Tough lessons

by • November 14, 2016 • Feature Photos, Safety MattersComments (0)1106

Don’t become a statistic: be prepared for snow season

What do Brenda Smart, Sharon Gurtler Strick, Patsy Coyne, Adene Arthur, Janet Tally and Billie Sundgren Tewalt all have in common? They are all mothers who lost a child in an avalanche in Alaska.

And they are far from alone. Dozens more parents are also grieving children killed by avalanches in Alaska. We have lost 49 people in snowslides since 2000. That’s an average of more than three people ever year. There were six fatalities during the 2015-2016 season.
Sons, wives, husbands, friends…

It was 30 years ago when my husband, Bruce, was killed after a frozen slope collapsed and buried him. He died from severe trauma and the only thing that likely could have saved his life was more awareness and education about the potential hazards.


Participants use an avalanche transceiver for a buried victim. Photo by Debra McGhan.

When my children grew to be teenagers and were riding snowmachines then skiing and boarding in the mountains around Alaska from Hatcher Pass to Thompson Pass, I realized that it was just a lack of knowledge that often killed people in avalanches. No one set out to get buried. They were all just in the wrong place at the right time.

So I set out on a mission to help make this knowledge commonplace and available to everyone.

Today I serve as the director of the Alaska Avalanche Information Center, working every day to get this information out to the public. Thanks to a grant from the Alaska Community Foundation, we were able to build the website, where there is a wealth of information on snow and weather conditions. You’ll also find a routinely updated safety tip blog and schedule of training opportunities.
The AAIC team has been working with the Alaska Department of Public Safety to provide backcountry safety training in the schools and looks forward to continually expanding this program. We know that understanding the potential hazards, how to avoid them, and having the supplies needed if everything goes wrong often makes the difference between life and death.


AAIC Education Director Sarah Carter explains the importance of carrying proper safety gear to a group of students. Photo by Debra McGhan.

November is Avalanche Awareness Education Month and a great time to brush up your skills before the snow piles up too deep. Thanks to support from AARP Alaska (who wants all Alaskans to stay safe and eventually become senior citizens) the AAIC is collaborating with such partners as the Chugach National Forest Service, Alaska Avalanche School, Alaska Mining and Diving Supply and many other local vendors to hold a special program on Nov. 5. Representatives from these organizations and businesses will be on hand at the Loussac Library, 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Nov. 5 for a host of educational programs.

It’s all free and you can check out the movie premieres, hands-on training for avalanche rescue, guest speakers, gear demonstrations, new equipment displays, additional education opportunities and much more.

This winter, start your season out right by tuning up on your mountain travel skills, checking out the new technology, and learning everything you can to avoid having your mother, wife, husband, friends endure the toughest of lessons in life.

Learn more at or call 907-255-2242.

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