Sierra Avalanche Center seeking grant for snowmobile and backcountry safety programs |

Sierra Avalanche Center seeking grant for snowmobile and backcountry safety programs

Sebastian Foltz
Sierra Avalanche Center forecaster Brandon Schwartz assesses the snowpack on Mount Tallac near South Lake Tahoe. The center is pursuing a California grant to assist with education and outreach programs promoting backcountry safety.
Courtesy / Sierra Avalanche Center |

SOUTH LAKE TAHOE — While no organization currently tracks backcountry usage in the Lake Tahoe Basin, anecdotally it’s clearly on the rise. Ask any U.S. Forest Service ranger or backcountry enthusiast and they will say the same. Drive by any popular access point on a given powder day and you’ll likely have trouble finding a place to park.

According to Snow Sports Industries America — the trade association that tracks sales and industry trends — backcountry-related gear is one of the fastest growing sections of the ski and snowboard market.

For officials with the Sierra Avalanche Center it’s a cause for concern, and one of the leading reasons the nonprofit is pursuing additional funding through a California State Parks grant.

According to center officials, more than half of the group’s funding comes from private donations and grants. The U.S. Forest Service also contributes to the avalanche forecasting program.

In addition to assisting with funding for forecasting, the primary focus of the grant is to expand educational outreach and awareness programs.

“We’re ramping it up because we’re seeing more and more people accessing the backcountry,” said Don Triplat, executive director of the nonprofit fundraising portion of the avalanche center.

The group, which had received the grant in previous years but failed to qualify this winter, hopes to expand snowmobile-focused avalanche safety programs through the grant.

“Sleds approach terrain much differently,” Triplat explained, comparing snowmobilers to non-motorized backcountry travelers. “(They) access more terrain quicker.”

Additionally, the added weight and style of riding creates different kinds of avalanche concerns for snowmobilers. It’s part of the reason the American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education (AIARE) recently developed a snowmobile-focused avalanche safety certification program in addition to its traditional Level 1 avalanche certification.

It’s a program Triplat said the Sierra center hopes to adopt next winter with the grant.

While a variety of outlets, including Lake Tahoe Community College, currently provide standard avalanche safety training, Triplat said, “There’s no provider that teaches the snowmobile specific program.”

And according to national numbers, snowmobiles are involved in close to 50 percent of avalanche incidents.

Avalanche center officials and volunteers have had some workshops this winter both for motorized and non-motorized users, but have had to scale back without the grant.

“We shrunk the (existing) program and funded it ourselves,” Triplat said.

The group currently offers a non-certifying snowmobile safety workshop as well as AIARE’s “Know Before You Go” backcountry safety workshop.

Describing the need for expanded awareness and outreach Triplat said, “It’s No. 1. If you have the gear and don’t have the education, then you’re just getting lucky (avoiding avalanches).”

More information on the grant application and the Sierra Avalanche Center is available through links at The application is currently open for public comment and review.

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