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Avalanche program educates outdoor enthusiasts

Getting in too deep

Posted: November 4, 2011 - 9:31am  |  Updated: November 4, 2011 - 9:35am
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A snowmachine rider works a slope in Turnagain Pass several winters ago.  M. Scott Moon
M. Scott Moon
A snowmachine rider works a slope in Turnagain Pass several winters ago.

When Dorothy Alder was eight months pregnant her snowmachine broke down in the backcountry of the St. Elias Mountains.

She was alone and without snowshoes. The trek through deep snow was made worse by the extra weight she was carrying.

"Moral of the story: you never know when you're going to be stuck walking," she said.

Alder held an avalanche awareness program at River Sea and Marine on Oct. 29. The program included information on terrain assessment, backcountry travel and an introduction to avalanche safety equipment.

As education director of the North America Outdoor Institute, Alder filled the program with personal stories, advising attendees to avoid similar situations.

NAOI started seven years ago, and its goal is to reduce accidents and deaths related to avalanches.

Alaska has the distinction of ranking first in the nation per capita for avalanche-related fatalities.

Alder has been with NAOI for three years, and she was a mountain climbing guide for 15 years.

The program took place in the cargo garage of River Sea and Marine. Blue tarps covered the garage's high inventory shelves; Yamaha and Ski-doo posters advertising sales events were taped to the tarps. The room smelled faintly of gasoline.

Scott Downing and his two children were the first to arrive. His daughter Eve and son Addison fidgeted in plastic seats waiting for the program to begin. All three are avid cross-country skiers.

"We've been doing a lot of skiing, the kids and I, and we just want to know a little more about avalanche safety," Downing said. "We were hoping to get a little bit more off the beaten path this year, away from of the main trails and do some backcountry this year."

Approximately 16 people crowded into the room, and Alder began the program with an educational film titled "Know Before You Go," produced by the Utah Avalanche Center.

Professional skiers and avalanche experts shared personal stories of avalanche encounters during the film.

After the film, Alder began the program discussing the human factor of avalanches. A reccurring theme of the film was decision making that led to accidents. It seems that's where it all goes wrong, she said.

"How many of you have gotten red flags while out skiing or on a snowmobile? How many times have you had a red flag and ignored it?" she asked. "Paying attention to those strikes is important. Health, snowfall, these all matter, but what matters most is weighing all the factors for yourself."

New high tech equipment is created every year, but avalanche awareness and education is better at saving lives, she said.

No one has ever been recovered alive from snow deeper than seven feet after an avalanche, according to UAC statistics.

A person generally has 15 minutes of oxygen when buried in snow. The snow has plenty of oxygen, but it is too tightly packed after an avalanche to provide a sufficient amount. Carbon dioxide builds up around the mouth, making the skier or snowmachine rider lose consciousness. Alder compared it to breathing into a paper bag.

Having the right equipment is key to survival. Extra clothes, food, shovels, a pack with shelter equipment and snow saws are the essentials. And snow shoes -- don't forget snow shoes.

Snowmachine parts can be used in emergencies if the correct equipment isn't on hand, such as using the windshield for a shovel.

In the past, skiers led the pack for causing avalanches. Snowmachiners now cause the most avalanche accidents and fatalities. Alder suggested the trend shifted in part because skiers have become avalanche educated. Snowmachines are better and faster as well, allowing riders to climb higher and steeper peaks.

Steeper peaks have a higher number of unstable layers of snow. As the slope angle increases, the stress on snowpack increases. High potential risk for avalanches exists at 30 to 45 degree slopes, which are the same angles most people play on.

Anything steeper than 25 degrees can avalanche. The Alaska Avalanche School advises, "You don't have to be on a steep slope to make it avalanche, you just have to be connected to it."

Looking for snowpack clues and weather factors are just as important, Alder said.

"One way you can test the snow as a skier is cross a slope that is not that steep, maybe 20 degrees, and as you go and the slope begins to get steeper, side jump to break the snow," she said. "That way if a slide occurs the snow won't go anywhere because it's not steep enough. It will tell you if you want to go deeper into the mountains."

The program ended with attendees testing avalanche transceivers. These devices are worn on the body and emit a signal. If someone is buried in an avalanche, other transceivers carried by the party pick up the signal being emitted from under the snow. The receiving transceivers interpret the signal into a visual and audible display that guides the searcher toward the transmitting beacon.

The little tech devices beeped throughout the room as Alder demonstrated proper use. They are not the best technology, so it is important for the rescuer to remain calm and move at a slow and steady pace.

"Go slow to go fast," she said, "so the devices can keep up with your movement."

TJ Wagoner and Tyler Fenton, both 15, attended the program at the encouragement of their parents. The two said they grew up around snowmachines, but they learned a lot from the presentation.

"I didn't know it was so complex trying to judge the safety of the snow," Wagoner said.

"I feel better knowing techniques for finding someone buried in the snow," Fenton said.

Adler still has three programs to conduct around the state, with two in Wasilla and one in Fairbanks.

She is concerned that there is no standard for snowmachine education in the state, and she hopes NAOI creates a demand for the creation of a standardized program.

Jerzy Shedlock can be reached at jerzy.shedlock@peninsulaclarion.com

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