By Mike Edgington
To many of us who spent our formative years in far off and flatter places, the beautiful summer green and brown in this corner of the Chugach Mountains, with their promise of favorite hikes along ridges and valleys, starts to take on a more intimidating beauty as the winter snows accumulate on the mountain flanks.
What would be a pleasant summer afternoon’s hike to Crow Pass or trip to Upper Winner Creek becomes a potentially deadly outing due to the risks of avalanche. The dull thud of the artillery at Alyeska Resort provides a haunting soundtrack to dark winter mornings, and reminds us that we live and work surrounded by avalanche terrain.
The Alaska Avalanche School (AAS) was founded over 40 years ago by Doug Fesler and Jill Fredston with the goal to provide safety education to reduce the risks for all users of the Alaska mountain environment. AAS Lead Instructor and Girdwood resident Nick D’Alessio explained, “our goal is to reach a broad set of people in the entire state of Alaska. We do kid’s programs in middle and high school. I’ve travelled to Juneau to teach courses and we’ve run them in Nome and bush villages.”
The hour-long Know Before You Go presentation has reached many Alaska youth as it is freely available for schools and other community groups, but the School’s main course is aimed at adult backcountry users.
A cold, dark, Friday morning in late January saw 20 of these eager student backcountry users from across Southcentral Alaska assemble at AWCC’s newly-constructed Bison Hall to learn the basics of safe travel in avalanche country on a three-day Level One Avalanche Course. The term Level One comes from the American Avalanche Association’s educational progression, from single-day introductions to courses for avalanche professionals.
The students gathering at Bison Hall had a variety of backcountry interests in snowmachining, mountaineering, skiing or splitboarding, and while there were a few true backcountry beginners, most had a season or more in the backcountry. The common motivation among attendees was to gain a better understanding of hazards.
“It’s going to give me information to know what kind of terrain I’m going to be safe in. I don’t want to assume I’m fine just because I see other people out there” said student Maria Olson, who recently moved to Anchorage from Montana.
There is one major difference in the way avalanche education is taught here according to D’Alessio “[Level One] courses in the lower 48 are built around how to read and use an avalanche advisory and travel with that. [In Alaska,] we try to develop a broader skill base to identify snowpack conditions that could be hazardous because there are so many areas in this state with no avalanche forecast at all.”
One of the most important topics is covered early: how to identify avalanche terrain, since the easiest way to avoid an avalanche is simply to avoid avalanche terrain.
“If you have some basic knowledge you can at least be aware that you’re entering or close to avalanche terrain” said D’Alessio.
Fellow instructor Jessie Haffener added, “Before I took a Level One, I thought avalanches were something that only happened to skiers. I didn’t realize it happened to dog walkers, hikers, Nordic skiers and fat bikers in places like Powerline Pass.”
The Level One course consists of a mixture of classroom instruction and substantial time practicing in the mountains of Turnagain Pass in smaller groups led by D’Alessio, Haffener and instructor Tim Glassett. The first day’s field exercise focuses on group rescue techniques, a priority underlined by the main course textbook which coldly states that for almost all completely buried avalanche victims there are only two ways out of the debris: “to be dug out or to melt out.”
Students learn the subtleties of using modern avalanche beacons, practice beacon searching and how to efficiently dig out a buried victim – a much harder task that it sounds. Finally, students and instructors act out scenarios that try to mimic some of the chaos and confusion that occur in real incidents, a complexity that can’t be adequately appreciated in a lecture.
Returning to the classroom, this leads to the important topic of human factors in decision making and several simple strategies for improving the quality of those decisions out in the mountains. The day ends with a kitchen-table science experiment using flour, sugar and potato flakes to provide a vivid demonstration of the impact of weather and snowpack.
The second day starts with classes on weather resources and a brief introduction to the immense topic of snow science. Luckily, a recent snowstorm provides ideal conditions to practice the art of digging snow pits and get hands-on experience of seeing how different types of snow react in the snowpack. This is another instance where the combination of lectures followed immediately by field learning is invaluable.
Student Jordan Rymer of Seward commented, “We talked about facets and surface hoar in the classroom, then to actually see it was pretty cool. The facets were so beady, just like grains of sand or sugar.”
The final day brings it all together with some additional class sessions and a longer trip into the mountains practicing and combining skills developed throughout the course.
What’s next after completing the Level One avalanche course? Instructor Haffener, who is also interning with the Chugach National Forest Avalanche Information Center in Girdwood suggests “This course is about having the tools to begin a relationship with the snow. This is just the beginning of your education. You’ve got to get out and dig in the snow and understand the snow and travel in the snow.”
After three days learning about terrain, snowpack, weather, trip planning and human factors, those snowy Chugach Mountains are looking slightly less intimidating this winter.
Local avalanche resources and advisories can be found at Chugach National Forest Avalanche Information Center cnfaic.org. For the Hatcher Pass area hatcherpassavalanchecenter.org or through Alaska Avalanche Information Center alaskasnow.org
The website for Alaska Avalanche School is at alaskaavalancheschool.com
All these organizations are supported by donations.