Not Your Mom’s Ski Academy: A Maine School Heads Out of Bounds

Ski academies are well known for pumping out big names and fast results in alpine racing, and Carrabassett Valley Academy (CVA), a private middle and high-school ski academy based near Sugarloaf, Maine, is no exception. But what about the kids who aren’t exactly itching to become the next Bode Miller? Enter CVA’s Backcountry Program, which for over 15 years has been offering backcountry-specific education, trips and mentorship for high-school students. This year, they’re welcoming in a new name—the bc-specific programing was previously titled Alpine Leadership Pursuits for Skiers, or ALPS—as well as some new program opportunities for a younger demographic.

We caught up with Patrick Scanlan, the CVA Backcountry Program’s director and head coach, and Sarah Perry, director of marketing and communications, to learn more about CVA’s one-of-a-kind offerings and the new experiences in store for their students.

A new kind of classroom. [Photo] CVA

BCM: Tell me about your program: how did it start, and how has it developed?

Patrick Scanlan: It started in 2001. At that time people weren’t really venturing too far out of bounds, at least on the East Coast, with the exception of Tuckerman, of course. So the program was more of a freeskier program. Definitely one of the bigger differences between then and now is the equipment and technology we have. Then, people were on fixed equipment, using lifts and bootpacking from the top to ski untracked lines, rather than touring gear and specialized equipment.

So that was a huge progression. Now every one of the kids is on a touring setup, and I have two splitboarders who each have their own setup.

My philosophy with the program is that there are a lot of skills that can be gained from backcountry skiing, just by working as a group. I don’t think those skills are only applied to that environment; they’re applied to other areas in life. So with these kids, maybe some of them will be successful skiers, but I think the reality is some will be businessmen or will run their own company, or careers like that. The skills they learn—communication, teamwork, risk management—are all super transferable to other areas in life. So that’s the basis for how I designed the program.

We train at Sugarloaf, and we have some pretty good access to sidecountry right near the mountain, which is good for training. I also believe that it’s hard to become a talented downhill skier without a ski lift, because then they can’t get the laps in. These kids really have strong technical skills.

BCM: How did this past season shake out?

PS: We do four big trips a year. We did a climbing trip in the fall down to Seneca Rocks to work on group dynamic stuff, right when the group was new to each other, and to work on some basic technical climbing skills. Then in December we went to Jackson, and we worked with the Jackson Hole Outdoor Leadership Institute, and all the kids got their AIARE 1 certification. It was a custom AIARE 1; it was spread out over six days and a hands-on, interactive experience for them in in the Tetons, which was amazing.

In February, we went to La Grave, France, and we focused on bigger lines and applying the snow science that we learned in Jackson to a bigger mountain environment. And then our last trip was local. We went to Tucks for a week in March. It’s a smaller environment, obviously, than going to France, but it allowed the kids to take on a little more leadership and put together skills that they’ve learned throughout the year. There was a little bit of technical stuff; a little bit of big mountain and it was 100-percent touring.

Next year, we’ll be going back to Jackson. The other trips might be slightly different, but the progression will be the same—building on the skills that the last one provided.

BCM: That all sounds super cool, and I wish I could go back in time and do the backcountry program. Did you use any existing programs as a model for this?

The program is super unique to CVA. In terms of the high-school level, there’s really nothing else that’s similar. One of the closest comparisons would be the National Outdoor Leadership (NOLS) backcountry ski program, and I think you have to be 19 to even join it. So it’s impressive what the kids here are getting exposed to at a young age, and some of the lines they’re able to ski at 16, 17, 18 years old.

Sarah Perry: One thing to note is we’re folding in a new program next year called the Freeride Development Team, which is going to allow an even younger group of kids to explore their options in that realm. Patrick is going to be working closely with another program leader, Jesse Duncan, to head that team, and that’s for eighth grade students.

PS: Yea, this program will help them realize if they want to compete or not. The Freeride route would be a competitive program where they’re competing in Ski the East events and IFWA events. The other side of the coin is kids who don’t want to compete but want to gain the backcountry skill set for other reasons.

SP: CVA does a good job in recognizing the needs and hearing the desires of students and young athletes. That’s how all of our programs have evolved, and the Freeride Development Team is a good example of that. It’s a unique aspect of the school, in that we take into consideration opportunities beyond alpine racing and push that envelope for them.

PS: Recently, we got an email from a guy who works out at Jackson Hole for the Jackson Hole Ski Club, and he’s looking to start a program very similar to ours, and he’s using us as a model. We might do some partnering in the future, since we go out there a lot, but right now he’s super interested in how we’re set up out here.

BCM: As program director, how do you manage the risk of having kids in the backcountry?

PS: That’s huge. That’s one of my biggest concerns, and for me, it depends on what kind of terrain we’re in and where we’re going. Most of the time, I’m hiring very qualified educators and mountain guides that I bring onto the program’s trips. When we’re in Sugarloaf, there’s less risk, because there’s no avalanche danger, but when we went to Jackson Hole I hired Jake Urban, who started the Jackson Outdoor Leadership Institute. He’s also the director of the Teton County Search and Rescue and is a fantastic educator, and he’s a professor at Lyndon State College for their outdoor program.

At La Grave, a little more serious terrain, I hire Joe Vallone, an IFMGA Mountain Guide who was good friends with Doug Coombs before he passed, and he works with Teton Gravity Research when those guys go to La Grave. So he’s a huge player in the industry and has a wealth of knowledge. People like that make it easier for me. They’re thinking a lot about managing risk in the mountains, while I can focus on managing the group.

And then I have a set of certifications as well. I’m a First Responder with a lot of mountain rescue experience, I’m an AMGA Single Pitch Instructor and am working my way through the guide process. I’m a Wilderness First Aid Instructor as well. I’m working my way through continued professional development, and I think that translates into being able to manage risk in the backcountry, especially with children.

BCM: You talked a little about the Freeride Development Team that’s new next year. Are there other ways you’re hoping to see your program grow?

PS: In a time when backcountry skiing is taking off, I’d like to see CVA be the leader of backcountry education for a younger crowd. With the rise in backcountry skiing, you get a lot of people who are trying it and who might be way out of their comfort zone or might not know exactly what they’re doing and taking risks that are pretty uncalculated.

I think education is the absolute solution to that. If we start training kids young, we can change that. My goal is to have these kids be the future ambassadors for backcountry skiing. That doesn’t mean they have to be professionals in the sport, but that means as recreationalists, they’re making good decisions and people are noticing that, but they’re also doing great things for the environment and for the recreation community and giving back. My broad goal is to instill that passion into kids so this is truly something they want to do as a lifelong endeavor.

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  1. This a great piece of writing! I am on the CVA Backcountry team and I love it! I happen to be the student in the picture above! CVA has taken me to some amazing places and I am excited for the years to come!

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