Behind the scenes

by • October 25, 2017 • Highlights, Safety MattersComments (0)5

The answers to the question: ‘What is Alaska Avalanche Information Center?’

What is the Alaska Avalanche Information Center?” I’ve been asked this question many times since becoming the director in 2014. It’s the mystery that so many are trying to understand. What is the AAIC w,ho are the people behind this nonprofit, and what is it they are trying to accomplish?

For me, the journey began the night before Thanksgiving in 1986. I can still see the gold balls spinning in our anniversary clock as I waited for my husband to come home from work. Instead he was struck on the back of his head by a ton of frozen earth and snow and never came back. It set me off on a journey I had never expected.

The Alaska Avalanche Information Center holds field training class for skiers, boarders, hikers and riders.
DEBRA MCGHAN

Years later, when my children were teenagers, we found ourselves living in Valdez right smack in the middle of the mountains. We heard about neighbors being caught in avalanches. In 1998-99 it seemed avalanche fatalities were constantly in the news. That year, 13 people died in nine separate avalanches, six in one slide.

It really hit home when my son came home from hiking and snowboarding in our back yard at the base of Hogback Ridge, white as a sheet and totally disturbed by his close call with a rushing “river” of snow that filled the gully he had been hiking up just minutes before.

I realized then just how little we knew about avalanches despite being second- and third-generation Alaskans. I wanted every child to have the opportunity to learn what red flags Mother Nature sends to help avoid getting swept up by a huge avalanche.

I began fundraising and grant writing in order to get a program launched. Working with Dean Cummings, who had won the World Extreme Skiing Championships in 1995 and was offering a basic awareness program at my children’s high school, in 2004 we recruited Karen Stokes and Alex Eaton to help us launch the North America Outdoor Institute (NAOI.)

The NAOI quickly expanded its mission from avalanches and snow safety to include all-season outdoor education.

In 2008 a group of like-minded outdoor enthusiasts and professional snow forecasters decided to start the Alaska Avalanche Information Center to focus on filling the avalanche education and forecasting void that still existed in Alaska.

NAOI began contracting with AAIC and the Alaska Avalanche School, in addition to H2O Guides, in order to ensure the highest level of snow instructors were providing quality avalanche education.

After a few years’ hiatus to rehabilitate from an injury, I returned again in 2014, to help AAIC further its mission ‘to support and promote avalanche forecasts, education, research, professional development, and networking of practitioners.’

At our board meeting, I wanted to know why they were doing this and they all agreed that it was because they like to ski, hike, ride and play in Alaska’s backcountry because it’s fun and makes them feel happy and alive. They also wanted other people to be able to do this without coming home in a body bag. Most had friends injured or killed in avalanches, and they wanted to share information about the snow conditions and how to avoid getting caught in a slide. They were trained forecasters and teachers.

Ultimately the group agreed to include in its mission statement, “in the pursuit of healthy lifestyles and the reduction of unintentional injury and death.”

Next we worked on the AAIC’s goals, which were to build a statewide network of support for snow and avalanche safety services that would make it easy for Alaskans to find the information they needed, no matter where they might travel.

To do this, AAIC needed to collaborate with lots of other agencies, entities and individuals with similar goals.

The annual Snow Safety Summit, which was first held in 2007 at Kincaid Park and hosted by NAOI, has helped to bring representatives from agencies including the Alaska Department of Public Safety, Alaska Railroad, Alaska Mountain Rescue Group, Alaska Avalanche, School, Department of Transportation, Labor, Parks, National Weather Service, ski resorts, private mountain and helicopter guide services, snowmachine guides and representatives from the general public together to address snow safety concerns and challenges.

This year marks the 10th anniversary of the summit and the focus is on communication. One of the greatest obstacles to informing the public about all the resources we have in Alaska is lack of communication. How can we work together to ensure that people know what information is available and where they can find it quickly and easily?

Jeremy Zidek, public information officer with the State of Alaska Homeland Security, and David Snider, public information officer for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration will provide the keynote address at this year’s Summit.

You can join the effort or just learn more about AAIC and the Snow Safety Summit at www.alaskasnow.org.

 

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