SE Alaska Avalanche Center saves lives, is worthy of support

My turn

Posted: Sunday, March 11, 2001

Remember the last time someone died in a bear attack in Juneau? If you can't, there's nothing wrong with your memory. Despite ample provocation, a bear hasn't killed a human here in decades.

Remember the last time someone died in an avalanche in Juneau? It was less than two years ago in April 1999, a year when Alaska led the nation with 12 avalanche deaths. The last Juneau avalanche fatality before that was February 1995. And just last week a skier was buried in an avalanche outside of Eaglecrest, emerging alive thanks only to a combination of good luck and good training. There were at least four other human-triggered slides around Juneau last week.

They don't make the headlines often, but avalanches are an ongoing threat in Juneau. And that threat is not confined to skiers, boarders and snowmachines. Over 50 Juneau buildings are in known avalanche paths - sports avalanches have hit before. Parts of Thane Road, Basin Road, Egan Drive and Aurora Harbor are also in avalanche paths.

The good news is that, contrary to popular belief, avalanches do not "just happen." Avalanches result from a combination of weather, terrain and (sometimes) human activity. To a large extent, snowslides are predictable. Training can teach people to avoid avalanches, or at least to minimize their risk.

You might think that state and local government would fund avalanche education and forecasting, but that's not the case. The state used to fund avalanches programs directly, but funding was cut in 1987 and never restored. (Since then, Alaska has overtaken Colorado as the state with the most avalanche deaths per capita.) While the CBJ has done some homework on avalanches lately, it has yet to act on it.

One asset Juneau does nave is the Southeast Alaska Avalanche Center (SAAC), a recently incorporated non-profit. SAAC traces it roots back to 1995 when Bill Glude, an avalanche specialist when working for Echo Bay Mines, helped recover the body of a friend killed in an avalanche above the Dan Moller Trail. He vowed to start teaching avalanche safety courses in Juneau, and began doing that the next fall.

Last season, 1,163 people attended SAAC avalanche courses or lectures. This winter, Glude has run courses in Juneau, Haines, Ketchikan, Wrangell, Petersburg and Sitka, plus a 10-week avalanche evaluation course at the University of Alaska in Juneau. Courses include snow safety, analysis, route-finding and rescue. Participants have included skiers, snowmachines, hunters, heli-guides and DOT workers. One SAAC goal is to reach anyone who spends significant time outside in winter.

In the future, the SAAC would like to provide local avalanche forecasts. Personally, I'd like them to add a phone-in "avalanche hotline" similar to those in other Western states. But there's not really enough staff and funding to continue the current classes, let alone expand. While SAAC has received support from SEADOGS and the Alaska DNR, most funding must come from course fees and donations.

One way you can help is by becoming a SAAC member. Memberships are $35 for individuals, $50 for families and $100 for businesses. And, yes, that's tax-deductible.

Another way you can help is by calling your favorite legislator, bureaucrat or city council member and asking them if they know that 36 Alaskans have died in avalanches in the last five years. Then ask what they're going to do about it.

For more information on the SAAC, call Bill Glude at 586-5606, e-mail seakaval@alaska.net or check the Web site at: www.avalanche.org/~seaac/.

Michael Deppner Jr. is a snowboarder, hunter, avalanche survivor and lifelong Juneau resident.



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