Avalanche

On Sunday, Cantwell resident Troy Williams had a near-miss with an avalanche. He said he typically snowmachines several thousand miles during a winter and has never before seen conditions like this at this time of the year. 

While avalanches in the Interior are a more common occurrence in the spring, it’s never too early to be thinking about the dangers of a snowslide — just ask Troy Williams.

On the afternoon of Nov. 24, Williams was snowmachining about a mile north of Cantwell and said he saw “numerous slides,” including one he narrowly avoided after setting it off himself.

“Rode around the toe of a hill and started up the draw, suddenly everything around me is moving,” he wrote on Facebook following the incident. “Hammered it and shot up the other side far as I could. Still buried the machine a little. At least it was a nice day to shovel.”

In an interview with the News-Miner, Williams, a Cantwell resident, said the incident occurred around 1 p.m. in “what I consider my backyard,” just a couple of miles from his home.

“I ride up that draw numerous times a season. With the snow, rain and the warm temps. there are layers of ice under the snow. This creates a floor for the snow to slide on. The slide that I set off left six inches of hard ice under it,” he said. “The slope was not steep enough to slide in most situations. When everything started moving and I realized what was happening, I hammered the throttle and pointed myself away from the oncoming slide and rode up the far side of the draw.”

Williams said he’s learned most of what he knows about handling avalanches from personal experiences, educating himself online and spending time with neighbors and friends who have taken avalanche safety courses. He said he rides over 2,000 miles during a typical winter season and noted that he’s never seen conditions like this at this time of the year.

“It’s the changes in temperature and the rain we’ve had,” he said. “I think an article warning folks of the early avalanche dangers this year is a great idea.”

In 2003, the Alaska Legislature approved a resolution designating November as Avalanche Awareness Month. At the time, Alaska had the highest avalanche death rate per capita in the nation, and the bill urged “schools, community groups, and other public and private agencies and individuals to observe Avalanche Awareness Month with appropriate activities that increase the public’s awareness of avalanche dangers, how to respond to avalanches and the use of appropriate equipment in avalanche areas.”

One local organization doing its part to address this is the Eastern Alaska Range Avalanche Center, a community funded avalanche center founded in 2015. Its mission is to promote education, develop a robust observer network, and improve the meteorological resources in the area. Phillip Wilson has been volunteering with the group for the past couple of years, and currently chairs its advisory board.

“Most places around mountains have avalanche centers that do avalanche forecasts,” Wilson said. “Right now, we’re trying to promote the use of the area, promote avalanche safety and build up knowledge of the area, with the hopes of becoming a center that has forecasts.”

According to Wilson, avalanche terrain is any open slope more than 30 degrees. He pointed out that the fact there are no avalanche forecasts for the Alaska Range means the responsibility to be safe is entirely on the individual, which is why it’s important that they learn how to read terrain and the weather and make good choices. This is particularly true during periods where the weather is changeable, which increases the likelihood of an avalanche. 

“I can certainly say that we’ve gotten more snow this year than the past couple of years and that alone has increased the avalanche chances,” Wilson said. “Every time the snowpack changes or the weather changes that introduces potential for the snow to change as well and for the avalanche hazards to increase.”

With regard to promoting avalanche safety, Wilson said that there are three basic tools that are vital for those venturing into the mountains during the avalanche-prone months: a beacon, a probe and a shovel. These tools are used for rescue scenarios if a fellow mountaineer gets pulled under by a snowslide.

“You need the beacon to locate him in a large area when he’s under the snow, you need a probe to locate him on a finer scale and then you need the shovel to dig him out,” Wilson explained. “Most important is the knowledge of how to use them. If your buddy gets buried in an avalanche they have less then 15 minutes before they become asphyxiated — you don’t want to waste that time trying to figure out how to use your avalanche gear. So the most important thing is taking a class, becoming aware of the hazards, familiar and quick with your gear, and learning what you can do to not get in an avalanche in the first place.”

If you’re interested in learning more, the Eastern Alaska Range Avalanche Center has a few classes coming up that will provide any winter recreation enthusiast with what they need to stay safe. On Dec. 10, the organization is collaborating with REI to provide a shorter evening class from 5:30-7 p.m. at the REI store on College Road.

Eastern Alaska Range Avalanche Center’s Mark Oldmixon will be giving a presentation which will introduce and explain where and why avalanches occur and provide a basic approach to managing risk in the backcountry. Mountain enthusiasts will learn to access local avalanche bulletins and weather reports, recognize basic signs of avalanche danger and easy ways to help avoid avalanche danger. The class is free and is a refresher for those who need to polish up their avalanche awareness or could serve as a primer for new-comers. While not a replacement for full avalanche training, the class will provide some helpful tools for decision making will cover the basics of avalanche awareness and equipment. There are only 30 spaces available for the class. Those interested can sign up here: bit.ly/34nJ5xp.

That same day, Eastern Alaska Range Avalanche Center representatives will be holding an avalanche safety course at Delta Powersports — and more events will pop up in January, according to Wilson. For further details, keep an eye on the organization’s website here: bit.ly/2XMY2GQ or its Facebook page here: bit.ly/2P0iIY3.

“These classes are kind of like awareness classes that introduce people to what they’re getting into. They’re certainly good to go to and if people haven’t got any avalanches training — it’s better than nothing,” Wilson said.

Wilson pointed out that, due to the fact that Eastern Alaska Range Avalanche Center does not offer avalanche forecasting, one of the most useful things that locals can do to help is contribute weather and terrain observations to the organization’s website and social media pages. 

“One of the key things that people can help out with is sharing observations,” he said. “If I’m going on a trip, I’ll always look at observations that have been shared both on Facebook and on our website. That helps people to plan a trip, knowing what kind of situations they’re getting into.”

Contact staff writer Alistair Gardiner at 459-7575. Follow him on Twitter: @FDNMoutdoors.

Correction: An earlier version of this article erroneously stated that there is currently no avalanche forecasting for Alaska. In fact, there is currently no avalanche forecasting for the Alaska Range, but forecasting does take place in other parts of the state.