The Deadly Season Arrives

…..While we may become concerned about avalanche fatalities in Alaska, a staggering 13 Alaskans have been killed using snow-machines and ATVs on snow in Alaska since November 1st along with 18 search and rescue cases. A total of forty incidents involving sleds have required Alaska State Trooper resources so far this winter for a variety of issues. Last winter there were 12 fatalities and 43 SARS during a low snow year.

……One of the epiphanies in my early avalanche education was at an evening awareness lecture by Doug Fesler in Valdez. By the time the evening slide presentation was done, I was scared into many sleepless night as I’m sure other attendees were. They first convinced us that avalanches will kill us, before moving on to triangles and pits. After a few more years of experience, I attended a Level One course in Hatcher Pass. This time it was Jill Fredston’s brutal and haunting introductory presentation on Friday evening. I had serious doubts about ever skiing again in the mountains! It’s a teaching strategy embraced by few. Many of us have since progressed deeper in to the “snowy torrents” while heeding our mentors harsh warnings of those classes. Thus, I still carry a good dose of “scare” in my pocket along with the other neat stuff they taught me about traveling in avalanche terrain.

……A cursory look at the US avalanche fatalities statistics over the years show that February and March are the deadliest months for all user groups. In Alaska we have already had three fatalities all in Hatcher Pass. An experienced ski tourer is still buried after a month in Hatcher Pass, most likely by a natural that crossed the common road he was skiing with High Avalanche conditions in the area. A sledder last week near Hatcher Pass triggered a slope onto himself and was buried in a terrain trap and was not recovered in time by rescuers. And this weekend, a snowboarder was killed after snowshoeing to a slope high above Hatcher Pass without a beacon. Ignoring obvious clues and consequences led to bad decisions. Avalanches happen for a reason and are not “freak” at all. Millions fall off mountains around the world each day.

……There are awareness classes or regimented versions of various avalanche courses and levels readily available all winter in Alaska. But I think negotiating avalanche terrain is actually quite difficult and as technical as mountaineering and yes, flying a plane. Bad things will happen if you don’t get it perfect in any of these activities. Even if you take a class, getting the experience  in recognizing and “feeling” the intricate-complexities of a snowpack that produces instability takes years.

……Also, as we’ve seen the past few years, heli-guides (4) getting killed in avalanches during their first week or so of operations as they open areas or on first guided trip. It rare to see a fatality beyond this time frame as non-resident guides become more familiar with stable aspects, elevations and angles. There are various factors involved in each incident, so I won’t say much more than these industry incidents are “time-sensitve” and that should be enough to scare you if you are getting geared up to come to Alaska as a guide. Again this a view outside the box of mechanized skiing or which of course I have no practical experience in that sector of the ski industry.  Hopefully heli-guides in Alaska are wearing airbags for 2016 as well as their clients and have a safe year.

…….As far as Valdez, we’ve had near perfect stability all season.  While this is good, we don’t get the experience of repetitive observations of a changing or unstable snowpack. Everything seems good. Positives pile up, then a false positive creeps by as one tests more complicated terrain or steepness. Adding to the issue are the crowded conditions in Thompson Pass developing the next few months as the carbon-based(sic) industry begins posturing for powder, complicating the landscape more than it already is.