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.
AR: 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.
AR: 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.
Written by Alec Ross