My turn: Address avalanche danger early

Posted: Friday, June 06, 2008

In March I was tracking the weather in Juneau from France and was surprised to see that Eaglecrest Ski Area briefly held the title for most snow in the world this past season. Here I was in Chamonix, home to the best avalanche forecast and mountain rescue teams in the world, and Juneau had double the snow yet 1/5 of the elevation of Chamonix Mont Blanc massif.

Upon my arrival in Juneau I quickly ascertained the area doesn't have an avalanche warning system and I was astonished to say the least. It doesn't take a mountain guide or a scientist to highlight the problem. You have Mount Juneau with steep convex slopes rising to 3,567 feet above Juneau. That is 1,000 feet higher than the Eaglecrest resort, which briefly held the best snowfall record and is just across the Gastineau Channel.

Without any instrumentation or documentation I can state quite categorically that Mount Juneau being 1,000 feet higher received the same if not a significant amount more snow than Eaglecrest. Thus, you have one of the largest avalanche accidents waiting to happen right here in the United States.

The city residents have done a fantastic job of cutting down electric use after the avalanche knocked out the power lines. Now for a moment let's imagine a similar avalanche hitting two homes above town and an entire family dies in the process while another family lives with the traumatic event of loss of home and possessions. Should it really take a scenario like this to get people to act in the same fashion they have regarding an electricity inconvenience?

From my own survey of the avalanche paths I'm surprised a frozen tsunami hasn't made its way into residential Juneau. Might I be blunt and say avalanche ignorance isn't bliss and a significant event will destroy lives and property. In Europe and many other parts of the world the topography above Juneau would dictate one of the following three things if not all of them.

1) Unsightly and costly avalanche barriers below leeward slopes with inhabited valleys.

2) A team of forecasters and advisory table which would study the synoptic charts and snowpack stability on a daily basis.

3) A team of avalanche mitigators which would include periodic cornice drops or blasting if the area permitted it.

On a final note to the powers that be in Juneau, please don't say government funding isn't possible. If the U.S. government can spend billions toward an endless war in the Middle East, it can certainly protect a couple hundred of its citizens from an avalanche in the Alaska capital.

Before your next winter approaches, please, as we Brits say, "Sort it out" and "Get on with it!" It will be on your conscience not mine when it all goes horribly wrong.

• Andrew McClure is a British mountain guide with multiple seasons of high-altitude experience in the Alps and the greater ranges of the Himalayas.

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