On a Friday night about a dozen years ago, Tom Mattice, then the owner of a snow cat skiing business, told a group of skiers: “It’s really a tragedy that someone will probably die in Washington State tomorrow.”
“Saturday was supposed to be warm and sunny,” recalled Mattice, now the avalanche forecaster for Juneau and director of the Southeast Alaska Avalanche Center, “and the hills would be packed with people who forget that all week long, it was building avalanche conditions.”
The next day, avalanches in Washington buried three people within five miles. Mattice was called to the scene of one of them.
“I said to myself, ‘It’s probably a body search,’” he said.
Mattice joined the search, starting from the bottom of the mountain and moving up. A short while later, he saw debris in the snow — and then a snowmobile. People are almost always buried uphill of their machine, Mattice said, so he went up and found a glove sticking out of the snow. In that glove was a hand.
“I dug, dug, dug,” he said.
Twenty-two minutes after he got that call, Mattice unearthed the man, whose faceshield had protected him and allowed him to breathe.
“Always do the best you can,” Mattice said. “Never give up until you’ve touched skin to skin with that person that’s missing.”
One of the others buried that day was saved by a friend who put his transceiver in his jacket and turned it on when he wasn’t looking. The third caught in an avalanche’s path wasn’t as fortunate.
It’s the goal of Mattice and other organizers of the 2015 Southeast Alaska Avalanche Center’s Southeast Alaska Snow and Avalanche Workshop, scheduled for Dec. 11, to avoid situations like the one above — and to make sure that if people are caught in avalanches, those with them have everything they need to maximize their partners’ survival.
“If you have to call 911, odds are good he’s a statistic,” Mattice said.
This year’s workshop features presentations from International Federation of Mountain Guides Associations mountain and ski guide Colin Zacharias; director of the Chugach National Forest Avalanche Center Wendy Wagner; associate professor of outdoor studies at Alaska Pacific University Eeva Latosuo; snow and avalanche forecaster at the Alaska Department of Transportation Andy Dietrick; retired National Weather Service science officer Carl Dierking; and Kensington Gold Mine snow and avalanche safety director Ron Simenhois.
Topics include decision-making, a forecaster’s perspective on assessing avalanches, how wind affects snow conditions, emerging technology and the Department of Transportation’s programs.
“Every regional workshop is a little different flavor,” DOT’s Dietrick said. “Anybody who is interested in snow and avalanches, outdoor recreation — anybody who’s recreating in avalanche terrain or who’s got an interest in that, will find something in this conference that is interesting.”
The workshop should also interest anyone with a fascination with weather in general, he said, and Juneau has a number of people who could benefit from snow knowledge.
“The last month, we’ve gone up to Eaglecrest, and the parking lot is half full on most days,” he said. “There are so many people that are in town these days ... that are interested in recreating in the snow and in the mountains. It’s great to see, for sure.”
It should be educational for both those who have more advanced knowledge of avalanches and those who are more beginners, Mattice said.
“It’s a great community event with lots of fun, and lots of giveaways,” he said.
There will be door prizes from Eaglecrest, Foggy Mountain, Alaska Powder Descents, Patagonia and other sponsors.
“The idea is building safety through education — how we all need to raise the bar and be mentors to those around us, so that we can share that information and become a stronger, safer community,” Mattice said.
The workshop is at 6 p.m. Friday, Dec. 11, in the Rockwell Ballroom. It costs $15 at the door, which opens at 5 p.m.
For more information, contact Tom Mattice at firstname.lastname@example.org.
• Contact Juneau Empire outdoors writer Mary Catharine Martin at email@example.com.