A decade ago on Easter Sunday, my sons and I argued about what we should do after church on that warm sunny afternoon. They were still teenagers with swagger and they wanted to climb high and ski down the slopes along the ridge behind our home in Eagle River. Instead, I insisted we cross-country ski on the flat surface of Eagle River – the snow had been too unstable lately for the slopes. I remember their grumbling disappointment as we drove to the trailhead at Mile 7.4 of Eagle River.
It was a dazzling day – the best spring has to offer. Our faces felt the warmth of sunshine and the whole world seemed to be waking. Birds chirped, the trickle of open water hinted at the river’s eventual thaw, and a pair of coyotes sang to each other across the river. It wasn’t long before the brilliance of the day blazed away the shadow of our argument. We were on the river for several hours, enjoying the day and each other’s company.
On the drive back home later in the afternoon, traffic on Eagle River Road slowed to a crawl and then stood at a standstill. As we waited, a helicopter flew overhead and then landed on the road ahead of us. We grew quiet knowing something serious had happened. Later in the day we learned that Bill Crouse, 44, and his stepson, Don Zimmerman, 26 were snowshoeing on the very slopes we had earlier argued over. A sugary layer of snow collapsed beneath them, triggering an avalanche that buried the pair and their two dogs. Neither the men nor their dogs survived the slide.
Their deaths shook our community. We’re a small town and if you didn’t know Bill or Don, you knew someone who did. It was about the time of that tragedy that my sons began sporting avalanche beacons, shovels and probes in the backcountry. I can’t say for sure if the guys even asked for beacons, but it made me feel better knowing they had some safety gear as they skied in the Chugach and Kenai Mountains.
Since then, avalanche safety gear has grown increasingly sophisticated. The Avalung allows someone buried in an avalanche to breathe by diverting carbon dioxide away from the victim’s face and drawing on air directly from the snowpack.
Airbag backpacks are another safety innovation. “Avalanche air bags rely on the principle of inverse segregation. If you shake a bag full of sand and pebbles, the pebbles will rise to the surface . . . (this also works with a bag of chips- the big ones work their way to the top). In avalanches, making yourself bigger can help keep you on the surface, and air bags do that by inflating a bag which increases your size,” wrote blogger Nick Thompson on his website http://www.wildsnow.com
This gear is expensive but it never hurts to stack the deck in your favor if the worst should happen. As of this writing there have been 29 avalanche deaths in the United States this season.
My youngest son, who has spent a season heli-skiing and training in Haines, felt a kinship with the men who died in an avalanche outside of Haines last month. He knows the thrill they felt as they plunged through deep powder, making first tracks on virgin snow. Having skied out of smaller snow slides, he also knows the sick dread of having a slab give way underfoot. It’s like tangling with runaway freight train. The best you can hope for is to get out of the way.
He has been saving up to buy an airbag backpack and recently scraped enough together to finally order one. I’m relieved that he has it, yet we both know that the very best gear will never replace safe route finding, knowledge of snow conditions, and common sense.
To everyone enjoying the backcountry during Alaska’s amazing spring, learn what you can about safe backcountry travel. Take a class and learn how to dig a test pit to evaluate snow conditions. For more information about avalanche safety, visit the Alaska Avalanche Safety Center at http://www.alaskasnow.org/ Most of all just be careful out there.