Knowledge is an important tool when it comes down to a life or death situation. Over 150 people are killed worldwide due to avalanches, according to National Geographic. In the US, there are approximately 25 deaths per year. Information on avalanche related injuries that take place in Alaska are live on the Chugach National Forest Avalanche Information Center website. In 2016, there were several deaths and injuries due to avalanches ranging throughout Alaska, in areas such as Hatcher Pass, Eureka and Paxson.
Avalanches are prone to happen in any area at any time, so before hitting the slopes, it is important to be aware of the dangers of avalanches in backcountry areas.
In simplest terms, there are three ingredients for an avalanche. An avalanche forms when there is avalanche terrain, unstable snow and a trigger. The first ingredient is an avalanche terrain, which is a slope that is 30 degrees and steeper. Second, unstable snow, which is a slab weak layer, may indicate unstable snow is recent avalanches and cracking and collapsing. The final ingredient is a trigger that can be natural or artificial. A natural trigger is new snow, wind loading and warm temperatures. An artificial trigger can be caused from snow machining, ski or snowboarding, or even a simple footstep on a slab of snow sitting on a weak layer.
Timothy Miller, director of health physical education and recreation department at UAA, teaches outdoor recreation classes specifying in avalanche safety and backcountry skiing.
“They [avalanches] can happen at anytime, they’re likely to happen shortly after an event, like a wind event or a new snowfall. What you’re doing is adding stress to the snow pact and that stress is waiting to be released, but over time that snow pact will adjust to that load, and the layers will bond and create more stability.” Miller said. “Rule of thumb is to wait about 24 to 48 hours after what is considered a large event.”
There are many tools that can help prepare someone for the worst-possible-case scenario when out in the backcountry, such as attending avalanche classes and having the right avalanche gear.
“First and foremost, what I consider the most important tool is the brain. Students are focusing to be educated about the avalanche hazards and dangers that are out there, and there’s many ways to get trained with local avalanche classes so that is a way to get your brain tuned up,” Miller said. “ That is the most important tool. Besides that, everyone needs to have an avalanche transceiver, a shovel, a probe and they need to know how to use them.”
Individuals interested in skiing backcountry are recommended to take an avalanche awareness course before attempting to venture out. Aleph Johnston-Bloom, avalanche specialist at Chugach National Forest Avalanche Information Center, advises taking an avalanche Level 1 class to be educated on avalanche precautions. Avalanche Level 1 classes teach decision making in avalanche terrain, how to plan for a trip, and what to do in case you or someone in the party gets caught in an avalanche.
“I recommend taking an avalanche Level 1 class. It is crucial to understand what avalanche terrain is, how to recognize signs of snowpack instability and know how to perform an avalanche rescue,” Johnston-Bloom said.
Being surrounded by Alaska’s beautiful mountains, many individuals understand the importance of taking avalanche courses and knowing the safety precautions.
Sam Emery, art major with a concretion in ceramics, has attended local avalanche clinics to further her education on the risks of skiing backcountry.
“I’ve attended avalanche talks at Blue & Gold [Boardshop], I plan on taking a level 1 class sometime this season,” Emery said. “I think it’s incredibly important to become educated on the dangers of skiing backcountry before you venture out, avalanches are a real danger that everyone needs to learn how to avoid.”
Checking avalanche conditions before skiing a certain slope is important. However, it is also crucial to understand that avalanches can happen at anytime.
“They [avalanches] happen all over, everywhere, no discrimination whatsoever,” Miller said.
Knowing that avalanches can happen at anytime and having a proactive plan can save a life when put in a deadly situation. There are some precautions that an individual can do to prevent a bad situation from occurring.
“Get educated, know how to use your equipment, choose good partners, manage your terrain and my final quote would be, ‘It’s always a good day to ski, it just might not be a good day to ski a certain slope,’” Miller said.
There are many factors to consider before skiing backcountry that can determine a life or death situation. Avalanche courses provide information on many aspects of avalanche safety that is crucial to prevent dangerous situations and prepare for unexpected occurrences. During these avalanche courses, one can gain knowledge on how to use equipment, what to do in an avalanche situation, snow conditions, types of avalanches and other important information that is useful in any situation. When enjoying the beauties of backcountry skiing it is also important to remember the risks and to be prepared for any possible situation.
One important precaution to take before skiing backcountry is keeping up to date on the avalanche forecast. There are many websites that provide daily updates on snow conditions, which is crucial information for staying safe.
Some websites are:
Chugach National Forest Avalanche Information Center site for Turnagain Pass and Girdwood Valley
Hatcher Pass Avalanche Center
Alaska Avalanche Information Center for other places in the state of Alaska