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  • Writer's pictureSimone Tenorio

Bringing Winter Survival & Ecology to Schools: The SWEP SWSSS Program

How do you prepare for spending time outside in winter weather? What would you do if you became lost in a snow storm? How do you increase your chance of survival if you had to spend the night outdoors in blizzard conditions? These are just some of the questions students ponder, and learn the answers to, in SWEP's Sevison Winter Science, Survival and Stewardship (SWSSS) Program.

Success: NTS students build the the first Quinzee during the SWSSS pilot in 2023.

The SWSSS program piloted last year at North Tahoe School (NTS) and focused on one very important topic: winter storm survival. Students were led through the woods behind NTS on snowshoes, where small groups discussed topics of climate change, extreme weather, safety  protocol for blizzard conditions, how to leave the house prepared, and what to do if you should get stranded in a storm. Students learned important skills for building their own "Quinzee", a snow shelter made from a large pile of snow that is shaped and then hollowed. They also learned skills to help with winter road safety, sledding hazards, shedding rooftops, and tree-well dangers. 

NTS students at the SWSSS pilot program, March 2023.

The SWSSS pilot was incredibly well received by both students and teachers alike. In response to this success, SWEP expanded this program to incorporate science and stewardship lessons. The expanded program now encompasses 4 stations that small groups of students rotate through over the course of a full day. SWEP brought our new full-day SWSSS programming to NTS this winter, while also piloting the program at ACMS.

Teamwork at its Finest: ACMS students navigate icy snow and freezing temperatures to build their Quinzees.

At the Winter Science station, students work with educators from Sierra Avalanche Center (SAC) and SWEP to learn about and evaluate the characteristics of the snowpack. Students learn how avalanche forecasters use snow pits to assess the snow stability and potential for avalanche danger. Students conducted a hands-on snow science experiment, using the scientific method to predict and then calculate the snow-water equivalent. Students also learned about backcountry gear and preparedness and how to use a beacon. Bringing in an expert from the field exposes students to career pathway options, which is a big component of SWEP programming.

Snow Science in Action: Students conduct snow science experiments under the tutelage of professional environmentalists.

At the Winter Survival station, students learn about winter survival techniques; including: preparing for outdoor winter adventures, identifying and avoiding dangers like sledding hazards, winter road conditions, shedding rooftops, tree wells, and what to do when lost in a winter storm (shelter building). Students work in groups to build a Quinzee, a type of snow shelter. The process involves building a solid mound out of snow and hollowing it out to allow someone to fit inside. The most important thing to do when lost in blizzard conditions is to stay put and find shelter! Building a Quinzee not only insulates you from freezing temperatures, wind and snow, it also helps you conserve energy and body heat and increases your chances of being rescued. While the concept is simple, this vital knowledge can save a life!

Snow Shelters and Signals: Students explore survival strategies for emergency situations.

At the Winter Stewardship station, students learn about the 7 Leave No Trace Principles, and why environmental stewardship is important. The Leave No Trace Organization partnered with SWEP in exploring each principle with students, which include:

  • Plan Ahead and Prepare. Know the regulations and special concerns for the area you'll visit

  • Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces

  • Dispose of Waste Properly

  • Leave What You Find

  • Minimize Campfire Impacts

  • Respect Wildlife

  • Be Considerate of Other Visitors

NTS Students looking for wildlife, using binoculars and the "thumb method".

(If your thumb is bigger than the animal, you are at a safe viewing distance.)

A winter safety and survival lesson would not be complete without an Avalanche Dog Demonstration! Brian Slusser, Director Of Avalanche Mitigation at Alpine Meadows National Ski Patrol, brought his avalanche dog, Milton, for an informative meet-and-greet with students. Brian explained how patrol dogs search for avalanche victims and Milton demonstrated his search and rescue skills.

Q & A with Rescue Experts: Brian Slusser and his avalanche dog, Milton, demonstrating search and rescue skills and protocols for NTS students.

Students also participated in Snowshoe Olympics, complete with an obstacle course and other games and activities that incorporate physical activity, team building challenges, and most of all FUN! Students loved these gross motor and team building challenges, and showed grit and determination to complete the course.

Snowshoe Olympics: A lot of fun was had by students tackling challenges in snowshoes!

All of us at SWEP are thrilled to bring this relevant Sevison Winter Science, Survival and Stewardship program to students in the Tahoe-Truckee region. This knowledge is vital for youth growing up in this area, as winter fun can quickly turn into an emergency, and some dangers can be difficult to gauge. Our hope is that all students walk away from this program prepared with a better understanding of how to be safe outdoors in the winter, and how to handle emergency situations efficiently and effectively to increase chances of survival.


Sevison Winter Science Survival and Stewardship Program is named in honor of Lance Sevison, a former NTS student who passed away in s a snow storm-related accident on March 2, 1976. Lance became lost while skiing with a friend on the backside of Northstar-at-Tahoe during one of the worst storms of that winter. Lance was 12 years old.

We thank our partners at Sierra Avalanche Center, Leave No Trace, and Alpine Meadows National Ski Patrol for partnering with SWEP in brining this vital winter programming to students.

SWEP thanks the CLIF Family Foundation and Northstar California & Vail Resorts EpicPromise for partnering with us in expanding this very important and popular program at North Tahoe Middle School and in bringing the pilot to Alder Creek Middle School. Thank you, North Tahoe School, Alder Creek Middle School, and TTUSD for supporting SWEP programming.


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