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Alex Taran and the South American Beacon Project

The Andes are renowned for their scenic vistas, epic terrain, and plentiful snowfall.  Composing the eastern boundary of the Ring of Fire, these mountains represent a dramatic mix of volcanoes and lofty peaks.

This rugged land inspired the spirit and captured the heart of Alex Taran, an aspiring philanthropist, educator, and eight-year ski patroller at Snowbird Ski Resort. She has spent the Austral winters traveling around Chile in search of good snow and great friends. 2013 marks her sixth year visiting the area, and it represents the third operational year of the South American Beacon Project (SABP). The project aims to deliver much needed avalanche safety equipment to mountain employees and provides additional snow safety education to those with limited resources.

SABP was born out of necessity.  During her first visit to Chile, Taran worked as a pistera (patroller) for La Parva Ski Resort. On her days off, she would explore the neighboring backcountry terrain with fellow employees.  Venturing to a popular yet avalanche-prone area known as Santa Teresa, Taran had her first encounter with the lack of avalanche knowledge of the average Chilean skier.  “We were cruising up St. Tere and all of sudden our group of four well-equipped riders turned into nearly ten people.  Almost none of the additional skiers had avy gear and I got pretty freaked out,” said Taran.  The slope they planned to ski was relatively safe, but the fact that no one was prepared became quite unnerving.  “Gringa, tranquila, no tenemos avalanchas en Chile,” remarked one member.  Taran knew this was not the case, and the overall attitude of the group made her increasingly anxious. Luckily, the day went on without incident, but Taran knew that something had to be done to change the situation. This experience spurred her into thinking about how she could make a difference in the region.

“We had started talking to our friends in Chile during the 2010 season in order to determine the response that such a program would generate,” Taran explained.  “Overall, it seemed like there was positive feedback from riders and patrollers.”  SABP’s first fundraiser several years ago allowed it to generate enough funds to furnish 12 avalanche beacons, several shovels, and a few probes to mountain workers. Arriving in Chile that year with a game plan and gear, Taran proceeded to organize her resources and spread the word. The trip began with a donation of a couple beacons to the La Parva Ski Patrol. When she was a patroller there years ago, the crew of 18 patrollers had only four beacons to share.  “Part of the reason most workers don’t have the gear is the cost. An average patroller makes very little, and most of them have to support families. The money for safety equipment just doesn’t fit in,” said Taran.

While providing beacons is a big part of SABP, another primary goal is to create an environment of education. By partnering with local resorts and ski clubs, the organization is able to reach a wide demographic of individuals who work and play in the mountains. The educational goals of the project are twofold. The first is a very basic avalanche beacon class that goes over the anatomy of the device and shows the user how to effectively perform a search. It also goes over rudimentary rescue skills like probing and strategic shoveling. The second goal is more in-depth education that works to expand the knowledge of the backcountry skier. In Taran’s words, “We want to emphasize safe travel, one person on a slope at a time, and how weather and terrain can affect route finding.”

SABP

Since its inception, SABP has traveled all over Chile and Argentina to impart knowledge and donate safety equipment. Taran has grown her network of contacts to encompass additional professional entities. She has also convinced search and rescue organizations in the US to provide beacons and other equipment for donation to the mountain communities in South America. Partnering with outside guide operations has further enabled SABP to broaden its reach. Developing curriculum and tailoring it to different audiences allows the project to fine tune its message more effectively. I have had the pleasure of working with Taran both at Snowbird and in Argentina with my small business, Patagonia Ski Tours (PST). Together with Justin Lozier, PST founder, we have been able to spread the “Buena Onda” to skiers around the region. The opportunity to teach myriad user groups, especially the up and coming youth freeriders, has been amazing. Reaching these kids while they are young is the best way to get future generations to develop a healthy respect for the mountains.

2013 finds Taran deeply involved and more driven than ever. She continues to push into new areas and has a stellar cast of cohorts to assist her with training. For this summer, SABP is traveling further afield to places like Rio Turbio in Argentine Patagonia. The more distant you get from the core of resorts, the more needed the equipment and education. “We are really excited to get these programs in place and get people involved.  We also hope to design some beacon training facilities so they can practice what they have learned,” said Taran. Rio Turbio marks the 14th community SABP has reached.

To supplement the goal of SABP, Taran is working with other guides, patrollers, and skiers in Chile and Argentina to develop an avalanche accident archive, the first of its kind. Creating a comprehensive list of decades of avalanche accidents in the two countries is no mean feat. It requires constant research and compiling of info from various resources, and then making that info easily digestible for the public. The objective is to provide something to look back on and learn from.

SABP will no doubt raise awareness of the need for equipment and education in the region and hopefully garner further support from people with the means to do so. For more info or to donate, check out South American Beacon Project.

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