Why haven't you died in an avalanche yet?

Posted: Friday, December 14, 2001

On March 21, 1999, avalanche expert Jill Fredston awoke, looked out her window, then proceeded to take out her rescue pack and load it with a few sandwiches. She saw blue sky, and she also knew there had been recent dumps of snow in the mountains. This came at the tail end of a colder than usual winter.

"I knew we were going somewhere," said Fredston, of the Alaska Mountain Safety Center, while giving an avalanche seminar in Soldotna in early December.

Later that bright, sunny day in March, six snowmachiners were killed in an avalanche at Turnagain Pass.

There aren't many avalanche accidents. Avalanches are predictable. Accidents aren't. Bush pilots have accidents. Many old Bush pilots are dead. Meanwhile, avalanche professionals, whose job it is to spend a great deal of time in avalanche country, make up less than half of 1 percent of avalanche fatalities, according to www.avalanche.org.

Avalanche deaths can be prevented with knowledge. Not easy-to-come-by, common-sense knowledge, but knowledge gained by hours of sitting in a classroom, practicing rescue and researching in the field.

This can be inconvenient. On the Saturday of the seminar, there was great snow in the mountains and reasons aplenty to play hooky. A good deal of the 180 preregistered for the seminar did just that. But, after sitting through the seminar, I can tell you it was much less inconvenient than being frozen, Han Solo-style, under 5 feet of rock-hard snow, slowly passing out and wondering if any of your companions will find you and dig you out.

Avalanche knowledge is like any other body of knowledge. Lack of knowledge doesn't become apparent until at least some knowledge is attained. I invite you to attain a little knowledge and see if it might not be worth attaining some training.

Some snippets from the seminar:

Snow is devious.

It's devious because most of the time it's stable. Thus, the untrained can head into avalanche country and fail to recognize the danger in which they're constantly putting themselves. They fail test after test, yet these people, more often that not, come back unscathed because of snow's forgiving nature. Over time, they get confident, and even cocky, because they've proven they can "tell" if a slope is safe, even though they have no avalanche training.

If you're a backcountry traveler reading this, you haven't died in an avalanche. Congratulations. Here's the question that could save your life: Are you alive because you're trained, or are you alive because you're lucky?

Think you're safe because you've got a shovel, beacon and probe?

"Rescue doesn't work very well," Fredston said, noting in 20 years she's dug out 40 people killed in avalanches.

About 90 percent of those buried in avalanches survive if they're dug out within 15 minutes. After 30 minutes, the survival rate drops to less than 10 percent. Considering the chaos and rock-hard snow an avalanche creates, 15 minutes leaves no room for error.

Those not trained in search and beacon technique will have to get extremely lucky to recover a burial. And it's all up to you.

Cell phones don't lessen this jam. Fredston: "Don't go for help. You are the help. You're dealing with a drowning victim here."

Think you're safe because you always travel in the backcountry with skiing/snowboarding/snowmachining experts?

Fredston: "Most people's ability to do their sport is greater than their ability to evaluate a hazard."

Think back to high school. Were the skilled drivers who were pulling off the coolest doughnuts and burnouts in the parking lot the safest drivers?

If a buddy is stuck on his or her snowmachine on a dangerous slope, it's best to help him or her off the slope as quickly as possible, right?

Fredston: "Don't be a good Samaritan. That person has a gun to their head. Stay off the slope and watch them. Watch them until they're off the slope safely."

And when watching them, do it out of the path of a potential avalanche.

Fredston said many avalanche fatalities would be eliminated if: 1) Only one person or machine goes on a slope at a time; 2) If People wouldn't sit at the bottom of potential avalanches.

How do you know if you're parked in a safe spot at the bottom? You must understand run-out angle, and to understand that you'll need some training.

Just last week, I was recessing at my favorite watering hole when a new acquaintance tried to convince me that tracks on a slope mean a slope is safe.

