Risky Business

Juneau avalanche forecaster tries to mitigate danger

Posted: Sunday, January 25, 2009

Avalanche forecasters, bombing snow from helicopters: not the crazy cowboys you might think.

Kate Golden / Juneau Empire
Kate Golden / Juneau Empire

"The common wisdom has us lighting dynamite and throwing it out the door of the helicopter," said Bill Glude.

His company, Alaska Avalanche Specialists, is running avalanche analysis and safety programs for Alaska Electric Light & Power Co. this winter. He'll drop 20 charges on a typical mission and as many as 60 in a day. But in reality, it's not so risky.

He gingerly drops coffee-bag-wrapped ammonium nitrate and fuel oil - a lot safer than dynamite - from as short a distance as possible. He starts at the bottom of the slope and works his way up, making little avalanches where he can and avoiding big ones.

That's how it went Jan. 11, the day before the tower went down in an avalanche and took Juneau's line to cheap hydro power out. Except that the helicopter couldn't get to the steep, avalanche-prone area at the top end of the mountain.

"We knew it was going to slide, and we were trying to bomb it," said Glude. "But you're limited by the weather. You can't fly in the fog."

That's in keeping with what Glude told the utility this winter: he could mitigate but not eliminate the avalanche risk.

The weather is one problem. And there's always the chance, delicately though he may work, of setting off an avalanche that takes down a tower.

These are the sorts of dangers that come with the territory of great hydro potential.

"This place generates weather. And that makes power," Glude said.

Glude has up to four people working at Snettisham. His experts come from all over; one person came from the Tetons, one from Telluride, Colo. It's not easy to find them. The qualified pool is very small, and they tend to have work lined up long in advance.

It took Glude six months to get a permit from the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives that allows him to drop explosives from a helicopter. Plus everyone handling the explosives has to go through a background check.

Though Glude has a few advantages. Most want to visit Alaska. And this area offers a challenge for avalanche forecasters: The weather changes so much - from well below zero degrees to the mid-50s in the last two weeks alone - that this area is one of the most interesting a curious avalanche forecaster could hope to encounter.

But it is a hazard of the job: Avalanche experts tend to get caught in avalanches.

"If somebody hasn't gotten caught, it's that they haven't gotten caught yet," said Bill Glude.

On the plus side, the three slides he's been in helped him understand in a visceral way how avalanches work.

That is how Glude got into this business. That's how most people get into it, he said.

More than 30 years ago, he was a young geology student, glissading down a mountain in the worst kind of avalanche zone. His group managed to trigger an entire bowl's avalanche, and he swum out just before it launched off a cliff.

"That sobered me up enough," he said. "Most of us really underestimate avalanches until we're caught in one."

To look at a slope and know where the avalanche will happen is a low-tech business, a mix of the rational and the intuitive. It's a matter of recognizing patterns in the snow, patterns that may not be easy to explain verbally but are obvious to a forecaster after several decades of peering at snow.

Glude has traveled all over the world on snow business, from Iceland to Japan.

"It seems exotic," he said, "until I stick my nose in the snow."

• Contact reporter Kate Golden at 523-2276 or kate.golden@juneauempire.com.

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