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Empire Editorial: Know the snow, before you go

Posted: January 10, 2014 - 1:05am

As powder piles up in the backcountry, filling in terrain features, collecting in deep ravines and chutes, the importance of avalanche awareness cannot be overstated. Understanding and being able to recognize the warning signs, as well as gearing up properly and knowing how to use the tools, will absolutely save lives.

This week, we ran a news item about the fact avalanches were immanent in backcountry areas of the Kenai and Western Chugach Mountains — four happened last Friday resulting in the death of a dog that ran down Tincan Peak. Luckily, no other injuries were reported, but those types of warnings should always be taken seriously.

In Juneau, it’s not just in the backcountry. Many of us live perched on a narrow slice of land, wedged between steep mountain slopes and the ocean or valley floor, the same mountain slopes that send snow ripping down traditionally-active chutes winter after winter. Ever wonder how Thunder Mountain got its name?

Each year we get lucky — avalanche-related deaths in Juneau are rare — but luck isn’t enough when dealing with the massive forces of our natural world.

Experts will agree the best way to stay safe is to stay educated, to know how to interpret the warning signs and to understand how to use the tools that have been proven to save lives.

Locally, we rely on the expertise of folks like Tom Mattice, who issues a daily Urban Avalanche Forecast for the City and Borough of Juneau. We also look to ski patrollers, Department of Transportation staff and trained avalanche experts to keep places like Eaglecrest Ski Area and Thane Road safe for users.

This weekend, two events will aim to educate residents on how to spot areas that may be prone to slides, how to use an avalanche beacon, probe and shovel, as well as how to travel safely in the mountains, to name just a few.

Many local residents reside in Juneau because of the outdoor opportunities that abound, but enjoying those areas, especially in winter, comes with a certain level of risk. Even the Flume and Perseverance trails become perilous under specific conditions. Ask any ski patroller or avalanche expert and they’ll support that there’s an inescapable level of danger when on or near our snow-covered slopes.

Yet there are tools readily available for the general public — check out the Urban Avalanche Forecast online at juneau.org/avalanche. Riding at Eaglecrest? Stop by the ski patrol office and inquire about the conditions.

We urge local residents to participate in this weekend’s free training events, which happen on both Saturday and Sunday. For more information, look for the news item linked above or at juneauempire.com.

It pays to know the snow, before you go. And always err on the side of caution.

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