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Dying season

The big, wild and potentially dangerous Knik Glacier/Craig Medred photo

And so the season of death begins in Alaska.

A 40-year-old skier is dead in an avalanche near the Matanuska Glacier, according to Alaska State Troopers. Five more skiers, among them a Czech billionaire, are dead in a helicopter crash just to the west near the Knik Glacier.

Alaska government officials catalog these as “unintentional injury” deaths, and the 49th state is annually a national leader in the category.

Plenty more will follow as the population of the state swells with tourists on the way into summer.

“In 2017, unintentional injury was the third leading cause of death in the nation with an age-adjusted rate of 49.4 per 100,000,” according to the state Department of Health and Social Services. “Unintentional injury was also the third leading cause of death in Alaska, accounting for 9.7 percent of all mortality and an age-adjusted rate of 63.0 (deaths) per 100,000.”

Alaska’s rate was about 27 percent above the national average and headed in the wrong direction – up not down.

“In 2018, Alaskans had an unintentional injury mortality rate of 55.2 per 100,000, exceeding the Healthy Alaskans 2020 goal of 54.8 per 100,000,” according to the agency. “The rate for Alaska Native people was twice as high at 137.6 per 100,000.”

For comparison’s sake, the state’s COVID-19 death rate is 42.2 per 100,000 more than a year into the pandemic, according to the Worldometer counter. 

The Alaska goal of just under 55 unintentional injury deaths per 100,000 people is,  it should be noted, far in excess of the national goal of reducing these deaths to 36.4 per 100,000. State officials seem to have accepted that Alaska is an especially dangerous place, but that is not all of what is going on.

National parallels

Accidental deaths from drug overdoses are going up in the 49th state as in most states, and as the Alaskan population ages, there are more people dying in falls. Part of that is tied in turn to the country’s obesity epidemic.

Researchers have concluded older adults thick around the middle have been found to have a 37 percent greater chance of falling than those with a smaller waistline, a finding that led the Harvard Medical School to advise that “men should aim for a waist circumference less than 40 inches, and women should aim for less than 35 inches.”

Some of Alaska’s unintentional injury deaths could, it would appear, be reduced by a little less eating and a little more exercise. and others by better drug treatment programs. But there is a third category in which prevention gets a whole lot harder.

“Transportation is a leading cause of injury and death in Alaska,” the state report notes. “Transportation injuries include those suffered on and off roadways and with motorized and non-motorized modes of transportation including cars, trucks, all-terrain vehicles (ATV’s), snow machines, boats, bicycles and pedestrians.”

Some of these deaths are attributable to weather, and some qualify as freak accidents. But way too many involve flawed decision-making by pilots, drivers of all kinds of vehicles, skiers, hikers, climbers, cyclists and more.

Risk assessment

The best illustration of the problem comes from researchers who studied aircraft crashes about which the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) compiles a lot of information.

After looking at that data, researchers reporting in a peer-reviewed study in Aviation Space and Environmental Medicine concluded that “pilot error was a probable cause in 38 percent of the major airline crashes, 74 percent of the commuter/air taxi crashes, and 85 percent of the general aviation crashes.”

“Adverse weather,” they added, “is consistently associated with a significantly elevated likelihood of pilot error, possibly due to increased performance demand.”

Alaska is the land of adverse weather. The list of pilots – a few friends and some acquaintances among them – who flew into weather thinking they could cheat the weather Gods only to end up dead is long.

Other so-called “accidents” are nowhere near as well studied as aircraft crashes. In fact, Alaska outdoor injury deaths are seldom investigated unless they are work-related. But if they were, there is little doubt researchers would find what those looking at aircraft deaths found.

Jerry Lewanski, once the chief ranger for Chugach State Park and later the director of the state’s Division of Parks and Outdoor Recreation, once observed that true accidents are rare. Lewanski investigated a few in his years with the state, and almost every one tracked back to a bad decision made by someone for any number of reasons.

They were ignorant of the dangers. They were in a hurry to get from point A to point B. They’d tried similar risky maneuvers before, concluded from surviving the first time that they were safe, and repeated them only to die. They were so preoccupied with day-to-day troubles they simply weren’t paying attention. Or they assumed that because others were doing something that looked less than fully safe it must be OK.

In March of 1999, snowmachine riders playing on Seattle ridge in Turnagain Pass along the Seward Highway about 60 miles southeast of Anchorage ripped out a massive avalanche that killed six.

Witnesses at the time reported dozens of snowmachines on the sun-kissed slope or in the gullies beneath when a slab avalanche seven to 15 feet deep and more than a mile long broke loose near the crest of the ridge.

Aaron Arthur, a newly married Palmer electrician, was trying to see how far up the ridge he could push his machine, something Alaskans call “high marking.” His sister said later that he was a highly skilled rider who had in the past outrun avalanche.

