Beacon check stations honor skier killed in Hatcher Pass avalanche
There's a new tool to help skiers and snow boarders in Hatcher Pass test their avalanche beacons before they head out.
The Hatcher Pass Avalanche Center installed check stations at three popular trailheads: Independence Mine, Fishhook and Gold Mint.
The stations have a red X that flashes to a green O when a person's beacon is transmitting properly.
They were installed in memory of Dr. Liam Walsh who died in an avalanche in Hatcher Pass in 2015.
"His friends and family helped raise $9,000 to put in these three 'Are You Beeping?' signs in Hatcher Pass," said HPAC observer Jessie Haffener.
The Mat-Su Trails and Parks Foundation also pitched in money for the project.
Haffener said the stations are meant to be a visual reminder for people to check their gear. She advises testing beacons with a partner too and follow the DBEAST acronym:
Display: Put into transmit mode, check battery
Battery: Should be at least 50 percent full
Electronics: Keep cell phones/radios 20 inches away from beacon
Air bag: Make sure it's armed (if you carry one)
Search: Turn to search to check partner's beacon
Transmit: Make sure you're picking up partner's signal
The new signs warn people they're entering avalanche terrain and gives them five key elements they should be aware of.
"Did you get the forecast? Did you check Hatcher Pass Avalanche Center? Did you get the picture that there's potential instability in the mountains?" Haffener asked.
Haffener also teaches avalanche courses where people learn about proper equipment they should always carry like a beacon, shovel and probe.
Backcountry beginners quickly find out there's much more to staying safe.
"A lot of people have a beacon and they go out thinking it's a automatic superhero cape and it's not," said Natalie Cadieux, who was taking a three-day course near the Independence Mine parking lot.
Good gear is also no substitute for knowledge of current conditions. That's why HPAC observers, like Haffener, and forecasters dig through snow at popular areas to see what people can expect when they're riding.
"We do a lot of the grunt work so you guys can go outside and have fun and play safe," Haffener explained. "Our advisories tell folks where they're most likely to trigger an avalanche, where they can avoid avalanches and signs they need to be on the lookout for as they're traveling that are indicators there would be an avalanche and how they can travel safely with a given avalanche."
Observers' work on the slopes, as well as the beacon testing stations, are part of an effort to reduce the number of avalanche deaths. Alaska leads the nation when it comes to avalanche deaths per capita, according to the Alaska Avalanche Information Center; Haffener said Hatcher Pass is tied with Turnagain for the deadliest mountains.
The Alaska Avalanche School hosts courses throughout the winter. HPAC has a free training on Jan. 19. Times and locations are available on AAIC's website.
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