An ounce of prevention

Posted: Sunday, December 23, 2007

KODIAK - According to the Forest Service National Avalanche Center Web site, three people across the United States have already lost their lives to avalanches this winter.

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To Blaine Smith from the Alaska Avalanche School in Anchorage, that's three people too many, especially since avalanche-related deaths are nearly always preventable.

"Ninety-five percent of avalanche accidents are triggered by the victim or someone in the victim's party," Smith said.

Last winter the death toll was 24.

Smith said the death toll is high because most people conducting activities in the backcountry are putting themselves in harm's way by not knowing the cause and effect of the terrain, snowpack and weather around them.

Smith knows what he's talking about.

Born and raised in Alaska, Smith has been a mountain guide since 1986. To be safe in the backcountry he had to learn about avalanche physics.

"I was taking people into avalanche terrain, so I had to know something about it," Smith said.

Now he's an expert in avalanche accident prevention, teaching avalanche safety for the last 16 years. As part of that teaching, the Kodiak Island Search and Rescue organization (KISAR) with Era Aviation, Snow Bruins and the Kodiak Teachers Association sponsored Smith to teach the latest avalanche safety course.

KISAR brought in Smith because of relevant avalanche conditions on Kodiak.

"If you've noticed, the last few days we've had some high winds, which are loading the slopes with snow and if we get a rain soon that's only going to add more weight to that loaded slope," said Nick Szabo, a member of KISAR.

Smith taught his first course to the Kodiak public, a basic two-hour prevention class, Monday night, at Kodiak College and was scheduled to teach a host of classes throughout Tuesday to students at Kodiak High School and Kodiak Middle School.

Steve Wielebski, also a member of KISAR said Smith will most likely be back.

"If there is anyone interested in doing a level 1 avalanche course this coming year they should get a hold of me," Wielebski said.

The latest avalanche fatalities in the United States occurred on Dec. 2 near Source Lake in Snoqualmine Pass, Wash., when three hikers were buried.

One of the three managed to dig his way out and make it back to his tent.

Two others didn't survive.

This scenario is all too common.

Those buried in an avalanche hardly ever survive unless they manage to dig themselves out or are dug out by their companions.

What to do in case of an avalanche is the last thing Smith goes over in his class, because everything else leading up to the final segment is teaching you how not to get caught.

That's because the longer you are buried, the less chance you have to survive.

"It's a hurry-up kind of a deal," Smith said. "If you get them out within 15 minutes, you've got right around 80 percent chance to live. After about half an hour you're in the 30s and 40s (percentage range of survival).

"You have to get them out yourself. You can't run off and find someone else to fix your problem; you have to cowboy up."

It's important that party members know what to do, because they are the usually the first and only line of rescue.

"Typically (when we get there) it's a search and recovery instead of a search and rescue," Szabo said.

It's why Smith and KISAR say people need to have some basic survival gear when they travel to the backcountry. Smith said, at the very least, you should carry a probe, shovel and beacon. More important is not putting yourself in harm's way to begin with.

One of the most basic questions Smith said each individual should ask themselves when in the backcountry, is the terrain capable of producing an avalanche?

"We ask the question about terrain first because if we answer the question no, then the other things don't really matter," Smith said.

Avalanches most often occur on slopes around 35 degrees, but can be produced on slopes as low as 25 degrees.

The next question that someone in the backcountry should ask is this: Can the snow fail?

"One of the big clues that gets missed frequently by folks is other avalanche activity," Smith said. "I can't tell you how many times we've had to go look for people that have been buried in avalanches when there was other avalanche activity around."

In other words, if avalanches are visible on the terrain around where you are conducting your activity, then chances are the area you are in is an avalanche area, as well.

Other things to consider are visible cracks in the snow and noise emanating from the snow.

"It's air being expelled out of the snowpack," Smith said.

"Sometimes I give this talk to seventh-graders and one young fellow said, 'It's like a snowpack fart."'

The last question to ask is, is the weather contributing to instability?

"Wind is a big, big deal in the mountains," Smith said. "It strips the snow off the windward side and deposits it on the leeward side causing the snow to become unstable."

Temperature and precipitation also play a factor. The more rain that falls, the less time the snowpack has to adjust to stress.

It's a combination of all these questions that can save a person from being buried alive in an avalanche.

"What we want you to do is go out and enjoy yourselves, be able to ski when it's the proper time to ski and not get by in the backcountry by just being lucky, because everyone's luck runs out," Smith said.

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