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Feb. 19, 2003 Fairbanks Daily News-Miner warns about avalanche dangers

Posted: Monday, February 24, 2003

It's almost irresistible.

With nearly nine hours of daylight, fairly moderate temperatures and snowmachines or skis at the ready, Alaskans at this time of year are drawn to the hills to play.

This is also the time of year that avalanche experts and those working with law enforcement agencies begin to implore those same Alaskans to use a bit of common sense on or near those hills.

Since Saturday, we've had two examples of how a trip can suddenly go wrong.

In one case, an avalanche consumed a snowmachiner near Denali National Park, critically injuring him before he could be rescued by fellow snowmachiners. A day later, friends dug a snowmachiner, uninjured, out of an avalanche at Summit Lake.

The bottom line is this: Almost all avalanche accidents are caused by the victim. And snowmachiners account for the greatest percentage of those victims.

But the curious thing is that those victims -- not just snowmachiners but skiers, climbers and others -- are usually experienced outdoors people who just haven't taken the time to become avalanche aware. The U.S. Forest Service, whose holdings include vast avalanche-prone lands, notes that the avalanche-awareness skills of victims usually lag far behind their proficiency in their chosen activity.

Such blindness is not because there's a lack of information available. Alaska is fortunate to have the Alaska Mountain Safety Center, which offers courses in Anchorage and in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough. The Chugach National Forest, although in Southcentral Alaska, has general avalanche information on its Web site. And a simple search on the Web will bring up enough information for a full night's reading.

Alaska doesn't have what its enlightened neighbors to the south -- the states of Washington and Oregon -- have: a working avalanche-detection system. Tuesday's forecast for the Cascades, for example, warns of ''considerable avalanche danger above 6,000 feet and moderate below, gradually decreasing Tuesday afternoon and night. Slowly increasing danger Wednesday becoming considerable above 5,000 to 6,000 feet and moderate below through Wednesday night.''

Alaska has seen 74 people die in avalanches from the winter of 1985-1986 to the winter of 2001-2002.

Without a well-funded detection system, the only way to keep the number of accidents and deaths down is to learn. People who are heading outdoors to play should be responsible enough to find out about avalanche danger before they hit the throttle or grab their poles.

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