Thursday, December 24, 2015

Tis the Season… to be in the Snow

by Alicia F. King
Chugach National Forest Service Public Affairs & Partnership Staff Officer

Photo credit: Alicia F King USFS

This past weekend, Wendy Wagner (Director of the Chugach National Forest Avalanche Information Center), her crew (Graham and Aleph) along with Avalanche Center volunteer Sean Sullivan and the Girdwood Fire Department conducted an Avalanche Rescue workshop focused on the basics of avalanche rescue – not the kind of workshops for professionals who do the rescuing, but for everyday snowmachiners, hikers, skiers, and anyone else out there in this winter weather enjoying the snow.

Have you ever operated an avalanche beacon before? Do you carry one with you along with a probe and shovel? Open to everyone and anyone, novices and experts, this workshop offered an opportunity to practice – practice makes perfect and while you never want to have to use these rescue skills, having them will increase the likelihood of survival in the event that the skills are needed!

Everyone in your group must have an avalanche beacon (transceiver) – a transceiver will not help locate a victim who is not also wearing one! Honing in on a buried individual involves first, locating the signal, then following the beacon’s display to where the searcher is within two to three yards of the signal.

Photo credit: Alicia F King USFS
After this, a fine search is performed to pinpoint the exact spot where the searcher’s beacon reads the smallest possible distance from the snow surface to the buried person’s beacon. Beginning at this closest spot on the snow surface, a probe is used to identify exactly where the person is buried. Once the probe strikes the individual, the rescuer(s) start digging quickly in a strategic fashion just downhill from the probe strike. Hopefully the searches are able to expose the person in time to pull them out from under the snow alive.
Having and being able to use (yes, that means practicing!) this equipment may mean the difference between life and death for someone buried in an avalanche. Most survivors are dug out within 15 to 30 minutes and for victims buried longer than 30 minutes, survival chances decrease drastically. The length of time it takes to locate them and dig them out can be the critical factor. Time is of the essence.


The top tips for safety in avalanche areas are:

  1. Always check the Chugach National Forest Avalanche Information Center for the most up-to-date avalanche forecast and report.
  2. Get your gear – beacon, probe, and shovel – and practice with it!
  3. Get the big picture of the area - a sure sign there is avalanche danger is evidence of recent avalanches, an indication that conditions might be right for more. Other ‘Red Flags’ Indicating nature’s warning signs are cracks in the snow surface that shoot from your skis, snowmachine, or snowboard and collapses. Listen for the snow making a "whumph" sound beneath you. These are signs that the snow is stressed and might not bear your weight.
  4. Get out of harms way! Know the terrain you are traveling in and whether it is capable of producing an avalanche. Slopes more than 30 degrees in steepness, including below these slopes, is considered avalanche terrain. Limit exposure time to avalanche terrain and always group up (eating lunch, etc.) in save zones.

And the 5th tip (yes, there is a homework! fifth) – attend an Avalanche Safety course – the next free rescue workshop being offered by the Chugach National Forest Avalanche Information Center will be January 9 at Turnagain Pass (Motorized parking lot) – look for the blue Chugach National Forest Avalanche Information Center trailer.

Consider joining the avalanche forecasters for a Fireside Chat about snow pack and weather on January 7th at 6:30 p.m. - both of these events are free (you can even say they are priceless) to the public and more information (looking on the Website is free, too!) can be found at the CNFAIC website.

Being prepared is your best defense against accidents. Know before you go and the next time you head out to enjoy the snow put visiting the Chugach National Forest Avalanche Information Center Website (or phoning the hot line at (907) 754-2369) on the top of your list of things to do.

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