If there’s one message H2O Guides owner Dean Cummings wants his followers to get, it’s this: Read the messages the mountains are trying to tell you and don’t ignore them. By following certain mountain-reading protocols, a person can avoid the majority of backcountry dangers that lurk beyond the mainstream.
Apparently, his message has been heard. For the second year in a row, Cummings’ peers in the outdoor industry bestowed him with the Avalanche Educator of the Year award. The award recognizes Cummings’ dedication to reaching snow sports enthusiasts of all kinds – skiers, snowboarders, snowmachiners, snowshoers and others – with easy-to-remember protocols for terrain and risk management, especially in remote backcountry settings.
It’s such a prestigious honor for a guy who humbly says he just likes to hang out in the mountains and find the perfect line for his next epic descent. But it also adds a higher purpose to his heli-skiing existence, to know that he’s teaching people skills that can help save their lives.
“I was floored, and I couldn’t believe it,” he said of the award, which was presented during the annual Outdoor Retailer Winter Market, held in Salt Lake City in late January. “I’m a mountain guide out here in Valdez, and my wife and I run a company with 22 employees.” Not the high roller he would have expected to win the award – much less twice in a row.
Still, Cummings is no small name in the heliskiing community. In the 1990s, Cummings was a member of the U.S. Alpine Ski Team. He later became renowned in film and magazines for helping pioneer the technique and gear necessary for big mountain skiing. He first fell in love with Alaska as a competitor in the World Extreme Skiing Championships, which he won in 1995, and later decided to move here and start a business.
Cummings is one of the founders of the North America Outdoor Institute, which now operates as its own nonprofit. Today, he continues the goals of NAOI with his own curriculum, Steep Life Protocols, traveling across the country to offer free education demonstrations.
It is also the foundation of Cummings’ series of Steep Life films, which use footage of each season’s epic first descent to illustrate the basic tenants of Steep Life Protocols. His 2011 descent of the Dragon’s Back Spine of Meteorite Mountain in the Chugach also won Cummings Best Line Award during Powder magazine’s annual prestigious Powder Video Awards.
Cummings says the annual fall tour, embedded with his commitment and proven approach to mitigating avalanche danger, is his way of giving back to an industry that his been his lifelong passion and career.
“In 2011, I went down and did (the Steep Life) tour, visiting 34 cities,” he said. “I would teach protocol at ski shops and ski resorts, free to the public. I used these descents we filmed as a visual, as a way to get people to show up, and then offer the practical information. There’s a huge need for that.”