Obviously, this person wasn't around when Fredston said, "There isn't a single person in here, including me, that doesn't feel better when they see a track on the slope. But, it doesn't make a bit of difference."

Weather, most prominently wind, can change the stability of a slope in minutes. On Feb. 1, 2000, avalanche slopes near the Bird Flats on the Seward Highway were bombed in the morning so highway crews could safely clear the road. By about 12:30 p.m., wind had reloaded the slopes, and an avalanche killed an Alaska Railroad worker helping clear snow.

Looks like I won't be heading into the backcountry with my new acquaintance anytime soon.

As an avalanche expert, it would stand to reason that Fredston would look at highmarking in the same vein the Hell's Angels would look at ditching their Harleys for Honda scooters. That's not the case.

Fredston: "Let me say right off the bat, there's nothing wrong with highmarking, as long as you realize the risks." Continually screaming up slopes with millions of pounds of snow above them, highmarkers are in a group highly susceptible to getting caught in avalanches. Therefore, they must be thoroughly trained and informed when it comes to avalanches. Otherwise, they're playing Russian roulette with five bullets in the chamber instead of one.

Is it your right to take risks, because it's your life and you can live it how you want to?

"We think we're making the decisions for us, but there's a ripple effect to the decisions we make," Fredston said.

When there's obvious avalanche activity in the mountains, but you need to get in one more run, think of your parents, your spouse or your children.

By digging and carefully analyzing a snow pit, plus doing a couple shear block tests, I can be sure I'll travel safely, right?

Fredston: "Snow pits get people into lots of trouble. Don't put all your eggs in one basket."

As we've seen, weather can change snow in minutes. Fredston told the story of the four blind men arguing over the identification of an elephant -- one had the tail, one had the ear, one had the trunk and the other walked around the animal -- in order to illustrate how all clues must be put together to illustrate avalanche danger.

Many think, "The best weapon in life is common sense. I can look at a slope, see its steepness, see how much snow is on the ground, see trees or see it's only a small hill and know I'm safe."

Problem is, at times avalanches can be lethally clever. "It's the booby-trap slopes that get people into trouble," Fredston said.

Many fatalities happen on slopes less than 300 feet high, where peaceful looking hills stand at the ready to discharge millions of pounds of debris.

If the seminar audience is any indication, it's foolhardy to try and judge the grade of a slope without some kind of measuring gadget. Fredston flashed a picture of one hill on the screen, and guesses ranged from 37 degrees to 25 degrees. At 37 degrees, a slope is very prone to avalanches. At 25 degrees, a slope is safe in most conditions.

Another blow to the common-sense crowd is that trees, most of the time, mean nothing.

"Trees have to be so close you can't move through them in order to not be able to trigger an avalanche there," Fredston said.

Another thing that can trick many people is a perfect, sunny day.

"Blue-sky days get people," Fredston said. "Most days I go to dig people out, I need my sunglasses."

Snow depth also means little. Just as it's possible to drown in a bathtub, it's also always possible to have an avalanche accident when there's snow on the ground. On Nov. 11, 2000, a hiker lost the use of his legs after a snowpack only a few inches deep avalanched while he was climbing the popular Flattop Mountain near Anchorage. The hiker slid for about 200 feet down a steep gully, then slid another 400 feet down a scree slope before coming to a stop.

With the relative lack of snow, one might think Fredston feels as useless as a Spin--Glo right now. In fact, the shallow snowfall, followed by numerous cold snaps, has created fertile ground for avalanches to seed.

"We're nervous as cats," Fredston said. "Right now, in the mountains out here, we're developing a weak layer that's going to kill people in March.

"We're all a little nervous for new snow right now. We all want to be the first ones out there. Just remember that weak layer."

Just remember March 21, 1999. Let Fredston eat her sandwiches at home this time.

This column is the opinion of Clarion sports editor Jeff Helminiak. Comments and criticisms are welcome at clarion@alaska.net.

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