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Watch your step: Experts give tips to avoid avalanche risks

Published: Apr. 12, 2021 at 4:13 PM AKDT
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FAIRBANKS, Alaska (KTVF) - As temperatures rise and spring starts to stick around, residents may wish to go out and hike, snowboard, and ski while the weather is warm and the snow is still around. The Alaska Avalanche Information Center (AAIC) offers some preventative measures one can take to prepare for and recognize the signs of an avalanche.

“Before folks leave town, if they’re going down to the Eastern Alaska Range around the summit area, Castner Glacier, that type of area, we really want people to check in with their group to make sure everybody kind of has the same mission and the same plan for their day,” remarked Mark Oldmixon, Vice Chair for the AAIC. “A group of riders... some folks want to push the limits and go further and faster and do some big tricks that day, and the other riders want to play more conservatively and maybe stay on some gentle slopes. That difference in expectations or plans for the day can cause people to make decisions that they normally wouldn’t make. I might be more inclined to push myself and go farther than I’m comfortable with.”

There are also key tools one should bring according to Oldmixon. “Before you’re leaving we want to make sure you have an avalanche beacon, a shovel, and a probe for every person and on their person - not stored in their bag on their sled, and not just in the car. We want to bring that avalanche beacon, wear it next to our body, have good battery life, and that we know how to use it. Everybody needs that shovel and probe as well. All three pieces are absolutely critical if an avalanche rescue needs to happen.”

There are several red flags to be looking for such as sudden changes in temperature, which can raise avalanche odds. Snowfall such as the massive storm that hit Fairbanks on Easter can also increase the potential for an avalanche.

“Right now we’re looking at a natural avalanche. There’s a natural avalanche cycle that might be happening with this recent snow from the Easter timeframe. We’re looking for what’s called a ‘whoomph’. When you’re going across the flats, you’re up on a slope and you kind of feel the snow collapse underneath you, and [it] makes this audible sound of ‘whoomph’. That’s just that slab of snow settling. The layer of snow underneath is collapsing with a giant sound - and what that is, that’s a rapid change in the snow structure and the stability. That’s something that you might hear and feel on the lower conditions and the lower angles in the flats. When that happens it’s indicative that might happen on steeper terrain, up on the avalanche terrain, and that’s a bad day,” said Oldmixon.

Those looking to monitor potential avalanche conditions, or seeking classes, can visit alaskasnow.org which contains several resources to keep one informed on avalanche information across Alaska.

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