Fairbanks man was high-marking when avalanche hit

Posted: Thursday, December 27, 2001

FAIRBANKS (AP) -- Dwayne Dufford of Fairbanks was high-marking when he got caught in an avalanche, Alaska State Troopers said.

Dufford, 30, became the state's fourth avalanche fatality so far this season when he was buried by a snow slide on Monday near Cantwell.

High-marking involves traveling up a steep slope, seeing how high a mark can be left on the side of a mountain before a rider is forced to turn around. It's a favorite maneuver on snowmachines but can be extremely risky in avalanche conditions, said avalanche expert Jill Fredston.

The problem often occurs when the rider reaches the steepest point and becomes stuck trying to turn around. The weight of the rider and the snowmachine create more stress than the snowpack can hold.

''It's essentially like kicking the snow in the knees,'' said Fredston, who runs the Alaska Mountain Safety Center with her husband, Doug Fesler.

Because there already have been several deaths and the main avalanche season doesn't approach until March, Lt. Chuck Lamica, the statewide search and rescue coordinator for troopers, is worried.

''My impression is that this is not normal for this early in the season,'' Lamica said.

''A lot of people have this misunderstanding if I get in an avalanche I'll just swim out of it,'' Lamica said. ''You're in effect in a waterfall, the only difference is you're in a frozen waterfall.''

The biggest giveaway is the ''whumping'' sound made when crossing unstable layers of snow. Snowmachiners, however, often don't hear this sound and don't know an avalanche is coming until it's right on top of them. Other clues include fresh avalanche paths, lot of fresh snow after a long cold period and damaged or broken trees.

Lamica said taking an avalanche-awareness class helps, but avalanches aren't an exact science. The Alaska Mountain Safety Center in Anchorage offers classes as do some snowmachine clubs and ski patrols.

''There's so many variables that enter into it,'' Lamica said. ''If you don't know, the simple answer it don't go out on the slope.''

It doesn't help that snowmachines these days are more powerful and can take people deeper into dangerous territory.

''People are getting higher up in the mountains and farther back than five or 10 years ago,'' Lamica said.

Among troopers' recommendations:

--Leave a trip itinerary with someone you trust even if you plan to be out for only a few hours. A form is available at trooper headquarters asks simple but essential questions, such as clothing color, that are helpful in finding missing people.

--There is safety in numbers. Lamica said the people already at the scene have the best chance of finding you alive if you are buried in an avalanche. Even under the best circumstances it will take several hours before rescuers can get to your location, much too late for most avalanche victims.

--Be prepared by bringing gear essential for an overnight stay in the wilderness, as well as an avalanche probe, a snow shovel and an avalanche beacon -- and know how to use them.

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