Why backcountry riders want to learn from Tom Thorn
In his 20 years of ski patrolling at Big Sky Resort and skiing in the backcountry, Tom Thorn has seen his fair share of avalanches. But one harrowing event remains fresh in his memory—when his partner was fully buried in a massive slide while doing avalanche control at Big Sky Resort in December 2003.
It was a big snow year, with accumulation almost every day. Thorn and his partner were hiking in the Cron’s area doing control work to ensure the old Triple Chair unloading area below was safe. Aware of a weak layer in the snowpack, they cautiously made their way onto the slide-prone slope to do explosive control work. Despite their precautions, the bomb triggered a powerful slide that pulled in Thorn’s partner, burying him as Thorn looked on in disbelief.
“I’ve seen big avalanches, but when it’s your buddy, in a slide like that, it really brings it home,” Thorn said.
Thorn’s avalanche training kicked in immediately and he calmly used his beacon and probed the six-foot-deep avalanche slabs to find his partner.
“And I did find him. My probe hit his helmet and I was able to clear his airway,” Thorn recalled. “And my partner was ok—he said, ‘I’m feeling uncomfortable’ and that was the best thing I could have heard. Most people don’t make it out of an avalanche that size.”
The initial recovery took under five minutes—a rapid response in avalanche extraction standards—and Thorn’s partner was uninjured.
Now, after two decades of patrolling and eventually becoming known as the avalanche expert at Big Sky Resort, Thorn recently hung up his ski patrol jacket. He announced this season that he would not be returning to the patrol crew. He said his team was disappointed, but supportive of his decision.
Thorn’s retirement from patrolling doesn’t mean you won’t still find him out at the resort doing what he does best. He’s just shifted his focus to teaching more avalanche safety courses to the public via his program—the Big Sky Avalanche Foundation for Education—or BSAFE.
Thorn began leading avalanche safety courses in 2010 after becoming an approved instructor by the American Avalanche Association when only about 40 other instructors existed across the U.S. Since then, not including the dozens of ski patrollers he’s instructed, Thorn has taught around 500 students the ins and outs of avalanche safety.
On Sunday, Dec. 17, Thorn led 18 students up Bone Crusher above the Swift Current lift at Big Sky Resort, where they put their new skills to use. Digging snow pits, looking for and logging unstable layers, performing stability tests and examining snow crystals, the students’ new knowledge was applied to real-world conditions.
One of those students was Brianna Moore, who said she’s done a lot of backcountry skiing, but wanted to know more. “I was always relying on things that were self-taught, or the knowledge of others,” Moore said as she poked at the snow
pit wall in front of her to find any weak layers. “I always wanted to speak up about gut feelings I’d have out there, but I couldn’t back it up. There’s just so much I didn’t know. Here, I’m gaining that knowledge, and I’m excited to get out even more this winter.”
While the sounds of avalanche control bombs echoing in the distance do leave Thorn feeling a bit nostalgic for his old job, he said after 20 years in the avalanche control business he knew it was his time to step away from the potentially dangerous career. And now, he’s seizing the opportunity to pass on his unique skillset to others.
“Teaching these courses is rewarding for me because it’s different each time,” Thorn said, thinking back to the course he had just completed the day before. “It’s great working with new people. And, every class, I learn from my students as well since everyone looks at things a little differently.”
Nowadays, as Thorn stands in line at the Lone Peak Tram, he recognizes many familiar faces who have taken his class. “It’s great—I know if something happens up there, I’ve got a whole crew of people who know what to do.”
To find out more about BSAFE courses and to sign up, email Tom at firstname.lastname@example.org