There are three reasons to attend the avalanche hazard workshop on Saturday. The first was made frighteningly clear during a similar workshop sponsored by the Kenai Peninsula Borough last year.
"How many of you travel in the backcountry?" asked instructor Jill Fredston.
Fredston is co-director of the Alaska Mountain Safety Center and is well known for her knowledge of avalanches.
Some of the people in the Soldotna High School auditorium raised their hands.
Then she asked, "How many of you drive between here and Anchorage?"
Everyone raised his or her hand. Point well taken.
Turnagain Pass, through which every driver traveling to and from Anchorage must pass, is a favored spot of winter recreationists, but it has a deadly reputation for avalanche conditions. On a beautiful sunny day in March 1999, while those at a distance helplessly watched, an avalanche 7-feet thick and a half-mile wide roared down the steep slopes and claimed the lives of six snowmachiners. Fredston helped organize the effort that involved hundreds of searchers and representatives from state and federal agencies.
Alaska also has a deadly reputation for avalanches, where deaths by snowslide average five a year, the highest per capita rate of any state in the nation.
Earlier this month, a snowshoer in Hatcher Pass was caught in an avalanche when a 9-inch slab of snow broke loose and carried her 100 yards down slope. The woman was still alive when rescuers uncovered her 40 minutes later under 3 feet of snow. However, she later died as a result of her injuries.
"It was a very, very small avalanche," Fredston said.
But depth of snow and size of the avalanche are only part of the life-snuffing equation. The wild card is the human factor, without which there is no risk.
Fredston's experience has taught her that avalanches do not happen by accident. They occur for specific reasons. Knowing and evaluating the reasons are the secret.
And that's the second reason to attend the workshop: Fredston's expertise. She has a master's degree in polar studies, snow and ice, and has conducted fieldwork in Alaska, Canada and Greenland. She's the former director of the Alaska Avalanche Forecast Center and, with Doug Fesler, runs the Alaska Mountain Safety Center, a nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting safety in mountainous environments. Through the Alaska Avalanche School, she conducts a variety of training programs, including the avalanche hazard recognition workshop.
"I don't know of anybody more expert, more reliable or that we would have any more confidence in than Jill (Fredston)," said Wayne Rush, with the Alaska Division of Emergency Services. "We consider her one of the few subject matter experts in the state on avalanche and avalanche safety."
Rush said the division looks to Fredston and Fesler for information on avalanches, avalanche danger and avalanche probability.
"Especially when there's threats to communities and infrastructure," he said, remembering an occasion when Fredston and Fesler were called upon to assess the danger to Whittier School, positioned at the end of an avalanche chute.
"They were able to reassure us and Whittier that given the conditions, the school was probably safe," he said. "It's wonderful to have people like them that we have extreme confidence in that there's little danger, or, conversely, that there's significant danger."
Fredston's reputation also is recognized beyond Alaska's borders. In February 2000, she was interviewed on National Public Radio. She was a panelist on a November 1997 NOVA special on avalanches, and excerpts from "Snow Sense," a guide to evaluating snow avalanche hazard written by Fredston and Fesler can be found on NOVA's World Wide Web site. Her writings are also featured on a number of other sites, including one hosted by the National Ski Patrol.
"She certainly is an expert in her field," said Jan Henry, director of the Kenai Peninsula Borough's Office of Emergency Manage-ment. This is the third season the borough has sponsored a workshop of this kind.
And that's the third reason to attend: the workshop is free.
"I think we're the only ones that do it that way," Henry said. "We think it's important enough because of the places around here where our folks can get into trouble. If there's any kind of slope, there's avalanche problems. It can be just that one little piece of information that can keep people safe."
Saturday's eight-hour workshop begins with registration at 9 a.m. at Soldotna High School. To preregister, call 262-4910 or 800-478-4441, ext. 281 or 247. Subject matter is relevant to snowmachiners, snowboarders and skiers, as well as backcountry enthusiasts of all persuasions. Fredston will address avalanches, avalanche terrain, snow stability and hazard evaluation, route-finding and self-rescue. With 180 people already registered by noon Thursday, preregistration was being encouraged.
Fredston will be at River City Books tonight, from 6 until 7:30 p.m. to discuss her new book, "Rowing to Latitude." Copies of "Rowing to Latitude" and "Snow Sense" will be available.
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