Snowshoe treks at Tahoe bring classroom outside

South Tahoe 5th graders learn winter science atop Heavenly

Jeff Cowen
Fifth grade classes from Bijou Elementary School prepare to ride the tram to the top of Heavenly.

SOUTH LAKE TAHOE, Calif. — On Thursday, the final fifth grade class from South Lake Tahoe enjoyed an educational field trip to the top of Heavenly Mountain Resort.

Thanks to a Vail Resorts’ EpicPromise grant, local environmental educators have been able to once again invite every South Shore fifth grader to snowshoe at Heavenly Mountain Resort and learn more about science, snowmaking, winter wildlife, and snow safety.

The collaborative team includes staff from Tahoe Regional Planning Agency, Lake Tahoe Unified School District Career Technical Education Team, Heavenly Mountain Resort, Tahoe Institute for Natural Science, and Sierra Avalanche Center who teamed up to offer the Winter Adventure Program once again.

“My favorite part of snowshoeing was the scavenger hunt at the animal station,” said Niah, a fifth grader at Lake Tahoe Environmental Science Magnet School. “I liked it because we got to get up and move around and do things on our own.”

Heavenly Ski Patrol demonstrate how they train the avalanche dogs, and then treat students to a demonstration of how they dig out people who are buried by avalanches inbound.

“We don’t need four walls and a whiteboard to teach winter science lessons,” said Victoria Ortiz, TRPA’s community engagement manager. “These field trips take the classroom outside and bring the material to life by letting students learn with all of their senses.”

Throughout the season a total of nearly 300 students have participated. The excited students load into the Heavenly Tram and disembark at the top of the mountain. There they strap on snowshoes and split into groups that rotate between interactive stations.

At the first station, Kendal Scott from TINS introduces students to winter animal adaptations. She explains which species rely on hibernation, migration, and tolerance to withstand the frigid temperatures of Lake Tahoe. Then the students search the area for clues about local animals, such as scat, footprints, and tufts of fur.

Seasoned Heavenly Snowmakers Joe Flores and Victor Gutierrez teach students about the science of snowmaking.
Provided/Heavenly Mountain Resort

“Scientific concepts come easily to the students when learning in the same snowy, alpine habitat we’re discussing,” Scott said. “When I ask, ‘Where is the lowest point in the Tahoe Basin?’ all they have to do is look down the hill to see it’s the lake.”

Nearby, seasoned Heavenly snowmakers Joe Flores and Victor Gutierrez teach students about the science of snowmaking. They demonstrate the equipment required to create the millions of pounds of snow needed to set and maintain a solid base for skiers at Heavenly. Then the students begin measuring snow depth and mathematically calculate the formulas required to make snow.

“It is great to get the next generation of skiers and riders out here on the mountain for a behind- the-scenes look at the snowmaking,” said Bryan Hickman, Heavenly’s senior snow surfaces manager. “Snowmaking is such an essential part of our mountain operations at Heavenly, and its importance will only continue to grow as we combat climate change. It was incredibly meaningful for our team to work with these students in fostering a love of science, snowmaking, and the outdoors.”

Finally, students trek to the top of Groove chairlift where the Sierra Avalanche Center explains the three elements needed to trigger an avalanche. Students peer into foldable microscopes to discern the shapes of the snow crystals and learn the protocol used in the backcountry to test the snowpack.

John Littleton with Sierra Avalanche Center teaches students how to discern the shapes of the snow crystals and the protocol used in the backcountry to test the snowpack.

“A very small percentage of the world’s fifth graders hear avalanche bombs, but it’s normal for Tahoe kids,” said SAC Executive Director David Reichel. “This program allows us to explain what avalanches are to kids that are growing up surrounded by avalanche terrain.”

A frequent highlight for students is meeting Heavenly’s snow avalanche rescue dogs. The resort’s ski patrollers explain how they train the dogs, and then treat students to a mock demonstration of how they dig out people who could get buried in an avalanche.

Tahoe Institute for Natural Science teach students about winter animal adaptations.

This is the eighth year that these organizations have partnered to host this field trip, after a year-long hiatus due to COVID-19. Next year, they hope to offer a similar program for middle school students.

The Winter Adventure Program is organized through the South Tahoe Environmental Education Coalition, dedicated to bringing high-quality environmental education programs to Lake Tahoe youth.

“Our CTE team is so pleased to have partnered with the phenomenal STEEC members, bringing these experiences to students,” said Alissa Zertuche, CTE specialist for Lake Tahoe Unified School District. “The benefit of getting outside, meeting professionals from the community, and interacting with other students while learning to be better environmental stewards is immeasurable. The district’s CTE team looks forward to many more years of partnering with STEEC to enhance the lives of students and our community.”

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