As backcountry usage rises, local student aims to help keep community safe
By Gabrielle Gasser EBS STAFF
BIG SKY – In the not-so-distant future, there will be a new avalanche beacon park in Big Sky, a place to practice with transceivers, shovels and probes and hone valuable rescue skills. And it’s due to the efforts of one high school student.
Laney Smith is a senior at Lone Peak High School and as part of the International Baccalaureate program she’s required to complete a CAS project. The project is inspired by the three elements of the IB program: creativity, action and service. The final product can take myriad forms.
Smith said she was brainstorming potential CAS projects with her mom when she came up with the idea to create an avalanche beacon park in Big Sky. Part of a school backcountry club during her freshman and sophomore years, Smith says she’s always loved skiing in the backcountry.
“I came up with the idea for the beacon training park because backcountry is something I’ve always loved to do,” Smith said. “When I was a freshman and sophomore in high school, I was part of the back country club.”
Smith initially presented her idea to Big Sky Search and Rescue in October of 2020. According to Andy Dreisbach, a SAR volunteer and owner of Cornerstone Management Services, she gave an eloquent presentation and earned SAR’s support for her project.
The next step was applying to the Moonlight Community Foundation for the $5,500 needed to make the beacon park a reality.
When her request was denied, she turned to private funding sources for help. After reaching out to multiple sources and not receiving support in the capacity she needed, Smith again talked with Dreisbach.
The beacon park project is now largely funded through Dreisbach’s company with a $250 contribution from First Security Bank.
“We’re not an incorporated town, so there is no representation for the little guy unless it’s carried out by the little guy,” Dreisbach said of the funding process.
“One thing that has always made Big Sky so special is the philanthropic interests of its organizations and small businesses,” he said. “It’s what makes Big Sky Big Sky, and when people are moving here, we’d like them to move here with the intention of carrying that same torch.”
After obtaining the necessary funding, Smith ordered the equipment needed to set up the park from Backcountry Access, a company dedicated to high-performance backcountry gear. Currently, she says, the equipment, including a control box and eight training beacons, is en route and the hope is to set up the park by the end of February.
In addition to the equipment on order, Smith plans to create and install signage. She also hinted at a potential sponsor from the Big Sky community where aspiring backcountry travelers could rent gear to practice with at the park. Dreisbach says Cornerstone will also help with any fabrication needed to get the park up and running.
The exact location for the beacon park is still being discussed but one of the softball fields in the Big Sky Community Park is a likely location, Smith said and pointed to support from the Big Sky Community Organization and specifically Jeff MacPherson, asset manager with BSCO.
According to MacPherson, the most likely scenario will be that BSCO stores the equipment and signage for the beacon park in the summer and helps maintain it in winter. SAR will likely run programming at the park to educate visitors and provide volunteers during busy times.
“Working with other groups throughout our community is part of our mission statement of collaborating with other entities, local entities,” said MacPherson, who also volunteers with SAR.
Both MacPherson and Dreisbach emphasized the importance of this beacon park to the Big Sky community.
“Lift tickets have gotten more and more expensive,” Dreisbach said. “People are getting into the backcountry more and more. I go on a couple body recoveries every year.”
While Big Sky Resort operates its own avy beacon park, it requires any potential user to have lift access and the ability to ski a blue run. Being on flat ground and in the Meadow Village area, the new beacon park will be accessible to more user groups, including snowmobilers, who otherwise likely wouldn’t make the trek up the hill to practice.
“Hopefully in the coming years we can have Avalanche Level One courses there and have demonstrations and maybe partner with the resort [which] could have ski patrol and the avalanche dogs come down and make it a community thing,” Smith said. “Something that could be really cool, in a year that isn’t COVID, is having a competition where you and two of your friends pay $10 to enter and whoever finds the beacons fastest wins a prize.”
While there is still much work to be done, once the park is in place there will be many ways to take advantage of this community resource.
“It’s a necessity in this town,” MacPherson said. “With more people going into the backcountry, we needed an area for people to practice their skills.”
Aside from a full class load and a hefty CAS project, Smith plays for the Bozeman high school lacrosse team and works as a ski instructor at Big Sky Resort.
She wants to be an architect and has already been accepted to the University of Vermont’s College of Mathematics and Engineering, though she’s waiting to hear from her top choice, the University of British Columbia.
In the meantime, Smith has kept busy earning 50 hours for each of the three strands of the IB program and leading the charge to make her CAS project—helping keep Big Sky safe—a reality.