Don’t let those gorgeous fresh snow days lull you into complacency
Winter backcountry recreational activities define who we are as Alaskans. We ski, snowboard, snowshoe, and snowmachine in that white fluffy stuff we all hope to see more of this winter, right? The allure of untracked powder slopes is an irresistible force and keeps us out there seeking the next great run or ride.
One of the most important components in our preparations to venture outdoors is education. It’s our responsibility to be knowledgeable of and prepared for snow conditions, fast-changing weather, minor accidents and injuries, and knowing how to get out of bad situations, should the worst happen.
Avalanche fatalities in Alaska rank second in the nation from statistics gathered from 1951-2015. With a state population smaller than many cities in other U.S. states, this statistic is alarming, placing Alaska first per capita. The majority of these deaths were climbers, snowmachiners and backcountry tourers.
I’ve never personally experienced being caught in an avalanche – but I have heard that sickening “whumph” beneath me as I slid off the lip of a deep powder run in a back bowl at Whistler in the late ’90s. I’m not a big risk taker, but I do try to expand my comfort zone once in awhile, especially while downhill skiing. An incident with a tree well on this trip to Whistler reminds me of how quickly a fun ski day can turn sour.
We were a group of seven patrollers and paramedics. We always skied within sight of each other, we all wore beacons, and I was learning the techniques of powder skiing. We all made it down without incident and, after sharing the “whumph” I’d heard on the previous run, we regrouped to ski a different part of the mountain. Someone suggested, “How about tree skiing!”
Growing up in interior Alaska, where closely packed, skinny spruce trees dominate the hillsides, this concept was a little frightening, given my skills at the time. But my determination to push my skiing comfort envelope took over and I followed as my stomach did flip-flops. Ugh!
Back on the quad chair we ascended the slopes below and gathered at the top to decide our next route and quest for the almighty POW! Flip-flop went my stomach again. Along a cat track we went, easily gliding along – when my husband (a much more daring skier than I), then two more of our group veered off the track to the right and down into untracked snow with huge evergreen trees spaced much farther apart than my closely packed, skinny spruce at home. With trepidation, I followed too.
Those that ventured first were waiting several turns into the trees. I was going too fast for comfort so tried to slow down by skirting around a large tree in the deep powder. That worked to slow me down alright – right into the tree well! Numerous expletives escaped my mouth as I floundered on my back in the hole, trying to untangle my skis. I didn’t dare take them off for fear of sinking even deeper as I tried to extricate my somewhat scared and thoroughly embarrassed self. Thankfully, I wasn’t head-down in the snow, I was with capable friends, but, as ski patrollers, they (we) saw this as a “teaching moment.” Translation: They wanted to see how I would tackle my predicament.
After nearly 30 minutes I was exhausted, sweaty, and pissed off – mostly at myself. But I got out.
So what was my takeaway from this “teaching moment”? What if my ski buddies had not waited for me once in the trees? What if I had fallen in the tree well head down into the snow and couldn’t breathe? What if I’d been injured? If any of these scenarios had occurred, I probably would not have survived. What I had experienced was not life-threatening, my ski buddies stayed in visual contact, and were at the ready had I been in serious distress.
Backcountry education and good practices do save lives. Sometimes, however, because of unforeseen circumstances, situations occur that are beyond one’s control. Mother Nature is not always cooperative either.
Erik Peterson, an Anchorage high school football and track coach, perished on Dec. 6, 2014, in an avalanche while skiing with his friend near Rainbow Ridge south of Delta Junction in the Alaska Range. Both were knowledgeable and experienced in the backcountry and were properly equipped with beacons, probes and shovels. His friend, Mike Hopper was partially buried, but it took him two hours to extricate himself. Erik was not so lucky, despite Mike’s efforts to locate and dig out his friend.
Hopper later shared this story during the 2015 Snow Safety Summit and admitted the allure of fresh powder and the misjudgment of snow conditions proved fatal. He wants others to know that taking the time to slow down and pay attention to nature’s red flag is critical in order to live to ride another day.
Alaska Avalanche Information Center provides numerous backcountry educational opportunities for the public throughout the winter months. Check them out at www.alaskasnow.org.