The key to PAC success: Small-town values and dedication to the futures of our students

This is another chapter in a local version of the story of how it takes a whole village to teach a teenager.

Last fall, The SUN published a feature about the early stages of Pagosa Springs High School’s alternative education program called the Pirate Achievement Club (PAC). But there remains much to report about the PAC, because of the tremendous momentum that comes with a program that has the backing of a whole town — as well as all the news that comes with a new season in a program where outdoor education is a focus.

“The combination of Pagosa’s small-town values and dedication to our children’s futures, coupled with school officials that pay incredible attention to each student’s individual needs, seem to have been the perfect recipe for the success of such a visionary program,” Stewart Bellina recently told me about the program she co-directs and teaches with Marty Borges.

With the strength of the community behind it, the PAC has skated right into winter and the educational opportunities therein. The high school students, (now numbering 22), who make up the PAC have been learning about — among other things — skiing, snow science, and working as a team, even when it is 10 degrees and you have snow down your pants.

Guiseppe Margiotta, a longtime resident of Pagosa Springs, provided a basic avalanche awareness course for the PAC students to prepare them for backcountry travel this winter. Margiotta has been involved with for the National Ski Patrol since 1970, and has a National Appointment Number from the National Ski Patrol in recognition of outstanding commitment to risk management for the skiing public. He is currently the avalanche instructor for the ski patrol at Hesperus Ski Area.

“I’m an avalanche survivor myself. That’s why I have a passion for teaching this course,” Margiotta explained. During the winter of 1989, he was buried for 17 minutes under 42 inches of snow, not far from his ski partner’s house in Martinez Canyon. “I was pretty much on my way out, I had started to loose consciousness,” Margiotta remembered. “I was lucky to have an avalanche dog that I’d been training with me. He sniffed me out and partially dug me out until I was able to yell for my buddy, Nick Bissell, who dug me the rest of the way out.”

Margiotta’s story makes a compelling argument that avalanche education is important for anyone who wants to do anything outside, anywhere there is snow and a slope. Martinez Canyon is not more than five miles outside of Pagosa Springs. We’re not talking about high alpine peaks, or major avalanche slide paths. This is a place where any beginning cross-country skier might go for a couple hours of mellow touring. Margiotta’s experience shows how subjective avalanche terrain is: it all depends on the current weather, past weather events, slope, terrain, the choices a skier makes and any number of other factors. If you have a slope that’s steeper than 30 degrees, a weak layer of snow, a bed surface for snow to slide on, and something to trigger the slide, than you can have an avalanche. Education is critical to navigating our mountain West winter wonderland.

“I told Marty I’d be happy to jump in and give the PAC students some basic tools to help them understand snow science and safety,” Margiotta said. “I cannot compliment Marty and Stewart enough for their passion and commitment to give kids opportunities to experience another facet of learning and education. It was my privilege to be able to go there and see some of the challenges the kids face, but also to expose them to another side of education and give them real world education about the outdoors and the dynamics of winter. It can be benign but also very dangerous.”

Margiotta echoed the sentiment that access to community members and organizations, as well as traditional school resources, is key to the PAC’s success.

“My experience with the PAC was nothing but positive, the students were attentive and it was a good opportunity for them to be exposed to people that aren’t teachers,” he said.

When I asked PAC student Marcus Doporto about the day they spent in the field learning snow science, he said, “It was cool to get out away from the classroom and all the drama that was going on with some of the kids back at the school that day.”

But what to do with all that newfound knowledge about avalanche safety? Go skiing, of course.

Borges and Bellina reserved the Spruce Hole Yurt on Cumbres Pass for two nights in January. One night was scheduled for the guys’ trip, and one night for the girls’. As it turned out, a series of unfortunate vehicle events prevented the men at the PAC from making it up to Cumbres Pass for the ski in to the yurt. But, after their vehicle broke down, the group made the best of things by heading out to the West Fork area instead, and skiing there for the day.

“Even though our plans changed, it was a really awesome day,” Marty Borges said. “It was great to see the guys all come together from their different cliques and really work together to make the day fun. They had a great time together.”

The women, for their part, got set up with a vehicle in better repair and made it to the pass, and then into the yurt, situated at 10,600 feet altitude and about two-and-a-half miles from the highway.

“It was really cold and really, really hard but it felt great to get there,” said PAC student Devin Bandy, about the ski in to the yurt. “I fell down a lot, but there were a couple of big hills that I didn’t fall down on, and that was awesome. Even when we were falling down and getting tons of snow down our pants and up our jackets, we were laughing so, so hard. We were still laughing our butts off even when we got back here to school.”

The night the girls spent in the yurt was as memorable as the ski in and out, according to PAC student Kanyon Nicely. “We talked and talked and talked,” Nicely said. “I learned a lot that I didn’t know before and a lot that I could really relate to about the other girls on the trip. It was really cool.“

None of this would have been possible without the support of people like Margiotta donating his time, and the owner of Pagosa Outside for donating cross-country ski gear. Not to mention Wolf Creek Ski Area for donating ski lesson scholarships, so the teens at the PAC could get in some true thrills on skis, besides just working hard in the backcountry this winter.

There are a host of other people and organizations the PAC would like to thank for helping to make this program happen. The PAC extends their appreciation to: The Charles J. Hughes Foundation, GECKO Outdoor Organization, Wilderness Journeys, Wolf Creek Ski Area, Pagosa Outside, Archuleta Human Services, Joanne Irons, Mark DeVoti and the Administration Office, Guiseppe Margiotta, The Spruce Hole Yurt, The Rotary Club and Judge Anderson.

“Mark DeVoti told us in the beginning that our job would be similar to ‘learning to ride a bike while trying to build it,’” Stewart Bellina said.   “Marty and I are finally feeling like we at least have the frame put together.  Some days we even have a good grip on the handle bars.  Each day gets a little easier. We have a lot on the horizon, and are so grateful for the support of the community.”

Photo courtesy PAC
Students and teachers of Pagosa Springs High School’s Pirate Achievement Club enjoy a day together in the sun and snow.

A group of PAC students completed an overnight backpacking cross-country ski adventure in January, despite the fact that many had never been on cross-country skis or carried overnight gear in a backpack.