Avalanche Safety: An Interview with The Avalanche-Center’s Jim Frankenfield

Avalanche Safety1

There could be few unfor­tu­nate cir­cum­stances more uncer­tain than find­ing your­self amidst the flow of an avalanche. World­wide, over 150 peo­ple are killed each year by those rene­gade white currents.

But there are folks out there bent set on dimin­ish­ing that 150 fig­ure. The Avalanche-Cen­ter is a non­prof­it orga­ni­za­tion that works to raise aware­ness on avalanche safety.

I asked The Avalanche-Cen­ter’s Jim Franken­field to describe how they noticed a need and what they decid­ed to do some­thing about it.

Alec Ross: What is The Avalanche Cen­ter all about?
Jim Franken­field: The Goal at the Avalanche Cen­ter is edu­ca­tion and aware­ness. We’ve been on the inter­net so long and actu­al­ly, we were one of the first web­sites on the inter­net, and the first web­site deal­ing specif­i­cal­ly with acci­den­tal report­ing. But we had pret­ty hum­ble begin­nings. We start­ed on a gopher serv­er. At first we just act­ed as an advi­so­ry to the pub­lic, but our func­tion­al­i­ty expand­ed pret­ty rapid­ly. This expan­sion was large­ly because, at the time, the For­est Ser­vice real­ly didn’t know what the inter­net was. So we start­ed archiv­ing acci­dent reports, which we still maintain.

But real­ly, we want to raise aware­ness. We have avalanche course­work that peo­ple can take and become more aware. That’s some­thing that I would have liked to have done a long time ago, but tech­no­log­i­cal advance­ment has let us progress to where we want to go, includ­ing climb­ing coverage.

Avalanche Safety2AR: How do you spread the word?
JF: Online. Our biggest role in the ear­ly days was just to get info out there. We want­ed a data­base that was open to the pub­lic that logged any acci­dents. But, to sup­port the costs of run­ning things, we sold safe­ty gear online. Since then, the indus­try has changed a bit. We rely on sell­ing safe­ty equip­ment to get by, but in the future the goal is to be able to func­tion on what we make from sell­ing course­work mate­r­i­al. We offer two dif­fer­ent lev­els of course­work: there’s an aware­ness ver­sion avail­able- for the casu­al win­ter sport par­tic­i­pant, and a more com­pre­hen­sive full course.

AR: Tell me about these courses
JF: We try to cram as much infor­ma­tion into a week­end that we pos­si­bly can. Our goal is to equip those tak­ing the course with as much knowl­edge of avalanch­es as we can. We get skiers to dig snow pits and put them through sim­u­la­tions that will sharp­en their aware­ness of what’s going on around them. This is designed for those ded­i­cat­ed to becom­ing more informed.

AR: How long have you guys been around?
JF: We start­ed in 1996. So rel­a­tive to the inter­net, we go way back. We haven’t reached 20 years yet, but we’ve been doing good work since the time we first start­ed. I was on the Utah Advi­so­ry coun­cil and I want­ed to get that infor­ma­tion that we were com­pil­ing avail­able to any­body on the inter­net. We put it on a gopher serv­er, but real­ized that we had a prob­lem. At the time, the only kind of peo­ple that were on the inter­net were aca­d­e­mics. For the first cou­ple years, all the traf­fic at The Avalanche Cen­ter were .edu users. (laughs) But, after two or three years we saw a huge surge of inter­est from the pub­lic. Which was encouraging.

AR: So you’ve been around since the begin­ning of The Avalanche-Center?
JF: Yes, I basi­cal­ly start­ed it. We don’t real­ly have any mon­ey to pay peo­ple to do things, which is a big lim­i­ta­tion. But we seem to be able to accom­plish some real­ly cool things, despite being a not for prof­it orga­ni­za­tion. But, I think that’s what makes us unique. We don’t have any gov­ern­ment fund­ing, which is true of most Forestry Ser­vices that might be doing sim­i­lar things. Which I think is cool.

Avalanche Safety3AR: With the grow­ing pop­u­lar­i­ty of the inter­net, did you see an increase in pub­lic interest?
JF: Yes, def­i­nite­ly. I would say, though, that at some point we peaked. I remem­ber a time when there was an avalanche in Aus­tria that made world­wide news. It was a pret­ty big deal. I remem­ber CNN cov­ered it. We were the only web­site with the infor­ma­tion avail­able so CNN linked to us. Dur­ing the days that fol­lowed, we saw a huge surge in traf­fic. I think it’s inter­est­ing: you have to look at who’s look­ing at the web­site. Many of the peo­ple that vis­it­ed then did so out of inter­est. They’re not real­ly look­ing for avalanche infor­ma­tion, they just fol­low the links. But our goal is to work with peo­ple that are inter­est­ed in legit­i­mate­ly becom­ing more informed on avalanche safety.

AR: World­wide Cov­er­age- was that the high point at The Avalanche-Center?
JF: I don’t know, we are very pur­pose dri­ven, so it’s dif­fi­cult to point at any one time and say that was the peak. We have a mis­sion that we want to accom­plish, and our sup­port­ers know that. So when we see a spike in inter­est, it’s encour­ag­ing; but we know that what we’re doing is good, so we’re gonna con­tin­ue to do so as long as we are able. We are accom­plish­ing some­thing that our sup­port­ers want to see, and they have con­tin­ued to sup­port us because of that.

AR: What’s the future for The Avalanche Center?
JF: I would say that I’m excit­ed about our cours­es that are being offered. Get­ting the word out about them is some­thing that of high pri­or­i­ty right now. Par­tic­u­lar­ly, the climb­ing cours­es. We are the only orga­ni­za­tion right now that is offer­ing climb­ing and avalanche safe­ty cours­es of this kind. The Avalanche Asso­ci­a­tion men­tioned a long time ago that there was a need for climb­ing cours­es that were sim­i­lar to what we were doing with avalanche cours­es. So we at The Avalanche Cen­ter are hap­py to offer climb­ing and avalanche infor­ma­tion cours­es to any­one that would be interested.

Stay informed and see what Jim and The Avalanche-Cen­ter.

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Writ­ten by Alec Ross