ANCHORAGE - Alaska still doesn't have an avalanche forecast center, but more Southcentral information will be available this winter thanks to the Chugach National Forest Avalanche Information Center.
Forest Service Glacier District snow ranger Carl Skustad said the federal agency aims to provide Alaskans the best information it has on Turnagain Pass and surrounding areas - as well as other forest lands on the Kenai Peninsula.
"We're not forecasting," Skustad said, but "I'm in the field all week long."
Skustad will pull together his snowpack observations with reports from avalanche experts at the Alaska Department of Transportation, the Alaska Railroad, Alyeska Resort and "any other avalanche experts out in the field."
Updated summaries of snowpack conditions will be provided to a Web site and a telephone recording Wednesday through Sunday. Mondays and Tuesdays, Skustad's days off, the site and recording will not be updated.
"I see our agency as the hub," Skustad said.
Snowpack tracking efforts will be focused on Turnagain Pass because Forest Service rangers visit regularly and because the pass has a reputation for avalanches.
Six snowmobilers died in a massive avalanche there in 1999. It was the most deadly snowmobile-triggered slide the state had ever seen. Skustad and others worry it could happen again.
Though significant efforts have gone into raising snowmobilers' avalanche awareness since that accident, large numbers of new riders - many with little Alaska mountain experience - take up the sport every year. In addition to snow conditions, the Avalanche Information Center aims to offer information on safe backcountry travel.
"In avalanche country, each member of your party needs to carry a beacon, probe, shovel and inclinometer and know how to use them," the site warns. "(In) the first 15 minutes of burial your survival chances are 87 percent; from 15 to 30 minutes it is 40 percent. After 45 minutes it is 30 percent, and after one hour it is 23 percent.
"Most professional or volunteer rescue teams take at least one to four hours to respond. Your friends are your best chance of rescue. Do not take risks in avalanche country. Get training, be aware, assess the conditions and be ready to turn back."
Skustad admits the new avalanche center's resources are limited, but says even limited information is better than none. Efforts to offer more could come through an expanded system of volunteers.
On the Web: For Southcentral avalanche information, www.fs.fed.us/r10/chugach/glacier/snow.html. For the Southeast Alaska Avalanche Center, go to www.avalanche.org and click on the Southeast Alaska link.
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