The wind was driving snow sideways across the mountains above Alaska’s largest city again on Thursday when the email arrived from Chugach National Forest Trail technician Irene Lindquist noting the high avalanche danger across much of Southcentral Alaska this winter.
It was a reminder of how lucky the state has been that only one Alaskan has died so far this year in a winter prime for snowslides.
The Chugach National Forest Avalanche Information Center was again Friday warning that “recent heavy precipitation, strong winds and warm temperatures have created dangerous conditions in the Southern Kenai; this includes the Seward zone (Lost Lake/Carter/etc). Travel is not recommended in avalanche terrain. Other regions throughout Southcentral, AK including Chugach State Park and Hatcher Pass have heightened avalanche conditions.”
CNFAIC does no avalanche forecasting for the Chugach, but many who have been above treeline of late in the half-million-acre wilderness park at Anchorage’s doorstep have noted the pockets of sugary snow where the mountains aren’t blown bare.
Unconsolidated snow like this is prime to slide. Add weight to the top of it in the form of rain, which fell early in the week, and then more snow, which came later in the week, and it is inclined to slide even more.
Throw in those howling winds, which move around whatever snow is loose to windload deposition areas, and the end result is a powder keg just waiting for someone to touch it off.
“Seward schools closed today due to too much snow!” Lindquist’s e-mail began. “Lots of rain followed by snow, snow, snow has fallen across the (Seward Ranger) district this week. Here is an interesting article on the ‘human factor in avalanches.'”
She attached a December article from the New York Times pointing out the reason for most avalanche deaths: bad judgment.
“Avalanches aren’t just acts of God,” the Times quoted Jordy Hendrikx, the director of the Snow and Avalanche Laboratory at Montana State University saying.
“About 90 percent of avalanche victims trigger the avalanches themselves.”
Some die because they just don’t know enough to assess the risks, but many recognize the risks and simply make bad decisions. Doug Fesler taught avalanche school in Anchorage for a long time. He dug too many of his former students out of avalanches. He eventually retired, walked away from the avalanche business and went off to sail the seas.
Hendrikx appears to be an avalanche expert who has reached a similar point.
“At some point, I realized I could spend the next 10 years looking at the minute details of how snow surface crystals form, and maybe save one or two lives,” Hendrikx told the Times. “But really understanding the decision-making matrix, and how group dynamics affect it — I felt this is where I could make the biggest impact, and ultimately, save more lives.”
Whether Hendrikx and others can change the way people think in the mountains remains to be seen. The track record in Alaska is not particularly good. There is a history of people trained in avalanche recognition dead because they used what they learned as a tool to cut the margins.
This is the serious problem with both safety training and safety gear.
Wearing a helmet, for instance, can encourage people to take more risks and thus make them less safe than if they were helmetless, a pair of scientist from the University of Bath’s Department of Psychology concluded in a study published in the journal Psychological Science last year.
Drs. Ian Walker and Tim Gamble ran an experiment with 80 participants told they were part of an eye-tracking study. They split the participants in half and put baseball caps on one group and helmets on the other. They were then told to inflate balloons on an animated screen and see how many points they could accumulate for successfully doing so without blowing up the balloons.
What the scientists found was that the participants wearing helmets were significantly more likely to over-inflate the balloons and blow them up than the participants wearing the ball caps.
“The helmet could make zero difference to the outcome, but people wearing one seemed to take more risks in what was essentially a gambling task,” Walker told Science Daily. “The practical implication of our findings might be to suggest more extreme unintended consequences of safety equipment in hazardous situations than has previously been thought. Replicated in real-life settings, this could mean that people using protective equipment might take risks against which that protective equipment cannot reasonably be expected to help.”
This is not exactly a new finding, but more of an underline on the previously discovered problem of what has been called “risk compensation.”
People have a bad habit of increasing their tolerance for risk when they think they are supported by equipment or training that protects them from danger.
CNFAIC now has a report posted on its website of a near-miss avalanche at Turnagain Pass earlier this month. It involves a good-size avalanche triggered by one of three snowmachine riders.
It is worth noting all three readers were packing avalanche rescue gear and wearing avalanche air bags, the latest in avalanche safety equipment. They reported doing some high marking and noticing “no signs of cracks or wind loading” in the snow in the Lynx Creek valley.
They did not dig a pit to get any idea of what the snowpack looked like, and it is sometimes hard to get a feel for what the snow beneath you is doing while riding a snowmachine.
The stuff hit the fan for the three when one of them climbed a 40-degree slope – classic avalanche terrain – to get up onto the ridge above Lynx Creek.
“After watching him crest the top (cheer slightly) I turned to work on the machine again,” the report recounts a witness to the slide observing. “As I did that I heard a large cracking sound. I looked back and the top of the hill had begun to slide. We were fairly far away from the toe of the slope, but I immediately told the other rider to go and we both began driving further away. It was surprising how far down the hill and how fast the avalanche went….
“I have been close to several avalanches, but this one definitely was the largest that I have seen! Seeing the force and how it rolled through the valleys so quickly was pretty eye-opening. I wanted to post to try help spreading the word. Too many times have I or a group been sitting on a slope watching as someone climbed above. Even if we thought we were outside the run-out zone, this definitely showed me that you can never be too safe. Point sleds towards safety when stopping and be prepared to go no matter what.”
Someone would appear to be just a little older and little wiser in the wake of this experience. Not surprisingly, Hendrikx told The Times this is one of the things that make people safer.
What you survive…
This is not a new observation.
“Adolescents and young adults take more risks than any other age groups,” Nina S. Mounts writes in Psychology Today. “Despite educational efforts to provide teens with information about risky behavior, many adolescents continue to engage in risky behavior.”
People tend to grow out of this if they live long enough.
It’s not that young people don’t recognize the risks, according to the research. It’s that they lack experience, and they don’t take risks as seriously as older people.
Part of this is brain chemistry. New research has shown that older people use the parts of the brain associated with decision-making and self-regulation to assess risk while younger people are more inclined to use the part of the brain associated with rewards.
This problem of wanting a thrill is only compounded by the desire of young people for peer approval:
“Go for it, Thomas!”
What the psychologists have found jives well with what Hendrikx told The Times he is finding in reports gathered from hundreds of people out recreating in avalanche country.
“Some evidence suggests larger groups make riskier decisions,” The Times reported. “Part of that may be peer pressure or a desire to show off. Part of it may be the socalled expert halo, which causes people to blindly defer to the perceived authority in the group instead of communicating about perceived dangers.
“Faced with the same avalanche conditions, experts chose steeper terrain, where avalanches are more likely to be triggered, than others.”
Hendrickx’s data also underlined something a lot of winter Alaska adventurers have known for a long time: Solo travelers tend to make safer choices.
The Times called this “more surprising,” noting that “going out alone in the backcountry tends to be seen as risky.” Rudy Wittshirk, a Willow resident who hikes and snowshoes all over the Talkeetna Mountains in the winter, usually be himself, would beg to differ.
So, too, Dick Griffith, a legend in Alaska wilderness travel, and a lot of others who go it alone. When traveling in snow-covered mountains with no one to dig you out if an avalanche hits, rational people think very, very seriously about the extremely high consequences of being buried.
There is little doubt that the Alaska avalanche fatality rate would be considerably lower if everyone thought this way, and there is no better time to be thinking about that then now with Chugach, Kenai and Talkeetna mountains north and south of Anchorage all posing considerable risks.
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