January is peak avalanche month, the deadliest time for people who venture out into the backcountry.
But according to recent research, it’s not those brand new to the backcountry who’ve been getting caught in avalanches during the pandemic. More often, it’s experienced skiers. And the new Coastal Alaska Avalanche Center is trying to help.
According to the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, 23 people died in avalanches in the U.S. last year. That includes three in Alaska. Over the last seventy years, Alaska is second only to Colorado for total number of deaths.
The City and Borough of Juneau routinely issues urban avalanche advisories. But those only apply to the nearby mountains that tower over downtown.
Usually, anyone who goes outside Eaglecrest Ski Area boundaries or heads into the backcountry wouldn’t know about conditions unless they’re trained to recognize avalanche hazards.
Mike Janes, a Juneau-based avalanche forecaster and educator, said the new Coastal Alaska Avalanche Center compiles observations from the general public as well as professionals, and puts them up on a website for people to check before they head out.
“We really encourage anybody to post. It’s kind of a crowdsourcing approach, right?” Janes said. “If somebody sees an avalanche, or triggers one, or sees some sign of instability, it’s great to be able to share that. And it doesn’t take a professional to share a lot of this information.”
The website includes a map of alpine weather conditions around Juneau.
Janes said the goal is to provide avalanche forecasts for some of the more popular backcountry recreation areas around Juneau such as Mt. Troy, Mt. Ben Stewart, Mt. McGinnis, Dan Moller Trail, northern Douglas Island, and the backside of Mt. Roberts and the Perseverance Basin.
Eventually, other areas in Southeast Alaska such as Ketchikan and Sitka might be included.
With the pandemic prompting more people to get outside and away from others, Janes is concerned about people heading into the backcountry without avalanche experience.
“From what I saw in Eaglecrest last spring, for example, not just inside, but outside of the ski area boundary, you do have people traveling out in these places that don’t have rescue training or as much knowledge,” Janes said.
But it turns out that Janes may need to worry more about Juneau’s expert skiers and snowboarders than those who are new to the sport.
Ethan Greene, director of the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, said it’s been a rough season in the Colorado backcountry.
“We have had four fatal accidents in Colorado so far this year, all in December,” Greene said.
Greene is the co-author of research that looks at the training and experience of those caught in avalanches immediately before and after the pandemic closed Colorado ski areas in mid-March 2020.
Greene said there were worries then — just as there are now in Juneau — about new users, beginning and intermediate skiers and snowboarders, venturing outside those closed areas.
“And that was going to continue into this current winter, where the ski industry was going to have more regulations,” Greene explained. “More people were going into the backcountry, and [there were concerns] these new users, these inexperienced users, we’re going to cause a bunch of accidents.”
But Greene said that wasn’t the case. They discovered that advanced and expert users — those who already had specialized training and skills to identify hazards and do rescues — were more likely to get caught or killed in an avalanche.
“We did see some accidents where people said that they were trying to go into new places because of abuse patterns — changes in use patterns,” Greene said. “We certainly can’t say everybody was doing that. But we can point to, again, anecdotally, a couple specific events and say, ‘Hey, that did happen.’”
In other words, there were a few people who admitted using their training and experience to venture further into potentially risky areas in an effort to get away from others.