BY DEBRA McGHAN
For many Alaskans, weekends in the winter include snowmachining, skiing, snowboarding, dog mushing or hiking in the mountains. For the thousands of visitors who come here in the winter, it’s all about the “wild rush”: Think Iditarod, Arctic Man, Tailgate Alaska, Mountain Man Hill Climb.
There are thousands of miles of terrain to explore and boundless opportunities to ride the snow that blankets the mountains, valleys and meadows of this state. But for decades, Alaska has ranked No. 1 per capita in the nation for avalanche-related fatalities and injuries. And as we all know, getting caught under a mountain of snow is definitely not a good way to end your weekend.
In November 2014 a group of snow-safety specialists, government agencies and policy makers gathered in Anchorage for the annual Snow Safety Summit to talk about the challenges facing the state of Alaska. The question posed: “What can be done to reduce the trend of avalanche fatalities and improve education and information sharing?”
The group of more than 75 individuals at the summit divided into teams, with each team given a scenario that represented a real incident that has occurred in Alaska, incidents that required emergency response and snow-safety specialists to resolve. These ranged from a group of snowmachine riders setting trail for the Iditarod, to a group of young men who headed to Hatcher Pass to ride their snowboards for the day, to a couple snowshoeing in the Eagle River Bowl. All of these real incidents ended in tragedy when one or more of the people involved were caught and killed in an avalanche.
As the team members discussed their scenarios and the resources they had available within their group to address the challenges they faced, it quickly became apparent that the State of Alaska seriously lacks resources for dealing with catastrophic snow-safety emergencies. And added to the challenge, the state has no coordinated education program for the preventative side of the problem.
The good news is that dedicated volunteers and a small group of professionals have stepped up to confront this challenge. Thanks to the Alaska Avalanche Information Center (AAIC), Alaska Avalanche School (AAS), and other nonprofit organizations, along with support from the Chugach National Forest Avalanche Information Center (CNFAIC,) there is a growing movement that is building a network of services for the public.
After each of the groups presented their scenario, available resources and plans to address their challenge, it was agreed that more resources and effort are needed to improve the future of snow safety in a state where winter spans more than half the year.
Facilitated by Foraker Group vice president Mike Walsh, the group discussed ideas and options for dealing with the problem of snow safety.
“I think this group needs to focus on the value they can bring to the public,” suggested Dave Hamre, the summit keynote speaker. Hamre, who is currently employed by the Alaska Railroad, has been involved with snow safety for decades. He has worn many hats during his career in Alaska including founder of Chugach Powder Guides, consultant for Alcan Snow Management Services, snow-safety specialist for Alyeska Pipeline Service Co., snow-safety director for the World Extreme Skiing Championships (WESC) and numerous other private consulting contracts. Plus he’s put a lot of miles on his skis.
Hamre shared some of the history of snow safety in Alaska going back to the forming of the Alaska Avalanche Warning Center in the late 1970s. He explained that the effort was launched following an exceptional avalanche season in 1979 that resulted in numerous fatalities.
“There was a lot of startup pain and challenges associated with that effort,” Hamre told the group. “There were more than 10 state agencies involved and it was unwieldy trying to get anything accomplished. Plus it required a lot of money to get a seat at the table.”
He believes the reason the avalanche center ultimately failed was because they were unable to clearly define the value they provided to the public. His suggestion to the group at this year’s summit: Pay attention to the lessons from the past.
He said he thinks the success of the Chugach National Forest Avalanche Information Center (CNFAIC,) which was started in 2001 in Girdwood to provide advisories for the Turnagain Pass area after a 1999 slide took out six people, is based on the fact they follow a national model that has defined standards, utilizes paid forecasters and has enough funding to produce a good product. Plus they have a ‘Friends’ group that provides a substantial portion of the agencies funding.
“It’s tough for the federal government to cut funding to an agency that has a solid constituency base supporting it,” said Hamre. “I think that model, which is based on other successful National Avalanche Centers, can be replicated here in Alaska, but it’s going to take time, support from the state and a lot of give and take by a lot of people and agencies to make it happen.”
Mike Buck, another longtime snow safety specialist in Alaska, agreed. Buck has more than 20 years experience working, living and teaching in Alaska and currently works for the Alaska Department of Labor in the Occupational Safety and Health Department. Today he is looking at the problem from the standpoint of protecting workers.
“Evolution and opportunity,” Buck told the group in a video presentation. “That’s what skiers, snowmachiners and avalanche professionals have been experiencing since the early, crazy days of WESC. We still have a very independent-minded approach here in Alaska. We pride ourselves on being cutting edge, high adventure, adrenaline-rush professionals. But the risk tolerance is often elevated to unrealistic heights.”
Buck believes that avalanche safety is poised for a fundamental change here in Alaska. He encouraged the group to work collaboratively in order to guide the process utilizing the best of the best this group has to offer for the overall good of the industry both in Alaska and across the United States.
“This is right now a major evolutionary period that provides an opportunity to do the right thing and propel Alaska’s avalanche professionals to a higher level,” Buck said. “We must work together to make this happen.”
The Board of Directors for the Alaska Avalanche Information Center, a not-for-profit network of five grassroots avalanche centers operating outside of the CNFAIC’s jurisdiction, hosted this year’s summit in their continuing effort to help bring this all together.
How can you help make sure Alaska has a solid network of avalanche forecast center that you can locate easily, get dependable information from and learn about opportunities to get educated? You can join the movement. Become a member of your local avalanche center, use the website to get forecast information, or post a personal observation. Learn more at www.alaskasnow.org.
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