He couldn’t outrun this one.

“Nobody was ever expecting the whole mountainside to fall off,” Ken Seagle of Anchorage said in the wake of the catastrophe.

That wasn’t quite true. A few Nordic skiers on the north-facing slope across the valley had spent the day watching the south-facing slope warm in the sun and fearing it might let go. Some of them were familiar with the rotten snowpack beneath the pristine white slope running up to the ridge top.

Education

Doug Fesler, another former Chugach Park chief ranger who formed the Alaska Avalanche School in 1976, once thought education was the key to prevent avalanche deaths. When I was the outdoor editor at the Anchorage Daily News (ADN) in the early 1980s, we used to get into heated arguments about his refusal to identify people caught in avalanches.

Fesler’s view was that stories about their near-deaths appearing in the news might prove embarrassing and discourage people from reporting avalanches, thus limiting his ability to gather avalanche information.

My argument was that every avalanche was a teaching moment for the public at large. Fesler, however, remained adamant that a better way was to protect those who made mistakes and try to educate them and the rest. He didn’t abandon that idea until after he’d dug the bodies of a number of his former students out of the snow.

Their deaths appeared due to an old problem: risk compensation.  It is a behavior best documented in the downhill ski and bicycle communities, where people put on helmets and then take bigger risks because they think they are safer.

Unintended consequences

Researchers who used a baseball hat and a bike helmet as mounts to track eye movements in a risk-taking study involving activities conducted on a computer found that the helmeted players took more risks.

“Laboratory measures showed greater risk-taking and sensation-seeking when participants wore a helmet, rather than a baseball cap, during testing,” the wrote in a peer-reviewed study published in the Journal of Psychological Science. “These effects arose even though the helmet was introduced as a mount for an eye-tracking apparatus and not as safety equipment, and even though it could do nothing to alter participants’ level of risk on the experimental task. Notably, the effect was an immediate shift in both risk-taking and sensation seeking.”

The unintended consequence of safety gear, they concluded, is that “people using protective equipment against specific hazards might also be unduly inclined to take risks that such protective equipment cannot reasonably be expected to guard against.”

Fesler concluded that knowledge faced much the same problem. Skiers and snowmobilers trained to recognize avalanche conditions, which range from zero on flat lands to 100 percent on extremely steep slopes after a fresh snowfall, were more inclined to push the boundaries of safety to the edge, and as a result, they died.

It is a problem that runs parallel to simple carelessness or over-estimation of one’s ability in the records of unintended injury deaths in the 49th state. There are all too many of these deaths every year, too; and they start amping up about now as the days lengthen and people venture outdoors more and more.

A day after the skiers died in the helicopter crash near Knik Glacier, there was a report of a fat biker falling through the ice of the Knik River while trying to ride to that now popular glacial attraction. Fast-flowing rivers are especially dangerous in Alaska.

If you fall through and get sucked under the ice, it’s over. But there are so many ways to die in the Alaska wilds.

All it takes is one slip in judgment on the part of those who know what they’re doing. And for those who are clueless, the risks are even greater. Thankfully, the fear of the unknown tends to concentrate them near the road system or on well-traveled trails.

Despite complaints about the number of people now using Powerline Pass and Flattop Mountain above Anchorage, is it probably a good thing, a very good thing, that most use of Chugach State Park concentrates in and around that area.

Even with COVID-19 – a highly contagious disease in the air – there is safety in numbers for the human animal which can’t always be counted on to display good judgment. It’s good to have others around to help when someone decides to hike to the 3,510-foot top of Flattop in flip-flops only to twist an ankle and need rescue.

One would think people would know better, but nobody knows what they don’t know.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

4 replies »

  1. What do you speculate Craig? At first I thought it was a whiteout misnavigation. Now, it seems more likely a rotor strike on difficult terrain and wind conditions. The pilot will experience severe wind variability as he flies closer to the LZ at the top of a ridge. Sometimes it can surprise you.

    • Those routes as far as I know were on the cutting edge of knowledge. Pioneering first descents. I wonder what run lay before them – ever been done?

  2. Stay away from south facing slopes until later in the spring when the melt – freeze cycle has consolidated the entire snowpack into a single firm layer…until then if you do choose to venture out into the back-country to enjoys the mountains, my advice (to skiers) is to use ridgelines as your ascent up then descend down the steepest north face you can possible navigate.
    My condolences go out to the families & friends affected by the deaths over the weekend.
    “Some days the mountains give us pure joy & other days they swallow up those we love” – author unknown.

    • Hey Steve, .good advice..Condolences go out to all involved as well.. As far as the A-Star goes my guess is the pilot did not “slam” into the mountain top as reported.. My assumption is he was repositioning for a drop and due to being single pilot, with bad depth perception in the ice and snow had the tip of his rotor disc connect with the peak and the rest is history.

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