Avalanche awareness workshop offered free to public | RecordCourier.com

Avalanche awareness workshop offered free to public

by Linda Hiller

In the 6-1/2 weeks since 1998 rolled into 1999, nearly 70 people have died worldwide as a result of avalanches. That’s more than one fatality per day.

Four days ago, on Valentine’s Day, two Washington state snow boarders died in an avalanche around noon while skiing out of bounds near the Mount Baker Ski Area in the northern part of the state.

One week ago without warning, a 120-mph avalanche in the Mont Blanc region of France took out 17 chalets and 11 lives, and in that country another six people died from avalanches that week, bringing the total of French fatalities to 17.

Closer to home, 10 days ago, four U.C. Berkeley students who were sledding outside of Truckee got caught by an avalanche and were buried for six hours. One student, a 21-year-old man from New Hampshire, died and the other three were treated for hypothermia.

On Thursday, Feb. 25, from 6:30 to 9:30 p.m., a free class on avalanche awareness will be presented to Carson Valley residents by international avalanche consultant Phil Caterino. This is a basic class, focusing on the weather, terrain and snow conditions which could lead to avalanches.

Next Thursday’s class, facilitated by Gary Weigel of the U.S. Forest Service at Lake Tahoe, is aimed at cross country skiers, back country skiers, downhill skiers, snowboarders, snowshoers, snowmobilers and anyone else who spends time in snow country.

Weigel, a Gardnerville Ranchos resident, said anyone who doubts that avalanches can do big damage right here in our own Sierra backyard should look at a recent avalanche site off Highway 50 on the way to Echo Summit.

“Many people don’t have a clue what we’re up against,” Weigel said. “That avalanche took out quite a few trees.”

Though ski resorts routinely perform avalanche control measures such as firing explosives into high avalanche areas to actually cause a controlled snow slide, thus preventing a larger surprise avalanche in those areas, Mother Nature will not be completely controlled, Weigel said. Many commercial ski areas have small avalanche-prone areas, particularly for those who choose to “ski the trees.” Recently, a Heavenly ski patrol suffered a broken leg after an avalanche incident at the popular resort, he said.

n Where and who. Last year, 31 people died in avalanches in the United States and Canada combined. Utah, Montana, British Columbia, Colorado and Wyoming, in that order, topped the list.

On average, Colorado, Alaska, Utah and Montana are usually the hardest hit with avalanches. Nevada doesn’t generally make the list, since the bulk of the Sierra slides are in California.

Activities which are most likely to bring a person closer to avalanches are, in order, ski touring, climbing, snowmobiling and out-of-bounds skiing or snow boarding.

n How can you tell? Weigel said that typically, wind loading and a heavy snow can result in an avalanche 48 to 72 hours following the weather, but there are no absolutes when it comes to avalanches. Weigel, who took his family snow camping on Valentine’s weekend, said he would never call himself an avalanche expert.

“I know that if you asked Phil if he is an avalanche expert, he would also tell you ‘no,'” Weigel said. “None of us would.”

Factors to look at in predicting avalanches include terrain, weather and snow characteristics. They all play into the avalanche equation, yet no two situations are identical, he said.

Most snow slides occur on moderate slopes between 25 to 50 degrees facing away from prevailing winds. Very steep slopes pose little avalanche risk because the snow doesn’t get a chance to build up to dangerous depths. Spring and summer, with the most temperature fluctuations in any given day, are the seasons to really be cautious.

Sunny days followed by cloudy days are worthy of caution.

An average avalanche might release 100,000 tons of snow. Nine out of 10 times, victims trigger their own avalanches and generally only one-third of those individuals survive.

n To be safe. Carrying beacons which can beep a radio signal to rescuers is a good idea, along with rescue gear including a folding shovel and telescoping stick to prod the snow. Depending on your location, a cellular phone may or may not be able to call out, but it couldn’t hurt. Some snacks and water in a backpack are also recommended, along with movement- activated hand and feet warmers.

n Where’s the class? Caterino gives classes at Kings Beach and South Shore, and since he has family living in the Carson Valley, Weigel said, he wanted to do one here, too. The free avalanche awareness class will be held Thursday, Feb. 25 from 6:30 to 9:30 p.m. at the Carson Valley Inn.

For information on the class, contact Weigel at 265-3972 or contact the Cyberspace Snow and Avalanche Center at http://www.CSAC.org

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