Avalanche Information Center crowd-sources backcountry conditions

Dec 22, 2017

The avalanche forecast for Friday, Dec. 22, 2017
Credit Chugach National Forest Avalanche Information Center

  KDLL's Adventure Talk hijacked the Kenai Conversation Wednesday morning. Host Jenny Neyman talked with two long time backcountry skiers and avalanche experts about being safe while traversing the snow up in the hills and mountains.

Backcountry enthusiast Tony Doyle, and Wendy Wagoner, director and forecaster at the Chugach National Forest Avalanche Information Center both talked about preparing for adventure in the snowy backcountry.

Wagoner said the A-I-C came into existence after a particularly horrible accident in Turnagain Pass.

"The CNFAIC began around 2000, 2001, and that was in the wake of a tragic avalanche accident at Turnagain Pass where six snowmachiners lost their lives. Many folks listening probably remember that incident. And after that there were two Forest Service employees that wanted to get an AIC going for that area. Including the Summit Lake area. They are high-use because you step into avalanche terrain right away from the road," she said.

Wagoner says the A-I-C's forecasts are made from personal observation of the terrain, and with input from users.

"We get a lot of crowd-source information from the public. And because we have that high-resolution of data, we can feel comfortable saying, 'above tree line and alpine, this is the type kind of avalanche you can expect. This is how easy it is to trigger, and this is how big it will be, roughly, if it is triggered," she said. "And that is essentially what the avalanche forecast is, is a bunch of information."

Wagoner did caution however, that avalanche forecasting is not an exact science.

"Avalanches are an uncertain business and the snow is so unbelievably complex, that there's a phrase in the industry, and it's called, 'You're never an expert.' The minute you think you're an expert, something happens that knocks you down. And then you think to yourself, 'Oh my goodness, I'm not an expert,'" she said. "This is a complex phenomenon."

Wagoner says at the Avalanche Information Center the crews wear a locating beacon and carry with them a probe and shovel to help them find and dig out colleagues who may get buried in the snow. She said they are also issued airbags, a relatively new technology for backcountry skiers.

"An airbag is a backpack that deploys fort of  a big balloon on the sides and above you around the top. And what that can do, is the avalanche debris is churning that it's churning, it's turbulent," she said. "It's kind of like the mixed nuts theory where the big nuts rise to the top, or in your bag of potato chips, when you shake it, they go to the top. And if that debris is churning and turbulent, it pop you out onto the top. And there have been a lot of success stories with airbags."

Tony Doyle, a local backcountry skier, pointed out, however, that all the technology in the world won't help if you're untrained.

"Unfortunately if the person is buried two, three, four feet down, and they're not found in 10 minutes, it really doesn't matter how good your technology is," Doyle said. "So it's really, really important to get some training."

Wagoner agreed, saying anyone who goes into the backcountry has got to be the one making the ultimate decision whether to go forward across sketchy terrain.

"All the safety gear and having a forecast center to be able to say, 'hey, watch out for this layer,' it's all just hedging your bets at the end of the day," she said. "You have to be your own forecaster on that slope if you decide to enter out on its terrain."

Wagoner also said anyone still harboring an emergency locator that's more than five years old should definitely trade up to a newer model, which have more antennas for better performance sending and receiving signals.