80s, many Vermont youth (ages 4-13) have learned to cross country ski with their local Bill Koch League (BKL). At the same time, many race programs have taught youth alpine racing, starting at age 6 through 18 in academy or high school ski racing.
With the advent of backcountry skiing, youth programs are in the beginning stages, most notably at two Vermont ski resorts — Sugarbush Resort and Bromley Mountain Resort.
While Sugarbush’s program has been on-going for the past six years, Bromley just launched an option within their existing programming this winter.

Bob Clark, a Junior Educational Training Squad (JETS) Backcountry Program Instructor at Bromley Mountain believes that education is key when “people are venturing off the trails. We can give these people skills to make them more aware of what they’re doing, but not only that, give them knowledge about certain equipment they need to take out with them to increase their chances of survival.”

The JETS backcountry group is a season-long option within the JETS program, and is open to 12-17 year olds. It’s a non-competitive environment, says Burleigh Sunflower, Ski and Snowboard School Director at Bromley. With a student-to-instructor ratio of 8 students to 2 instructors, and one ski patroller, the resort hopes to fill 12 spots next season and expand if there is adequate demand.

Sugarbush Resort’s Mountaineering Blazers program, now in its sixth year, entices students ranging from age 10-17, with the median age being about 15. This season they have 15 participants. Brian “Diggity” Daigle, a Mountaineering Blazers Coach, says they are most likely expanding the capacity of the Mountaineering Blazers next season due to growing interest.
Other participants at Sugarbush ages 9-15, can enroll in renowned extreme skier John Egan’s Adventure Blazers program, which briefly introduces them to off-piste skiing as part of their all-mountain skill set. This season has had the highest enrollment to date with 120 participants. Last season had 85 participants, but Sugarbush does not expect the Adventure Blazers Program to grow significantly. Expert level skiers who want to be in a backcountry program and are over age 18, can be part of the Bush Pilots, led by Egan. The Bush Pilots had 27 participants enrolled this season.

Topics covered by both programs include: first aid training and survival skills training, with days spent learning how to build snow caves, melt snow for water, learning to start a fire, or working on map and compass skills. Basic avalanche safety skills are taught, and participants can practice using avalanche beacons, shovel and probes, or learn from professionals about how to dig avalanche pits.

“Many of the skills my son has gone over are skills he learned in Boy Scouts, but now he really feels like he knows how to apply them,” says one JETS parent.

Both programs utilize the terrain available to them surrounding their mountain, and both use shuttle systems to get them back to the mountain if need be.

“We’re teaching backcountry safety above all else, which of course translates into a safer and more responsible all-around skier,” says Gunnar Johnson, a JETS Backcountry Program Instructor. “Most of the kids have never skied outside of the resort, so coming back inbounds after a tour gives them the feeling of true accomplishment, something I feel every time I ski something new or rediscover an old favorite line.”

Both groups have practiced overnight skills, utilizing an actual shelter at night. The JETS Backcountry group stayed in the Ski Patrol cabin at the top of Bromley and skied back down the next day.

The Mountaineering Blazers at Sugarbush have done longer day or overnight trips using the shelter options the Long Trail for mid-day breaks and on Sugarbush for overnights. They also train for the nationally sanctioned randonee race held annually at Sugarbush Resort and Mad River Glen, which traverses the spine of the Green Mountains from one resort to the other.
“It is such a good confidence builder,” says Daigle. “One kid was thinking of bowing out because he had blisters, and two of his comrades came and talked him into finishing.”

Rick “Rickity” Hale, Daigle’s counterpart with the Mountaineering Blazers, believes that teaching youth the “skills to survive out there and knowledge on how to get around in the woods and on being safe, and respectful of the environment,” is critical for youth, as many of them will venture to bigger ski destinations.

“They learn with the tools they have. They aren’t limited to the ski area. You have to get owner’s permission and respect the land,” Hale said, adding that he and Daigle believe that, “the sky’s the limit and you want to be able to go out there and do it again tomorrow.” That’s part of the core philosophy, they said, that they teach to their students.

Over the past six years at Sugarbush Resort, the lessons they have taught their Mountaineering Blazers not only seem to be taking hold but the bonds formed during the program are lasting.

“The original group of kids we had still get together when they get up to Sugarbush,” reflects Daigle. “They’re like a pack of Blue Angels skiing down the mountain in formation… The knowledge they have now could really save someone…Rick and I often say we have the best job on the mountain.”

Clark echoes this sentiment adding that, “a lot of people go out West. They see a rope out there and a kid may say, ‘Wait a second, Dad. Let’s think about this.’ Give them education and tools so later on down the road they have the knowledge they need to make good decisions.”
Egan, who is Chief Recreational Officer at Sugarbush Resort, states that the goal of their programs is to create strong skiers by first understanding who they are.

“We really have to mold the kids into their own shape,” he says. “They’re all different. We believe our coaching style is to understand the person you are coaching. Understanding the kids means to understand their wants, desires and limits, and then work on those particular limits. We want to bring them to their limit and teach them the next step and make them not afraid. You just watch these kids grow into an amazing team.”

Egan said he recently heard a former student of his, who founded the High Fives Foundation, speak at a fundraiser at Sugarbush Resort.

“To hear another generation talking about the generation above them, and how they are influenced by them, and to see how you influenced them… When you can see how it’s passed on, it’s really neat.”

Egan said he believes the recreation opportunities that exist in Vermont and the opportunities the newly formed Vermont Backcountry Alliance is working on will create alternatives for different kinds of recreationists in the near future and will create opportunities for recreation professionals.

“I think we’ll see some of these kids in the future being the guides,” Egan says, adding that his youth programming, which doesn’t have a set structure from day to day, sets the basis for that leadership.

“This is more about life,” he said of the programs, “and there’s nothing in life that is rigid like that — at least not in the mountains.”

Editor’s Note: Silvia Cassano works for the Bart J. Ruggiere Adaptive Sports Center at Bromley Mountain and for the Appalachian Trail Conservancy in Southern New England.