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Avalanche safety course offered in Kodiak to help prevent accidents and fatalities around the island

A fresh avalanche in the Kodiak backcountry. Avalanche risks increase when the island experiences a snowy winter, (Photo: Steve Wielebski)
A fresh avalanche in the Kodiak backcountry. Avalanche risks increase when the island experiences a snowy winter, (Photo: Steve Wielebski)

As warmer spring weather approaches, and the snow continues to build in the backcountry on Kodiak Island, conditions are prime for avalanches. This week the Alaska Avalanche School will be in Kodiak to provide classes for residents who want to be safe when recreating in avalanche areas.

Chris Bruno, one of the instructors with the Alaska Avalanche School, formerly lived in Kodiak. Based on his experience recreating in the mountains around the area, most of the hazardous conditions are wet, wind slabs which include a harder layer on top of a weak layer in the snowpack. Wind slabs are formed as wind transports snow from the upwind sides of terrain features and deposits snow on the downwind side, into a smooth, rounded layer.

“I think that’s a lot of what you’re going to get in Kodiak just because the storms come in warm, the snow is heavy and wet, relatively speaking. As opposed to other places in Alaska where you might get really cold storms with low water content snow, so fluffy snow as opposed to heavy snow,” Bruno explained.

To be better prepared and more knowledgeable of avalanche conditions on Kodiak Island, Bruno recommends residents take the school’s local course. For a more in-depth course, you can sign up for the Alaska Avalanche School’s recreational level one class in Kodiak.

According to Bruno, 25% of avalanche fatalities are due to injury from trauma or hitting debris while the vast majority of deaths are caused by asphyxiation. Bruno referenced the fatal incident south of Anchorage [in Turnagain Pass] last month where one backcountry skier died in a human-triggered avalanche. He said the goal of avalanche education is to avoid these situations.

“We do spend time using the tools for rescue. And like in the level 1 [class] we spend a whole day teaching rescue, so what to do with your beacon, shovel and probe if somebody in your party gets buried in an avalanche. So that is an important part of avalanche curriculum,” Bruno stated. “But a lot of the curriculum is focused on, ‘how do I make good decisions in the backcountry, to avoid getting into an avalanche?’”

There is no avalanche forecast center in Kodiak, so people recreating in the backcountry have to use their own knowledge and evaluate local conditions when in avalanche areas.

Steve Wielebski, the president of Kodiak Island Search and Rescue (KI-SAR), said prevention and being educated about potential avalanche conditions is the best way to avoid having to call search and rescue.

“We’re pretty lucky in Kodiak. We have a very stable snowpack, a maritime snowpack, and that means it has a lot of water in the snowpack so it tends to stick pretty well to the mountainside,” Wielebski explained. “But there are occasions due to the weather, climate, and storm cycles where we do get avalanches.”

Wielebski said so far this year there have only been a couple small avalanches on Kodiak Island, but nothing major resulting in injury or fatalities. The state averages three avalanche deaths per season, according to staff from the Chugach National Forest Avalanche Information Center.

For anyone who wants to learn about basic avalanche safety, there is a free public lecture Wednesday night, March 13, at the Bayside Firehall in Kodiak. To sign up for Bruno’s class this weekend in Kodiak, go to the Alaska Avalanche School’s website-