Outdoors
It's cool to head out to the backcountry in the winter, investing some sweat equity into your vertical powder mileage. What's cooler is when you know what you're doing. When you're aware of notable terrain features, how recent weather may have affected snow conditions and what gear you should have and how to use it.
Playing safely in avalanche terrain 110712 OUTDOORS 1 Capital City Weekly It's cool to head out to the backcountry in the winter, investing some sweat equity into your vertical powder mileage. What's cooler is when you know what you're doing. When you're aware of notable terrain features, how recent weather may have affected snow conditions and what gear you should have and how to use it.
Wednesday, November 07, 2012

Story last updated at 11/7/2012 - 1:11 pm

Playing safely in avalanche terrain

It's cool to head out to the backcountry in the winter, investing some sweat equity into your vertical powder mileage. What's cooler is when you know what you're doing. When you're aware of notable terrain features, how recent weather may have affected snow conditions and what gear you should have and how to use it.

Brian Davies, the snow safety director of the Eaglecrest Ski Area, is all about getting in the best skiing. He's been carving the region's mountainsides for over 25 years. And during those years he's had a chance to see the public's interest in exploring the backcountry evolve.

For clarification, backcountry is the term used for terrain outside of managed snow sport areas, those like Eaglecrest. When you ski or snowboard within the boundaries of a resort, you're essentially a patron, and while you're not exactly on a golf course, natural variables like avalanche potential and exposed obstacles are mitigated by a hired staff. Venturing outside of resort boundaries opens up endless opportunities for both pleasurable recreation and trouble.

"We have a growing use of the surrounding terrain, but I don't think the avalanche knowledge is increasing at the same rate," Davies said. "I'm not saying people aren't learning, but people are pushing farther and farther, and they're not always thinking."

Those choosing to head out to the backcountry should, hypothetically, have the skill sets, (and there are many), to not only stay alive, but to make for smart decisions that will increase the enjoyment of backcountry recreation.

Thomas Mattice, the Emergency Programs manager and an avalanche forecaster for the City and Borough of Juneau, is gearing up for his fifth winter in Juneau. He's worked as a ski patroller in Montana and ran a snow cat skiing business in Washington before moving to Juneau. He knows his stuff.

"The trends have been showing that most (backcountry) fatalities are people that have some level of avalanche education," Mattice said.

This is a primary reason for the third Southeast Alaska Snow and Avalanche Workshop that will be held on Nov. 10. The event consists of nine 20-minute presentations. Though there are introductory classes to backcountry awareness offered locally, the SEASAW event is geared towards those who have some basic education already.

"It's more about continuing education for people who want to get out there, recapping on snow safety, increasing people's knowledge and awareness and skills," Mattice said. "It's baseline avalanche awareness, but it's for people who have some sense of what's going on."

Though five of the presenters are knowledgeable local residents, two of them are coming up from outside Alaska. Dale Atkins, the president of the American Avalanche Association, will be presenting two lectures, "Sex, Drugs, Rock and Roll, and Avalanches," and, "Unintended Consequences: How smart risk-taking gets us into trouble." Kent Scheler is the snow safety director for Teton Gravity Research, a company based in Jackson Hole, Wyo., founded by two men from Anchorage that produces popular winter films screened all over the word. Scheler will present a lecture titled, "Terrain, snowpack and group management for heliskiiing and ski movie filming."

The speakers were selected, Davies said, to bring in different perspectives. Atkins brings a high level knowledge of avalanche operations, and Scheler represents a voice from within the ski industry.

Atkins is also the vice president of the International Commission on Alpine Rescue. Davies said that the idea of bringing him up for the event is that he's not only an expert on snow safety but also on rescue skills.

"Dale is a good speaker, and always has a good way of portraying things," Davies said. "And he's very entertaining. He can make potentially dry material interesting."

Scheler was selected not only because of his experience in the ski film industry, but because he has a local connection.

"Kent will be speaking on snow safety in regards to movie crews, filming in the mountains," Mattice said. "He's a University of Alaska Southeast graduate and he's become high in the TGR organization. He's a local boy."

The idea of the workshop, Mattice said, "Is to remind people that whether you've spent one or two years (exploring the backcountry) or you're a full time professional, there's always time to increase your awareness and grow. We're trying to showcase safety."

Davies added that the SEASAW event is also an opportunity for those who have a strong knowledge of backcountry safety to learn about new trends and research.

"It also helps to get people talking," Davies said. "It encourages people to create a broader awareness."

Mattice noted that we live in a unique environment, where the snow conditions and weather can't be boxed into a specific category.

"Alaska is unique," he said.

Sometimes we have coastal conditions, with heavy wet snow. Other times our conditions are more like those encountered inland.

"It can be like an interior snow pack and the next day pouring down rain," Mattice said.

Both Davies and Mattice stressed that their interest in heightening people's awareness serves to decrease the chance of fatalities in the backcountry.

"The more we remind people about safety, the less people get caught in avalanches," Davies said.

"We have close calls all the time but have been fortunate not to have a fatality in Juneau for some time," Mattice said. "We're trying narrow down the possibility of that occurring."

"Basically," Davies added, "We're not trying to tell you not to go, but to tell you how to do it the best way."

Often, they both said, it's not only about knowing how to keep you and your group safe, but to be aware of other backcountry travelers that may be in one's vicinity.

"Your group may have made good assessments, a reasonable judgment call, but who's coming behind you?" Davies asked. "They might be clueless. We want to encourage the continued exploration (of the backcountry), but make sure (people) have the right tools and equipment, rescue equipment, to do it safely."

Davies added that it is not just the skiers and snowboarders that could benefit from a heightened awareness. Parents who may not ski or snowboard themselves drop their children off, unaware they their kids are traveling beyond the bounds of the resort. And there's the snow machine community.

"We don't want to exclude them," Davies said. "They need to have the knowledge to play safe. Everyone's threshold to cross a street is different."

The SEASAW event is collaborative, a showcase of key players in snow safety. Other presenters include Mike Janes, an avalanche forecaster for AEL&P, Tom Ainsworth, a meteorologist for the National Weather Service in Juneau and Jamie Pierce, a member of the International Federation of Mountain Guides Association.

The event will be held at 5 p.m. on Nov. 10 at the Juneau Arts and Culture Center. The suggested entry donation is $20, which includes one raffle ticket. All proceeds from the event will go towards avalanche education. A list of the lecture topics and speakers is below.

• 5:35-5:50 p.m.: "2011-2012 avalanches season summary," by Mike Janes;

• 5:55 -6:10 p.m.: "Update from the International Snow Science Workshop," by Mike Janes;

• 6:15-6:30 p.m.: "Winter outlook and is your weather forecast App worth looking at?" by Tom Ainsworth;

• 7-7:20 p.m.: "Unintended Consequences: How smart risk-taking gets us into trouble, by Dale Atkins;

• 7:25-7:40 p.m.: "What it takes to open a ski area after a storm," by Brian Davies;

• 7:45-8:05 p.m.: "Terrain, snowpack and group management for heliskiing and ski movie filming," by Kent Scheler;

• 8:40-8:55 p.m.: "Managing the avalanche risk in mountaineering expeditions - a guide's perspective," by Jamie Pierce;

• 9-9:20 p.m.: "Sex, Drugs, Rock and Roll, and Avalanches," by Dale Atkins; and

•9:25-9:40 p.m.: "Re-evaluation of avalanche mitigation measures for Juneau," by Tom Mattice.

Amanda Compton is the staff writer for the Capital City Weekly. She can be reached at Amanda.compton@capweek.com.


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