In 2010, while skiing in Santa Teresa, an uncontrolled backcountry area near Chile's El Colorado resort, Alex Taran realized something -- avalanche awareness in Chile was extremely lacking. The Santa Teresa area is accessed by simply ducking a rope at El Colorado and heading out a short traverse before dropping into a broad, 2,000-vertical foot powder run. Great skiing, but also prime avalanche terrain.
Taran realized that few skiers heading into the area ever carried avalanche equipment, nor had the knowledge to use it. So, with her background in sustainable community development and experience as a ski patroller at Snowbird, Utah, Taran decided to do something about it. When she came back to Chile the next year, she created the South American Beacon Project. Her goal was to spread the word of avalanche awareness through free classes and to equip as many skiers as possible with avalanche beacons, shovels and probes.
"Overall there's not an awareness that avalanches are a real danger in Chile," Taran said. "There's this idea that if a slide happens it's an odd case, a freak accident. But that's obviously wrong."
Of course, with a long history of activity in the Andes, avalanche safety isn't an entirely new concept to Chile. The ski resorts all have their own avalanche control programs, and with extensive mining and other natural resource extraction occurring year-round in the high Andes, the most advanced snow safety programs in Chile are actually located in these centers of industry. But what became apparent to Taran is that beyond industry, there is a substantial and growing group of winter recreationalists that have had no access to avalanche education.
"We can tell that the education we're bringing is taking effect," Taran said. "Through discussion and education people are realizing this hazard exists. And now these people, from ski patrollers to ordinary skiers, are wanting these classes and seeking more information."
In 2011, its first year, the South American Beacon Project gave away nine beacons and taught classes to 50 students. This year, nearly 90 beacons have been given away and 250 students have taken a course. Classes are taught in the central Andes, southern Andes, Patagonia, and Argentina. Each region has a corresponding guide or avalanche expert that assists with the teaching. "This way, it's not just some gringa coming in and telling people what's up," said Taran. "Rather, we have knowledgeable, local professionals spreading the word and helping teach."