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Four skiers caught in avalanche, experts urge better judgement

Craig Medred

In the wake of a Saturday avalanche on Alaska's Kenai Peninsula that nearly killed four skiers and sparked a major rescue operation, avalanche forecasters are pondering the judgment of the people who play in Alaska's great outdoors.

The Chugach National Forest Avalanche Information Center on Sunday noted nine people involved in human-triggered avalanches in the past week alone. A snowmachine rider near Lost Lake was fully buried in one of those, but saved by a partner who dug him out. A second snowmachine rider near Carter Lake had his sled significantly damaged after it went tumbling in a snowslide.

While avalanche authorities recognize that beacons make it possible to save those buried -- if their companions are not buried in the same avalanche, and if their companions are carrying probes and shovels and know how to use them -- they also caution that dependence on beacons over good judgment is little more than a game of Russian roulette.

As avalanche forecaster Kevin Wright put it on the avalanche information center's website, "The only way to increase your chances is to hedge your bets by following strict safe travel protocols or choose safer lines. I noticed a lot of people yesterday riding open slopes two or more at a time and riding above people ascending below them. This is a great way to cause multiple burials."

"Burials,'' as Wright calls them, are inherently dangerous. If someone is buried deeply, as has happened in a variety of Alaska avalanches, rescuers may not be able to dig fast enough to get to him or her before suffocation. Not to mention that many avalanche victims die from injuries suffered while tumbling in the slide -- not from suffocation.

Wright noted there were broken bones in the Saturday avalanche near Summit Lake. It could just as easily have been someone's broken neck.

"The incident in Summit yesterday is worth talking about as a sobering reminder of current conditions,'' he wrote. "Four skiers triggered an avalanche on Butch Mountain that broke well above them as they were (climbing) on skins. All four were caught and carried through trees. At least one was buried completely and rescued with an avalanche beacon. Injuries include broken bones and possible internal injuries. The avalanche was 300 to 400 feet wide, one to three feet deep, and dropped about 800 vertical feet."

Avalanche experts say it is imperative that people venturing off-road in the Alaska mountains have a basic understanding of avalanche dangers. Snowslides here have killed not only snowmobile and ski adventurers, but clueless snowshoers hiking across run-out areas beneath avalanche prone slopes.

If you don't know what a run-out area is, or how to recognize one, the authorities say you probably shouldn't be out in the backcountry.

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com.