Things I’ve Learned: Chugach Powder Guides’ Lel Tone is forever an avalanche apprentice
Interview by Megan Michelson
Don’t be fooled by Lel Tone’s diminutive stature. This petite, Swiss-born blonde can probably out-ski you. Tone has been an avalanche forecaster and ski patroller at Squaw Valley, CA since 1995 and a heli-ski guide with Alaska’s Chugach Powder Guides since 1999. She teaches avalanche courses with the American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education, and she’s filmed for and guided with Warren Miller Entertainment in Alaska for the last couple of years. Despite all of that experience, she says she still has a lot to learn.
Ten years ago, avalanche courses focused on how to analyze snow crystals and dig pits, but there’s been a big shift in education. Now it’s about giving you the tools to make sound decisions in the backcountry and providing a checklist to make sure you don’t miss critical points.
You don’t have to spend a ton of money to get educated on avalanches. Avalanche.org will link you to a bunch of free educational opportunities, and you can talk to your local avalanche center and ski patrol.
Get up in the morning, drink your coffee, check your Facebook, do whatever you’re going to do and then check your local avalanche forecast. Start tuning in to your local snowpack and weather. If you track this stuff every day, chances are you’ll start absorbing this information.
The bottom line: If the hazard is high, moving to extreme, you just don’t go. Period. Here’s an interesting stat: The number of people who get killed in avalanches on hazardous days is shockingly high. Know your gear. Feel intimate with it. If you’re going into the backcountry, it’s not the time to be testing out new gear. When filming, people want to jump into terrain progression quickly to get the shot. The helis are expensive, the weather might change, there’s huge pressure to produce usable footage. That often pushes the whole decision-making process into a very uncomfortable situation. It’s important to communicate with your team and slow things down.
A lot of today’s top pros have incredible skills when it comes to being on their skis and doing tricks, but they don’t have the same skills picking terrain in the backcountry. They’ve got to learn the bigger picture about line selection and consequences.
Oftentimes, my heli-ski clients will ask me, “What’s the weather going to do?” And I’m like, “Let’s step outside and have a look.”
You need to be flexible enough that you can change your plans based on what’s going on in real time. Mother Nature is dictating out there. So whatever your plan is, whatever you want to accomplish, be humble enough to realize there’s something bigger calling the shots.
I had a client in Alaska caught in a slide and buried. He was buried four-feet deep for 11 minutes and lived. He was incredibly lucky, but it was a huge come-to-Jesus moment for me. How did my decision making lead us into that? The reality is this is the life I love. Skiing gives me such joy, and it’s something that I can’t possibly imagine not having in my world. So you need to have a reckoning and have this moment where you say, “Do I choose this? Or do I not choose this?” Either way is OK, but if you choose this life, these things will happen. If you go into the mountains thinking you’re immune, you’ve got another thing coming.
A good rule of thumb is if the ski patrol is doing avalanche control and throwing bombs inbounds, it’s not a good day to go into the backcountry, whether the gates are open or not.
If you’re not in good shape, you’re going to get hurt. Go the gym, go to those ski-conditioning classes, go mountain biking. It’s important for your longevity. I’m 41 years old. I got lucky with a body that puts up with a lot of shit, and it seems to serve me pretty well.
It’s really important to be slow and deliberate when you’re around a helicopter. That applies to being in the mountains in general. Be focused, be present.
Being on a sled takes you out of the environment a little. You can’t clue in to the signs because you’re behind a helmet, you’re moving quickly and you can’t hear the sounds.
I’m not even close to an expert. I’ve had 17 years as an avalanche apprentice, but I will never stop being one. You are never the master with Mother Nature.