Deadly deception

by • February 12, 2014 • 61 NorthComments (0)1141

Avalanche danger a risk not worth taking


Avalanche danger is not just a threat to those seeking out big adventure, such as climbing Denali. Danger can be as close as well-traveled ski slopes or even the snow on your roof.  By Andy Hall

Avalanche danger is not just a threat to those seeking out big adventure, such as climbing Denali. Danger can be as close as well-traveled ski slopes or even the snow on your roof.
By Andy Hall

By the time you read this, snow will almost certainly have killed someone in Alaska. It happens every year. In the winter of 1988-89, snow killed a dozen people – eight snowmachine riders, a snowboarder, a climber, a hiker and a utility worker.

In the winter of 2001-2002, there were 11 dead – five snowmachine riders, three snowshoers and three climbers. The carnage has been less since. On average through the past decade, snow has killed about three people per year, though the picture is not quite that simple.

Only one person died last year, a heli-ski guide. The year before, there were six; two heli-ski guides and four climbers on Mount McKinley.

Snow is a sneaky substance. It doesn’t look all that dangerous. It’s pure and white and oft-times light and fluffy. But it has a nasty way of sneaking up on you. It killed 29-year-old Jeffery Nissman, the man who designed the website for the Chugach National Forest Avalanche Information Center, when he walked out of the Forest Service work center in the community of Portage in 2004.

A slab of snow estimated to weigh 650-pounds slid off the roof of the building and crushed him. Nissman was not the first or the last to die this way.

In 2008, a neighbor of 85-year-old Venita Jonson of Rockford, Wash., found her buried in snow and dead after she apparently ventured outside to shovel after a storm.

The neighbor, a local newspaper reported, “had stopped by the woman’s home to give her some candy and found the front door standing open.”

When he went around the house to investigate, he spotted the back of Jonson’s “head protruding from a pile of snow,” the story continued. “Her snow shovel handle was sticking out of the snow nearby. It appeared the snow had cascaded from her rooftop, knocked her down and buried her.”

These sorts of incidents are, thankfully, unusual. Some might describe them as “freak accidents.” Not so with many of the rest. Most of the people who die in avalanches trigger them.

Some do it because they don’t know better. Others push the boundaries of safety in the name of having fun. The latter reflects some sort of strange, mental disconnect.

What sort of fun could be so enticing that you’d risk dying today instead of playing it safe in order to have fun again tomorrow?

And yet, people regularly stumble into the fun trap. Members of the Alyeska Ski Patrol watched in horror when snow killed 30-year-old Joel Schihl in 2006. He was backcountry skiing on Raggedtop Mountain across the Girdwood valley from the ski resort with friend Bradley Cosgrove, then 28, when they tripped an avalanche.

Authorities later reported Cosgrove successfully skied about a third of the way down from the mountain’s 5,200-foot summit before Schihl started his descent. He probably thought he was safe following someone else’s track. He made but two turns before a 100-foot-wide wall of snow ripped loose and slid 2,000 feet.

It swallowed Schihl. Cosgrove managed to ski out of the way and then found his buried partner, thanks to the fact both were wearing avalanche beacons. Cosgrove dug him out, but, sadly, Schihl was already dead.

This is not uncommon. Avalanche beacons make it possible to find avalanche victim quickly, but they do not guarantee anyone will survive. People often die from trauma after being tumbled in the snow.

Schihl, who emigrated to Alaska from Virginia in search of adventure in the north, left behind a pregnant wife. It is the secondary cost of deadly snow. The survivors of the victims pay a price, too.

That alone ought to be enough to make you think twice about the risks you’re willing to take in the name of fun. How will your parents, your children or your spouse feel if you don’t come back?

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