Before the snow flies, spend some time on avalanche safety

  • Thursday, November 5, 2015 4:32pm
  • Opinion

With some snowfall finally sticking here on the central Kenai Peninsula, winter recreation enthusiasts no doubt are tuning up their snowmachines or waxing their skis in anticipation of more to come.

But before everyone goes tearing off into the backcountry, a word of caution: every year, recreationists are injured or killed in avalanches in Alaska. In recent years, avalanches have killed novice and experienced adventurers alike. Turnagain Pass is a popular destination for winter adventures, but has also seen its share of avalanche incidents. What’s more, even if you’re not headed for the backcountry, just driving through Turnagain Pass takes you through numerous avalanche zones.

To draw attention to the issue, Gov. Bill Walker has proclaimed November to be Avalanche Education Awareness Month. The proclamation notes that many Alaskans enjoy winter outdoor recreation and travel, but goes on to point out that “from seasoned outdoor enthusiasts to highway motorists, all Alaskans can benefit from the numerous educational programs for avalanche education, and should take advantage of information available through the United States Forest Service’s National Avalanche Center, the Alaska Avalanche Information Center, and other sources.”

That’s good advice, indeed. And now is the perfect time to heed it — while you’re waiting for snow, and before you head out on your next adventure.

The governor’s proclamation encourages “all Alaskans of all ages to safely enjoy outdoor winter recreation and travel by equipping themselves with avalanche education and preparation.”

Part of that preparation is to have appropriate avalanche rescue equipment — an avalanche probe, beacon, shovel, and more — at all times in avalanche-prone terrain. And we’d add that backcountry travelers should not only have those safety items with them, but should also know how to use them.

Online resources provide a good place to start. The Alaska Division of Parks and Outdoor Recreation webpage at dnr.alaska.gov/parks/safety has avalanche safety tips. The Alaska Avalanche Information Center webpage at www.alaskasnow.org has educational materials, a list of courses available, and snowpack observations from around the state. The Chugach National Forest Avalanche Information Center includes weather observations as well as a form to submit your own observations.

Experiencing the Alaska backcountry during the winter can be truly awesome, and we’re keeping our fingers crossed that we’ll have a little more opportunity to enjoy the snow than we’ve had for the past couple of winters. Before you head out, invest some time in learning how to minimize the risks. Check the conditions before each trip. A little preparedness can ensure that your next adventure doesn’t end in tragedy.