Snowsport enthusiasts learn more than just avalanche safety during hands-on class
Tyler Aklestad grew up in Alaska and knows his way around a snowmachine with the best of the best. He’s a five-time Arctic Man champion, (seven times pulling skiers and boarders,) six-time Valdez Mayor’s Cup champion, three-time second-place finisher in the Iron Dog, plus King of the Hill in the Alyeska Motor Mushers competition.
But it’s the lessons he’s gained along the trail that really define him as a rider. “Through it all, what I’ve really learned is there is always a level of respect I know I must have for the outdoors.”
Aklestad recalls one incident where he caught his leg in the track of his sled and ripped the flesh down to the bone. “I would have died if I hadn’t been prepared and had some Quik Clot in my first aid kit that stopped the bleed and made it possible for my partner and I to ride on into a village for help.”
Now a husband and father, Aklestad’s ready to share his experiences to help encourage others learn and enjoy all the thrills that living in Alaska can bring. “I have had the opportunity to explore different terrains from Nome, Valdez, Hatcher Pass and many other areas all across Alaska,” he said. “I have raced in the Iron Dog … (which) spans more than 2,000 miles across the wilderness and has developed a strong presence in over 25 urban and rural Alaskan communities.
“In order to do this, survival and safety skills are essential because the environment can be so unpredictable. From falling through ice, getting caught in an avalanche, or accidents along the trail, I’ve learned the importance of being proactive versus reactive.”
“As fun and enjoyable as any outdoor activity can be, you could easily get caught in an area where there is no cell reception and no road system to find help. Being prepared is your best line of defense.”
Aklestad said his years of riding and racing have also taught him a lot about the equipment and information he should have with him when he heads out. “I have learned the proper gear to have on or with me for different areas, the importance of watching weather forecasts, and avalanche advisories, and following protocols that help ensure you have a good, safe ride.”
With today’s snowmachines getting lighter, faster and able to reach speeds exceeding 100 mph, riders are venturing further into the backcountry and higher up on the slopes. While this may be great for state tourism and for all those who want to explore new terrain, it also puts riders in dangerous terrain faster and further out into the mountains than ever before.
This winter alone, between November and January, three people have died in avalanches in Hatcher Pass.
In an effort to try and reverse this trend, the Alaska Avalanche Information Center, with support from the Alaska Department of Public Safety and professional riders like Aklestad, are offering free backcountry safety workshops designed specifically for snowmachine riders.
Sean Sullivan, a professional rider with Northroad Productions in Kenai, and Sarah Carter, avalanche lead instructor for the American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education in Alaska, teamed up in January to host a workshop that attracted more than a dozen riders.
“The course started on a Friday evening with a multimedia classroom session, and then we followed up with a full-day workshop in Thompson Pass,” Sullivan said. “Students were taught skills that ranged from planning their adventure, preparing their pack and sled, selecting appropriate terrain for conditions and a reminder to share observations to increase the available data for sharing.”
Sullivan said that some of the most valuable lessons resulted from real situations that came up during the course.
“It was great to be with other instructors that were really experienced riders and ‘snow professionals’ so we were able to handle anything that happened,” he said. “We just looked at every challenge as a great teaching opportunity.”
At one point one of the students got their sled stuck, and instructors used that event to teach the group the best way to retrieve a sled using different towing techniques. In another instance, students were shown how to start their sleds when the starter cord breaks.
“Sure enough, at the end of the day, one of the students broke his pull cord and was thanking me,” Sullivan said. “He said, ‘if I hadn’t been in this class, I would never have known you could do this and I would have been stuck who knows where.’ So that was a great moment.”
Chance Carter, a 9-year-old from Valdez, had the chance to participate in the class and said it was a great experience.
“It was fun to ride the 600 and 800 blasting through snow on jumps,” he said. “It was really fun in the ‘getting unstuck class.’ ”
But the highlight for Carter was getting to ride with Sullivan. “He’s such a good rider,” Chance said.
Sullivan said the feedback he heard from other students made it clear that they really liked the fact that this wasn’t just an avalanche class.
“There was so much to this course that included information about backcountry travel and riding techniques so people can better understand why and how to use their sled more eﬃciently. “Overall, it was an awesome program and something I want to see a lot more of in the future,” he added.
To learn more about these training opportunities with professional riders like Aklestad and Sullivan, check out alaskasnow.org.