Risky business in the backcountry: How to survive avalanche season

Warm weather plus a weak snow pack can sometimes equal the perfect recipe for avalanches. And although it seems like Alaska's winter weather could cook up such disasters more frequently than normal, Graham Predeger, an avalanche forecaster with the Chugach National Forest Avalanche Information Center, doesn't expect it. Understanding the causes of an avalanche, he says, is never black and white.

"It is a function of snow pack and weather, really," Predeger said. "Either one of those things could tip the balance. Say snow pack is our foundation and the weather is either going to increase avalanche danger or decrease it."

On Tuesday, avalanche danger in the Turnagain area was moderate, according to the Chugach National Forest Avalanche Information Center. But Predeger expects that danger to subside as temperatures drop over the next couple of days.

"At this point (Tuesday) what snow pack we have, has adjusted to several days of rain up to 2,500 feet. A drop in temps will act to "lock the snow pack up," Predeger said.

He added that avalanche dangers will rise again when the region sees more active weather, particularly snowfall.

Warm weather weakens the snow pack pack, which is why Predeger said, the area experiences "large, destructive avalanche cycles in springtime after we've see several days and nights of above freezing temperatures."

VIDEO: Hatcher Pass snowboarder barely escapes

Since Nov. 1, Predeger said the Turnagain area has experienced six avalanche cycles -- a period of time when avalanche forecasters see increasing avalanche activity. In each of those cycles, Predeger estimated roughly 50 individual avalanches slid. That may seem like a lot but according to Predeger it's normal.


Many were human triggered and one last month resulted in a full burial.

Human triggers

Craig Macdonald is a retired Alaska State Trooper, where he was the agency's search and rescue coordinator. Now, he's a search and rescue instructor with the National Association of Search And Rescue who continues to teach classes in Alaska. He has 30 years of search and rescue experience.

In Southcentral Alaska, Turnagain Arm, areas close to Girdwood and Hatcher Pass provide some of the most dangerous terrain in the region for backcountry recreation. They're some of the most highly trafficked backcountry areas, and most avalanches are human triggered, he added.

On Jan. 2, Greg Hugunin, 30, triggered an avalanche while snowboarding with five other people on Marmot Mountain in Hatcher Pass. Hugunin was the first in his group to drop in at an elevation of about 4,400 feet.

"When I got in the bottom zone I kind of hammered a turn because I felt something would pop loose (and) you could kind of feel the snow fracture," Hugunin said. "I went farther and then I heard a pop behind me, so I went at about a 45 degree angle to my safe zone."

This video captured the event. Hugunin arrived in the safe zone and looked back to see the slab of snow sliding down the mountain.

"I was frightened it would propagate to the slope I was on and take the whole mountain down, with me inside. It never did. So I let the debris settle and continued down the avalanche path to the next safe zone," Hugunin said.

Hugunin, of Girdwood, considers himself an experienced backcountry skier. He's taken an avalanche safety course, and at the time of the avalanche, he had his beacon turned on, scouted safe zones, and prepared his avalanche airbag.

But Hugunin admits to one crucial mistake. And it's a mistake experts said is common among backcountry skiers and boarders.

"Hiking up I noticed the layers in the snow weren't really bonding well with the new snow. At that time, I had planned on taking a safer route down, but the farther up the mountain I got, more people were dropping in areas that I thought could be unstable. Their numerous tracks were giving me a false sense of security. Once I got to the area I wanted to ride, I noticed some areas that weren't skied yet. These areas were wind loaded. I thought there was a chance it would break, but not a very big one due to the amount of traffic on the mountain. What I didn't think about was the aspects that had been skied successfully that day were all different from the one I was about to ride," Hugunin said.

The "bottom line," he said, is that tracks don't mean stability.

Jed Workman, an avalanche specialist at the Hatcher Pass Avalanche Center, said the skiers did one thing right -- skiing one at a time. In a separate interview, Predeger said it is crucial for skiers to wait in a safe zone after completing the run because you never know who could trigger the avalanche. It could be the second, third or fourth skier.

"Being in the backcountry you have to be on your A game," Hugunin said. "If you're not, you'll get spanked."

Surviving the backcountry

Predeger, Macdonald and Workman all had the same answer when asked about the most important safety measure: Take an avalanche safety course.

Even if a backcountry recreationalist has the right gear -- a shovel, avalanche beacon, an avalanche probe and an avalanche air bag -- none of it will do any good unless you know how to use it, they said. Avalanche safety courses teach students how to use the gear, as well as how to look for signs of avalanche dangers.

In Macdonald's decades of experience he joined 20 to 30 avalanche search and rescues. Most involved fatalities.

Macdonald added that one in four people caught in an avalanche will die from the trauma of the fall during an avalanche.


"The other 75 percent have about 15 minutes to dig out or else they will suffocate," Macdonald said. "Snow has air in it, but what happens is when you get trapped, you are insulated with snow . . . how big of an air pocket you have will determine how long you have to survive."

The experts also said it is crucial to check online advisories before strapping on gear. The Chugach National Forest Avalanche Information Center updates weather conditions and avalanche risks daily. The Hatcher Pass Avalanche Center updates its website every Saturday and it expires after 24 hours.

"Increase your chances of survival by getting an education and be aware. Don't be complacent. Complacency will kill you out there," Macdonald said. "It is like going to Vegas and rolling dice. Sometimes you'll make it but sometimes you won't."

Megan Edge

Megan Edge is a former reporter for Alaska Dispatch and Alaska Dispatch News.